|Big Fixture, changing Times - by John Ryan|
|Published: 11 FEB 2016|
As a Manchester United fan, the last three years have been difficult. But they have allowed us to take stock and the football world is not a pretty one.
Maybe it was too easy when Alex Ferguson was the Manager. Assured a top three finish in every season from 1991/92 to his final one in 2012/13, us United fans were treated to European nights against the greats of the game and domestic League and Cup battles that meant we had a yardstick to measure our performances by. We were the best and we loved it. The football world was a good one where United fans successfully fought off the Sky takeover, lost in the battle to the Glazers and some fans departed for FC United of Manchester. But on the pitch, Ferguson kept the machine rolling forward, trophies coming in and as a result, a huge corporation became a money printing machine.
It is almost three years since Ferguson departed as Manager. The trophies are non-existent, yet the club continues to amass cash at a phenomenal rate. It is painful to see just how many Manchester United fans know so much about the club financing. But it is part of the modern game; Liverpool fans were aware as much about financing after the disastrous reign of Hicks & Gillette as any club fans. They successfully battled the owners legally and comically, until the club changed hands. These days they are acutely aware of John Henry’s philosophy on running a sports club and again, finances alter their thinking. When Manchester United & Liverpool now meet, there is almost an air of David v Goliath from the Merseyside Maestro’s. Yet this has nothing to do with football. On the pitch, our old foes are just two domestic titles short of us. They have won the European Cup twice more than us and have a similar amount of domestic Cups. Historically, there is little to separate the sides, yet finance tells us only one club has the financial muscle to contend with Spain’s big two for example.
A second major difference in the football landscape is just how much do players care these days? Under Ferguson you had a simple choice: Keep doing the business or face the exit door. Joleon Lescott’s recent tweet showing his expensive car after an Aston Villa defeat was nothing more than a taunt to the fans about how much he earns even when unsuccessful. To think that Bryan Robson, Kenny Dalglish or even any of the heroes of the 1980’s battles would taunt fans in this way is alien to what we grew up with. United & Liverpool fans both knew players cared. They had Steve McMahon, we had Big Norm. They had Hansen we had McGrath. There were players who would stick their legs in front of a moving vehicle rather than allow the ball over their goal line. With both United & Liverpool changing Managers this decade, neither club has been able to give their Gaffer the power that Ferguson or Paisley had. In 1984 Liverpool signed Luton’s Paul Walsh and he played a lot of reserve football for six months. If either side was to purchase a top striker and do the same these days, we would be more likely to see rumours in the press of a January transfer than the player knuckling down to hard work and wanting his starting berth more than anything.
We are force fed statistics based on the Sky era. Many fans nowadays will know United’s superior record over Liverpool in the Premier League. What about the clashes in the old Division 1? Anfield in April 1988 when United 3-1 down, heroically with 10 men came back to draw 3-3 and stop them winning the title. Or as much as it pains me to say this, Mark Walters goal in April 1992 that sent the title to Leeds and the Kop wild with delirium knowing they’d destroyed our last title chance? Many younger fans of both clubs might never have heard of these clashes. While to their credit, Sky have done a lot to sanitise the game, their coverage should never be allowed to define either club or the clashes between us. As much as it is fantastic to beat Liverpool, there is a vomit inducing, grudging appreciation of what their football teams have achieved against us over the years, which makes victory over them all the sweeter.
We currently have a Dutch Manager, Liverpool, a German. The history of both clubs tells us that our two most successful Managers were Scottish, Liverpool’s were Scottish and English. While the influx of worldwide players and Managers has helped the English game develop, there is a sense that something from the past has been lost. Personally, not being from Manchester, I’ve always wanted to learn as much as possible about Manchester United FC, the club, the history, the locality, the ethos. It has never just been about the first team as the Youth and formerly the reserve sides have been of huge importance. Liverpool had their famous ‘Boot Room’ which in hindsight wasn’t any magic formula, just a group of men who kept themselves and their players grounded and urged hard work. Klopp looks as though he can bring back a certain amount of that philosophy and unlike Brendan Rodgers who spoke as though he was a great without doing anything great, it looks like Klopp can deliver. Van Gaal has given debuts to 14 Manchester United academy players which is in the spirit of what Matt Busby set out and where Ferguson took up the baton. But his style of football is not what Manchester United fans know and love. While we went 31 years without winning the European Cup, we thrived on a system with two wingers, aerial battles and finesse on the ground. Not always successful but excellent to watch. The recent 1-0 win at Anfield was a chess match but saw both sides give the ball away at will. Just 22 years previously, we went to Anfield and raced into a three goal lead only for Liverpool to get it together and earn a draw. We don’t seem to see the blood and thunder of the United/Liverpool clashes any more. It seems to be all about the result whereas Shankly & Busby knew how hard to communities of Liverpool & Manchester worked and realised that the trip to Anfield or Old Trafford was a treat in a pretty dull weekly life. They wanted to entertain and win. These days it is all about the result, the finances. It should be about the fans.
