Requiem For A Heavyweight

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Just like their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his playing days, Manchester United Football Club, in their present incarnation, provides the fans with those occasional cherished moments of individual brilliance, the heart-stopping finales, the comeback wins when all seems lost. The injury-time classics that make you believe in the magic of football.

But Sunday’s 5-0 humiliation at home to their bitterest rivals following on from the mauling at Leicester City and the woeful first-half performance against an injury-depleted Atlanta side was in truth a long time coming. Cracks can only be papered over so many times. The alarming performances and results have unequivocally revealed the Emperor’s new clothes of this side and brought the focus away from a glorious past to the painful present to ask pertinent questions of all those connected to Manchester United about the long-term future of the club. 

And those questions need to be addressed and answered now.

Beyond those flashes of inspired intervention mentioned above, what else does this particular squad have to offer? What can propel them forward to compete with the very best in the Premier League and in European competitions? To elevate and transcend and never let happen again, what befell them at the weekend?

We have to ask: has the club truly ever recovered from the loss of such a revered, feared manager and father figure of the club in Sir Alex Ferguson? Do they want to? Is there the will to produce a Manchester United team that can accept the challenge of the new Premier league power elite of Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea? Can we seriously call this United team right now champions in waiting?

The honest answers to these questions make grim reading for Manchester United fans worldwide. Even to the reddest of devils, Manchester United is not in any shape whatsoever to recapture the glory days of the club. They are not even a team in transition, as some have suggested. For to transition into champions, they must first transition into something resembling a team, which they are not.

It is a critical juncture in their evolution.

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There is a pressing need to appoint the personnel throughout the club from the boardroom to the boot room to ensure the club is fit for the purpose from which all else flows: not record sponsorship deals and corporate showboating, but success on the pitch. And these decisions have to be made by intuitive football people as at Liverpool, at Manchester City, at Juventus, at Bayern Munich, At Dortmund. At creatively successful teams with outstanding scouting networks like Lyon, Sevilla, Leicester City, Napoli. All of whom leave United in their wake.

It is incredible to say it, but the club simply does not have these priorities, infrastructure, or staff in place to make the necessary change happen. And this neglect has meant that Manchester United has fallen far behind their rivals on and off the pitch.

Compare and contrast with Liverpool. A perennially underachieving side with a glorious past acquired by American owners. A world-class coach hired and backed astutely in the transfer market. Deals are done without prolonged and public chases through the media. Quietly and effectively, a team is built. A strong team. With a spine. Balanced, fit, talented, determined, playing an exciting brand of football in a system that suits their intention to play in a high tempo, high pressing, attacking, entertaining way.

Without pomp or ceremony, a team emerges on the field, connected to its fan base, not overrun by its headline-grabbing CEO. Owners FSG in the background, solvent and supportive. Anfield is alive. The club looks and feels like what it is: a sporting institution respected throughout Europe. WInners, who are adding trophies to an already groaning cabinet and challenging for honours.

Credit must be given where it is due.

At their best, United of legend was pulsating, breathless, often joyous, displaying in every action that vital component of the United DNA: Never say die verve, character, and spirit. The relentless, surging attacks, that we-won’t-be-beaten mentality. All encoded into every recruit and writ large in their play, whether you are from Molde in Norway or Marseille in France. Eindhoven in the Netherlands, or Belfast in Northern Ireland. You know the score.You carry the history and tradition of the club on your shoulders when you walk out into the Theatre of Dreams with your collar up, and recognise a collective obligation to be entertaining, stylish, determined, and committed. Warriors at the back, inventive and dominant in midfield, clinical in wave after wave of attack – a group mindset following a blueprint of everything it takes to be a Manchester United player, to wear that hallowed shirt, in a scintillating Manchester United side with pride and a healthy dose of arrogance. 

Your lineal coaches are Matt Busby, Tommy Docherty, Ron Atkinson, Alex Ferguson and you had better be at it, expressing yourself, getting results, winning with flair, week in, week out. Not by divine right, but sheer hard work and skill. You will look around your dressing room and you will see Best, Charlton, Law, Pearson, Buchan, Greenhoff, Macari, Robson, Hughes, Whiteside, McGrath, Giggs, Beckham, Keane, Cantona, van Nistelrooy, Stam, Cole, Yorke, Scholes, Evra, Ronaldo and be inspired. You will raise your game, ten feet tall. Confidence will surge through you. They are your teammates and you will rise to their example and never let them down.

