It has been almost two years now since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager of Manchester United and for any fan born during the 1980s or later, these last two years have been nothing short of a crisis. The great white Scot had Red Devils all over the world spoiled. For the last 20 years, United have won practically everything that came their way. Since the inception of the Premier League, United have won 13 of the 21 league titles. Add to that a couple of European Championships and a whole bagful of FA Cups and League Cups and the enormous haul made in the Fergie Era is all too evident. Supporters were used to seeing their team win silverware every year and on the rare occasion when the club failed to win any silverware in a season, they would more than make up for it in the next year winning more than one for good measure.
When Roman Abramovich came along with his money to Chelsea, things were aflutter for a while. Chelsea pipped United to the title and there was a belief that the United ship may have finally run aground – outspent off the field and outshone on it. But Fergie, as he had done many times in the past, tweaked his squad here and there and came back with a bang, winning the league title three years on the trot with a UEFA Champions League trophy and a couple of FA Cups thrown in for good measure. They were pipped to the title by Chelsea by a single point in what would have been an unprecedented fourth successive league title but no one was overtly bothered because sure as ever Fergie came back roaring to win the title the following year. While Chelsea and Manchester City kept up their efforts to storm the United bastion, it always seemed like they were chasing Fergie’s coat tails with the old man keeping United’s nose just ahead of rivals.
Then came the watershed year of 2013 when, in May 2013, Sir Alex announced that he would be stepping down from the manager’s post at the end of the season. During his 26 years at the club, he had won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League and two UEFA Champions League titles. David Moyes was anointed his successor but the man from Everton had huge boots to fill. He brought over his best players from Everton but Moyes seemed like a fish out of water from the very beginning. It was not Moyes’ fault either. The bar set by Sir Alex was a very high one and the supporters, who were not accustomed to seeing their team playing without any of their trademark flair and confidence, were in no mood to acquiesce. Somewhat fortuitously, the club put an early end to Moyes’ misery and their own when they parted with the manager in less than a year and brought in Louis van Gaal. Unlike Moyes, van Gaal had managed top clubs in three other leagues before arriving to United.
While the job is still an overwhelming one, as van Gaal has himself hinted time and again this season, he is not overawed by the task at hand. After finishing a nondescript seventh, behind Moyes’ previous Merseyside employers, United are third in the League currently. Having missed a year of European football, they seem to be on track to secure Champions League football for next season though a league title may be farther off as they clearly look off the pace of domestic rivals Chelsea and Manchester City. Supporters are also slowly getting used to the “return to normalcy” phase in which their club will no longer win everything, all the time. Supporters today draw pleasure from matches like the one against Chelsea where United drew in the dying moments of the game or against City where they fought valiantly but succumbed nonetheless. The aura of infallibility is gone, replaced by a belief that games can be won but a hard fought draw or loss would be accepted nonetheless.
What van Gaal has definitely brought to the club is a restoration of faith in academy products. That said, there has been a soft but significant shift in United philosophy that is certainly cultural. Hitherto, the biggest big name players United had signed had been Andy Cole and Jaap Stam. Suddenly, however, they are signing players of the ilk of Robin van Persie, Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao, the last two of which have been signed on the back of a season where United won nothing and also failed to qualify for even the Europa league, no disrespect. Not only were these three the biggest signings in the Glazer era but they also signal that while United will always be a club that gives preference to its academy products, they will not shy away from putting down the money when a good player becomes available. These were players whom most United fans would not have dreamt of signing even in the Fergie era let alone after that spectacular debacle of a season. Robin van Persie’s transfer to United was as good a signal as any of this shift in philosophy. Here was a striker close to 30, in the prime of his career, a household name, club captain and scoring for fun, when he suddenly packed his bags and moved north to Manchester.
A lot of the transfers to United happened solely on the reputation of the club, but that is no longer to be taken for granted. Footballers have become more business-like, in that they go to whichever club they are offered the best money at. The world’s best players don’t flock to Real Madrid only because it is one of the most successful European clubs. It is also because they are one of the best paymasters. While van Persie probably joined United for more than the money (a wink at the little kid inside him) but the same cannot be said of di Maria or Falcao. Radamel Falcao wanted to go to Real Madrid (even tweeting “Hala Madrid” when his agent gave him the impression that the deal was done) and di Maria had made up his mind to join PSG before the deal fell through due to FFP restrictions. In fact, Falcao and di Maria’s arrivals at Old Trafford alone should be reason enough for United supporters to get gleefully on board the FFP wagon.
Part II of this post will cover where United seem to be heading from this point forth.