Speaking of the fans, at the very least it can be said both sets of fans care for their club. As mentioned, United fans fought off Sky in 1999. Liverpool’s fans forced a change of ownership. More recently, United’s fans championed the ‘Green & Gold’ campaign in an effort to remove the Glazers from the club. Liverpool fans in the last month managed to scupper club plans for extortionate season ticket prices. Then of course both sets of fans have had tragedies to deal with that are remembered and respected annually. The changing face of the football fan means that nowadays views can be expressed on social media that in a ninety minute spell can vary wildly. After the Norwich home defeat in December, some United fans wished death on Van Gaal. It is a long way from the days of Pete Molyneaux and his ‘ta-ra Fergie’ banner when he sought Ferguson’s dismissal. Inside Premiership grounds the modern fan is often as concerned with tweeting or activities on their phone as they are with the action on the pitch. Selfies and video clips have replaced the days of meeting the on-field legends in the pub. It would make you wonder if football has morphed into some parallel universe where it is important to be seen as a certain persona in twittersphere as it is to sing your heart out for the lads. While it is enjoyable to trawl the offerings of the internet after the game, fans seem determined to miss out on the beauty of the game unfolding on the field, with access to apps & cameras.
Finally, what are the rewards in football these days? As youngsters us United fans were reared on the FA Cup. Winning the Football League Championship was a far off dream and players like Maradona were never going to sign for our club. Presently, it is more important to finish in a Champions League qualifying spot than to win both domestic cups. Sixteen years ago it was considered more important to enter the World Club Championship than to play in the FA Cup. As the football world feeds on a rivalry between Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi to win the World Player of the Year award every year since 2007, such awards and their pomp & ceremony now rival any team honour a player can win. As these honours are bestowed upon Ronaldo & Messi, their value is driven up, thereby increasing the value of the most mediocre of footballers in the game. One has to wonder, especially in light of Maria Sharapova’s recent drug revelations, if football needs a reality check similar to what other sports have endured? Something seismic that shakes the game to its core and makes those who play and administer answerable to the clubs fans? As the gap between the players on the pitch and the fans who love their club has grown wider, the rewards for such players have increased. Contracts are written with clauses that reward the individual if certain (usually pretty reachable) conditions are met. It was somewhat refreshing to hear that John Henry prefers contracts that are based on performance. The Glazers with their ultra-secret mentality do not express a preference. Wouldn’t it be nice though if all at each club thought the biggest reward of all was to beat their arch rivals, just like us fans do?
For the first time our beloved United are about to take on Liverpool in European competition. Yes it is only the Europa League, but it is Liverpool. We have never refused a chance to put the boot into them when possible. We have come close to meeting them in the past, with both teams contesting the 2007 & 2008 Champions League Semi Finals. Back then, I felt a sickening ‘what if?’ at the thought of losing a European Final to them. While defeat over two legs in the Europa League would not be the end of the world, that should not be the case. After being crowned Premiership champions in 1996, thoughts of not completing the Double with Cup Final victory over them were scary. As it turned out, they wore horrific white suits, Roy Keane put Steve McManaman in his pocket and the rest was history. While that was joyous, they had the last laugh in the 2003 League Cup Final. The agony of seeing Michael Owen score a breakaway goal as we chased the equaliser, was only made up for by the comeback title win that season. Football, just like the United/Liverpool rivalry is not about how much money available or what car or house a player owns. It is about an army of fans cheering on eleven dedicated souls willing to put the opposition to the sword at every opportunity. It is about emptying your lungs, clapping the shirts on and becoming the 12th man on the pitch. Above all else, night will be about beating Liverpool FC, that one game I’ve always looked out for each season since I was a child.
Hopefully, Van Gaal & his men deliver.