We do not have a great Manchester United side. We do not even have a good one. We have, and this is a sin for the club, a distinctly average one. If you looked around that dressing room now, would you feel the same about your teammates as those who came before you?

They are nowhere near the sides of the Ferguson era, light-years from the swashbuckling brio of Docherty’s Reds, or the swagger and steel of the Busby Babes. Right now, they have some individually gifted players, but they are far outweighed, and this has not been said often enough, with all the focus on the manager, by some very, very ordinary, not to say, extremely average and below-average players, who are very lucky indeed to wear that famous red shirt. At no other time in the club’s history would they get this chance.

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Years and years of clumsy recruitment by ill-informed mavens have led to one of the worst Manchester United teams since the inauguration of the Premier League. The bar has been lowered for membership of an exclusive club and the standard of football has suffered markedly. No titles in 8 seasons, and just one FA Cup and a Europa League against a very young and inexperienced Ajax team to show for all that upheaval and an obscenely misdirected outlay of £1billion. 

It has never been solely about money at Manchester United. But in the moulding of the right players, with the requisite character, heart, and skill into a team capable of taking on Europe’s finest. The ineptitude and profligacy of spending vast fortunes of supporters’ money on a lengthening succession of not good enough have to stop right now. For that, you do not hold your arms aloft in victory but hang your head, and put your hands up to accept accountability. The owners and the executives who carry out their deeds need to understand this crucial difference, and quickly.

Would Victor Lindelof, arguably the worst defensive acquisition in United’s history, Eric Bailly, Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw, Scott McTominay, or Fred get in any previous successful United XI? Would they get in a top-four Premier League team? Or German. Or Italian? Would Real Madrid, those serial plunderers of United players, take any of them? Are Europe’s elite attackers, midfielders, or defenders quaking in their boots at the thought of coming up against any of those players? 

The answer is obvious.

But why is that? Why have Manchester United Football Club, the biggest and most supported club in world football, bought these players? With what criteria? What is the recruitment plan? What is the big picture when you are continually investing in players who cannot defend, are incapable of holding the midfield, lose shape, are weak in battle, and create nothing of consistent value going forward?

Look at the glaring example of Edinson Cavani. He is truly a world-class player. Isolated in a sea of mediocrity. I feel sorry for him, as much as I do for David de Gea behind that keystone cop defense. Cavani could and should be enjoying himself like Henrik Larsson – a beautiful cameo late in his career – playing for a great side, scoring goals, revered. Cavani is 34 years old and stands out by a mile as he shows more appetite, nous, skill, determination, and courage than any other player on the field in a red shirt put together.

There is a malaise at Manchester United. It has been lingering around the club like a whiff of cordite from a smoking gun since the last season or so under Alex Ferguson. And then exacerbated and highlighted by the high-profile appointments and failures of David Moyes, Louis Van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho. All of them, in their ways, are thought of as excellent coaches. All of them, despite the odd trophy here and there, fatally holed as helmsmen of the biggest club side in world football. The malaise has been overseen by an inept chairman in Ed Woodward, not now, not ever, a football man. Decisions on players entrusted to a non-footballing businessman, with no discernible knowledge of the game? A club of the stature of Manchester United? 


But even if we put him up alongside a like for like in the shape of the much more progressive director, Marina Granovskaia at Chelsea, his muddled tinkering is clearly trounced and trumped by the excellent and ruthless, necessarily cutthroat job she has done in weeding out the deadwood, and even club legends to produce a powerful, fully funded team, containing a fully functioning blend of the academy and perceptive recruits that has just won the Champions League and now sits on top of the Premier league table. 

Much like the job David Gill did for Manchester United of yore, in fact.

But meanwhile, back in present-day Manchester, they speak with inflated pride of record sponsorship deals as if that ever equated or usurped the very thing that brings 80,000 red romantics through the turnstiles at Old Trafford every match day or causes millions to tune in around the world: a team you can believe in, connected to its loyal support, glorious past and flowing towards the future.

United has tens of millions invested in its famed academy with no discernible fruit blooded in the team. Manchester United won championships and trophies with kids. It was ever thus. It is part of the United continuum.

