Ferguson was gone. The allure of easy success had made Manchester United the team to start following in the late nineties. My best mate Fitzo was a Leeds fan; a family affair. Fifteen years on and Ferguson, the last man standing amongst the cult of individuals who had come to define our initial fandom – Keane, Beckham, Solskjær, Irwin, Stam etc. for myself; Smith, Viduka, Bowyer, Martyn for him – had departed. Distinguishing himself as the arrogant prick my mate assured me he always was a few months later with the Autobiography, it soon dawned on me that it had all been a con.
Though success was the welcome opener, as the ‘seriousness’ of football began to take over my teenage years, the trophies did dry up somewhat. Arsenal had the ‘Invincibles’, Chelsea had money, while United, until the maturation of Cristiano Ronaldo, hadn’t much of a hope.
The unthinkable fate that had befallen Fitzo’s United had seen him take further refuge in our local side, Sligo Rovers – much to his good fortune by way of the friendships, memories and genuine sense of involvement he received that would have never equally manifested itself with either of our ‘first’ clubs. Yes, I could – and no doubt should – have followed him.
Yet, while half-heartedly maintaining the illusion that United were my club, the transition from ‘glory-hunting’ to participatory football-fandom week in and out was a habit never likely to take. Sir Alex Ferguson guaranteed that the sense of youthful indifference to what was ‘right’ (following your local club at least as assiduously as you do the fashionable equivalent) was ok. Even the subsequent arrival of David Moyes reinforced for a spell the sense of cottage industry and the importance of locality that Ferguson had managed to establish. All the while however, growing less naïve to the disturbing disparities that frame professional football, no longer could United be looked upon other than anything but an ever expanding moneymaking behemoth. I can’t say I wasn’t warned.
…after getting such a concentrated jolt of reality I was not much concerned about justice
Like Thompson in the aftermath of his shit-kicking by the Hell’s Angels he had ridden with, individuals who constituted the whole no longer appeared worthy of unconditional support. Success had been the prerequisite cause of my initiation to the club. As the walls began to fall around Moyes however, my interest never wavered although a deep sadness set in. In a case where my support was levied toward United or nobody at all, the harrowing reality that the Ferguson years were but an aberration in how real football clubs work left me feeling so thoroughly stupid. It wasn’t that I had banked upon United never slacking in terms of success; I had just foolishly assumed that they were always going to pursue it in their own inimitable way.
At this juncture I now find myself deadlocked. Truthfully, I have taken to Louis Van Gaal in a manner that neither Ferguson nor Moyes could ever have hoped to appeal to me. Though Ferguson was himself a daring individual, Van Gaal fulfils the role without the unshakeable support of an institution the like of which Ferguson helped to establish. A loose analogy may demonstrate Ferguson in a likeness to Don Revie, entirely at odds – albeit in not quite as personal a stance – with the sense of exemption Brian Clough brought to Revie’s Leeds, and that Van Gaal has initiated in what media outlets will consistently view as this horribly disfigured example of Ferguson’s United. A genuine underdog – in terms of their inconsistent performances, not financial clout – United has arguably become a more interesting team to follow. Little but the unexpected is to be guaranteed.
Why then does it now feel so entirely vapid? The answer to this lies with the caveat I adjoin to any discussion pertaining to the stimulation of my support of Manchester United; ‘Oh, you know Roy Keane was there… the Irish connection like.’ Well, Robbie Keane was knocking round Coventry, Inter Milan & Leeds at the time, Niall Quinn was seeing out a career at Sunderland, Shay Given was across the road at Newcastle and Sligo Rovers were and still remain an actual Irish club themselves. Although my admiration for Roy Keane has manifested itself beyond the remit of his United days, why didn’t any of these ‘Irish connections’ stimulate my interest in the same manner? Obviously enough, a shameless desire to be part of something big and successful allows for my indulgence of that Maxwell Scott line from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; it is time now perhaps though to shirk the predictability of merely ‘print[ing] the legend.’ My support of Manchester United was built upon nothing other than sheer circumstance. I wasn’t yet ten years old and I needed a team. It isn’t difficult to determine what was going to be the only conclusion.
From about fifteen years of football being the chief source of my entertainment (it still is I should add, the manner in which I find comfort within its confines has merely altered), I find very little to look back upon without that sinking sense that I simply made the easy choice of generating mostly happy memories. To those that know, it now seems the equivalent of beginning with Manchester United on Football Manager and assuming yourself a top coach because, let’s face it, how would someone undeserving ever get that job?
Ireland aside, following Manchester United has ultimately robbed me of nurturing a genuine sense of attachment to a football club. To many – though I can’t foresee them ever scrolling through this article – the necessity of feeling connected at all to any institution in which you ultimately don’t play a participatory role may appear indicative of a greater lacking. Yet, the genuine sense of joy that comes with following Ireland and seeing them succeed – and I imagine this would have been replicated had I followed Fitzo down that Sligo Rovers route – determines a sense of completion that overrides any nagging indication that perhaps something more significant is awry. What I am now left with in terms of my support of Manchester United is a fairly innocuous husk. Ultimately, I cannot simply forgo years of dedicating pre-streaming Saturday afternoon’s to listening on the radio for United’s matches on Today FM, or dragging my fairly indifferent father (an outright hurling man) over to Old Trafford whenever plausible, or indeed spending hundreds upon hundreds of euro on various Manchester United jerseys and what not. I can never deny the importance that this team has had throughout my life. What I am left to deplore is the harsh reality that I never expected the blinkers to come all the way off.
Perhaps if not for the exhaustive efforts of each and every football pundit to comment despairingly upon how different these Van Gaal days are from the often inscrutably fantastic years of the Ferguson era, forward movement may be plausible. It has seemingly become readily acceptable to assume that an aggressive financial standpoint in the transfer market should garner immediate success for Manchester United. Although both Manchester City and Chelsea have yet to conquer European football – whilst sharing domestic spoils between themselves – in a manner that appears more convincing than the Di Matteo anomaly, the reverberation of ‘this not being the Manchester United way of playing’, despite the fact that we have all accepted that that era of Manchester United is now over, hauntingly condemns one to consistently face up to the short-term glory you pursued and the long-term reality of exorbitant wealth being bandied about that you must now live with even though it fairly sickens you. In the space of a few short years, an easy choice we could once tart up with laudable reasoning has now become a burden to persevere with or disregard. Manchester United, despite the unquestionably rich history of success, is now more clearly than ever just another elite partner in the global football market.
What can legitimately be done? Well, as of next year the Premier League – on the back of its global appeal – will generate billions of pounds sterling in television rights where millions had not too long ago seemed obscenely high. Though things had always felt a touch distant even in those early years of unquestioned obsession, Manchester United, as a major power broker in this gargantuan league, is set to become even less identifiable as a collective organisation that a fan such as I can truly see something of themselves in.
Stubbornness drove me to stick with United when questions arose regarding their more transparent business outlook in the wake of claiming that 1999 treble. Keane told us about the prawn-sandwiches. Chelsea didn’t lure Peter Kenyon from Old Trafford in 2003 because he knew how to work on a tight budget. Ferguson attempted to convince us that the Glazers had United’s best interests at heart. Looking back, what arguably remains one of the greatest footballing stories – and I mean this in the sense of the various teams that constituted United over that Ferguson era – has now become for me a source of minor embarrassment and youthful ideals that still stir deep inside me every time I hear the Stone Roses’ ‘This is the One’ or “and Solskjaer has won it”. It is difficult to imagine I will ever feel in any way connected again to this club that on occasion still feels like it may mean the world to me.