Why Manchester United's Demise Doesn't Feel As Good As It Should

As Moyes' side hits a new low, Sam Parker wonders why isn't it as much fun as he dreamed it would be

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It has been a football season of many unfamiliar joys this year. A genuine three way tussle at the top. A battle at the bottom that could yet drag several different teams into the abyss.

But whatever happens at either end of the table, we all know what this season is really about. For once, the drama is in the middle, where a giant is falling to its knees in slow-motion, where a once fearsome empire is crumbling brick by brick. The steady, shocking demise of Manchester United.

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Fans of every other team in England, particularly those of us of a certain age, have waited for this moment for decades. We always hoped that once Fergie was out of the way, the wheels would come off at Old Trafford. And yet now they finally have, I am left wondering: why doesn’t Manchester United schadenfreude feel, well, better?

As a Newcastle fan who has only ever known the Premier League era, my hatred of Man U – which I call them only because I know it winds their fans up – has been a pure and unrelenting part of my emotional make up for as long as I can remember.

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Throughout the mid-90s, the scars inflicted on my psyche by the outgoing Champions piled up like unwanted Emile Heskey football stickers.

There were the two second place finishes between 1995 and 1997, beaten both times by United. There was the utter humiliation of a FA Cup final in which, en route to their historic treble of ’99, United strolled to 2-0 win, the result effectively settled by Teddy Sheringham in the 11th minute.

And in the midst of those years of pain there was the sight of a man I love having a mental breakdown in a post-match interview, exposing himself to decades of ridicule as his voice trembled with the immortal words: ‘I’d love it if we beat them’, before Fergie, job done, smugly dismantled our lead and smashed my ten-year-old heart into pieces.

 

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The hatred solidified throughout the next decade. As the Entertainers era passed and Newcastle became just another volatile, underachieving mid-table team, United stayed on top. So I began to relish the rare occasion when they’d lose with sadistic glee (in 2011, when City beat United 1–6 at Old Trafford, I stood in a pub on Tottenham Court Road and cried with laughter). But they were hollow, fleeting moments. You knew United would come back and win the war. They always did. They always had.

In the wake of Thatcher’s funeral, as people rushed to condemn the insensitivity of the former miners and old hippies who celebrated her death, Caitlin Moran wrote that, for the people who suffered most because of her politics, outliving Maggie was all they had, the only power they could cling to in a powerless situation.

In the world of football, Fergie was my Thatcher. The unmovable tyrant. The heartless oppressor. The day Keegan lost it I made a small, silent promise to myself that I would outlive his reign, I would witness the power shift, as it surely must one day, from Old Trafford to somewhere – anywhere – else.

And now it finally has. This season United have plummeted through nadirs like a cartoon piano falling through floors of a house, as football writers, many harbouring a resentment of the club similar to my own, have fallen over each other to announce and analyse the club’s demise.

And at first, it felt like I always hoped it would.

Now you know, I thought, looking at United fans my age, now you know. Now you know what football is really all about, the pain and the anger and the disappointment and the useless fu- …your weekend ruined by the actions of eleven multi-millionaires, who don’t care, really, but swim in the riches generated by the unchangeable fact that you do and always will.

But it’s wearing off already, this bitter joy, and on Sunday it occurred to me why.

On Twitter, someone shared a Vine of David Moyes celebrating coming back to lead against Fulham – the team currently bottom of the Premier League – at Old Trafford (they went on to draw anyway).

It’s almost disturbing, the clip. Moyes celebrates, not so much like a man who has just won the Champions League (though that was the joke doing the rounds), but like a man who has witnessed a power cut on his way to the electric chair. It’s a haunting explosion of emotion, an animalistic cry of relief, from a proudly stoic Scotsman who I quite like.

And it hit me: United’s terrible season isn’t as much fun as it should be because it isn’t happening to Fergie.

From beyond the footballing grave, the great general of psychological warfare is still pulling the strings in his own favour. He’s there in the stands – the same old boiled beetroot chomping on gum – but every bad result on the pitch is a reinforcement of his greatness, another layer of gloss on his plaque that reads Best Football Manager Ever.

Had he done the proper thing last year and let a man used to guiding big clubs to major trophies succeed him – a man who looks increasingly likely to take his former club’s title to Stamford Bridge – he may just have paved the way for an era of Manchester United dominance that eclipsed even his own.

But he didn’t, of course. He has won again, meaning this season, like so many before it, isn’t as much fun as it should be. Even from his retirement, Fergie remains the malevolent destroyer of dreams, the bogeyman in the stadium shadows, the man messing with my head.


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