Yes, Rashford, Greenwood and Lingard have broken through, but fitfully, and lack the support of strong first-teamers around them. So, apart from the odd appearance of a full-back now shunted out on loan, or a couple of minutes for a promising forward, nothing of note in nearly a decade. And yet United keeps gazumping others and pilfering the very best talent from around Europe only for them to disappear in endless reserve fixtures, or jump ship in frustration- a more perverse strategy would be hard to find.

United born and bred, Nicky Butt, a link to the great United sides of the nineties and noughties, himself an academy product of the vintage class of ’92, and in charge of one of the most aggressively scouted and financially invested youth academies in Europe, quits his role without explanation. Why? With all that power and supposed talent at your disposal and direction. There is something rotten in Manchester when one of your own leaves so abruptly like that.

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And, are we to believe that in all that recruitment of world-class youthful talent there are no centre-halves that could oust the weak, porous, and woefully inept Lindelof and out of his depth Maguire? If not, that is a huge oversight that needs immediate attention.

And it is not the only one.

The gargantuan waste and squandering of resources at the club are staggering. United had over £200 million. Read that again. £200 million of talent sat on the bench on Sunday, not getting a game. The much-coveted Jadon Sancho, Former Ajax jewel, Donny Van Der Beek, an on-off, Paul Pogba. Add to that the poor purchases in Mata, Matic, and Telles, not to mention the previous millions wasted on ‘upgrades’ to the No 7 shirt in Di Maria, Alexis, and Memphis.

Owners helping themselves and their families to huge dividends, whilst the team, once the rightly so, feared throughout Europe powerhouse of modern attacking football is a pale shadow of its former self lying bloated with mediocrity in the doldrums ready to be picked apart at will by anyone ‘half decent’, as Gary Neville put it, who wishes to feed upon the prone carcass. 

Manchester United for all their wealth, power, and reach, has not replaced Ferguson. They have not replaced Stam, Johnsen, Ferdinand or Vidic, or Keane or Scholes. Consistent, serial match winners on a European level. They have made disastrous choices in their boardroom appointments, allowing the club to be overseen by the clueless, and ultimately by quirks of stock market fate, United have had their crown jewels entrusted to the thieves of dreams, and have paid a huge price. Were it not true, it would beggar belief.

For it is not about the money, but the bold vision and the desire, the character, and the DNA. The love and connection with the fans. Why on earth has this board adopted such a weak philosophy, when they had everything in place to take the club forward to challenge the hegemony of Madrid in Europe. Why did they poison their own chalice?

Where is the plan? Where is that vision? Or the acceptance that there needs to be a root and branch overhaul of the entire team and club? John Murtagh and Darren Fletcher, what do you see? Why are players of such promise – Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood – floundering, their development going backward? 

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Watching the conspicuously aged, haunted, furious face of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on that bloody Sunday just gone, staring bleakly at this Manchester United side, bumping into each other as a cock a hoop Liverpool tore them to pieces at Old Trafford was painful. It was hard not to feel for him. The supporters love and respect him, and it is clear that those feelings are reciprocated.

Now the chattering classes emerge in splendid numbers, calling for his head to roll as if that is the magic bullet that will make United fire on all cylinders again.

The United board has in recent times already chopped off the head three times in similar circumstances and installed so-called world-class coaches to bring back the glory days to Manchester United. It hasn’t worked. And it will not work. Not while the club is being overseen by people whose onus is on making money and spending it unwisely.

One only has to look at Premier League new boys, Brentford, just below United in the table, for another glaring example of proper owner ambition aligned with excellent recruitment, clearly defined vision and fiscal maturity to see how far Manchester United have fallen, and with no end to how far they can fall in sight.

Manchester United is a gravy train for corporate sponsors and one family’s egotistical junket for wealth building. The shortest of short-term thinking and a travesty to have visited a club like United, which built itself with love and passion. With determination and pride, and overwhelming public support of extraordinary ordinary working-class men and women from the ashes and flames of Munich to one of the greatest, most romantic, and electrifying clubs in the world.

Wake up all of you who hold the power of Manchester United in your hands. Don’t let this requiem for a Heavyweight be a terminal state of affairs at this great club.

The patient is bleeding, whilst you drain the lifeblood and watch it run dry.

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