There has been a thought buzzing around inside my head for the last few months and it’s driving me nuts. The only way to get some peace is to write it all down. If you do not like football, read no further. If you like football but hate Manchester United, turn away now.
I suppose I had better start at the beginning. Just how did someone born in west London become a “Cockney Red” i.e. London born supporter of a team from a city far to the north, in the first place? I think I am just a product of my era. United were famous in the 1950s for their all-out attacking style of play. The manager Matt Busby was widely quoted as saying he would rather lose a match 6 – 5 than win 1 – 0. That was the sort of philosophy a young boy could relate to.
Moreover Busby was famous for grooming young players and giving them a chance to play in the first team in the top division. Duncan Edwards was only 16 when picked to play centre half and there were many other youngsters too – hence the team’s nickname of “Busby Babes”. These lads were hardly older than many of my generation, some of my schoolmates had older brothers the same age.
Then came the tragedy of the Munich air crash in 1958. Eight of the team were killed when their plane went down while on the way back from a European fixture.
This combination – all out attacking football, young players “just like us”, the death of many squad members – proved so powerful that a lot of children from outside Manchester formed an emotional link with the team that time has never broken.
In 1986, Alex Ferguson became manager of United and ran the club until his retirement in 2013. Many consider him to have been the greatest football manager of all time. Certainly he captured many of the best traits from the Busby era – fast attacking football, grooming of younger players – and combined it with spectacular results in the domestic league and cup, and in the European Champions League.
Filling his shoes was never going to be easy, but it was soon evident David Moyes was not the man. A decent enough guy, but without the stature or vision needed to take the team forward. The directors went next to Louis van Gaal, an interesting person, certainly a strong character with a record of success at other clubs in Europe. Van Gaal also made a practice of bringing young players through from the youth squad as soon as possible, hence the emergence at the tail end of the 2016 season of Marcus Rashford as an exciting new striker for the club and picked for England at just 18. But the style of play dictated by the Dutchman was boring beyond belief. The lowest number of goals scored in any of United’s premiership seasons, the highest number of back passes of any team in the league…not easy to watch.
So to the appointment of Jose Mourinho, the self-styled “Special One”. He has personality all right, and under him Chelsea did play with flair (though he also knew how to sit on a 1—0 lead). But he was not particularly famous for bringing through youngsters. I can’t escape an uneasy feeling that if he had been coach United may have been less boring last season, and may have performed slightly better, but young Rashford would still be warming the bench.
Time will tell if the owners have got it right this time, but one thing is for sure: the love will never die.