When Marshal Josip Tito shuffled off his mortal coil in 1980, the resultant bloodshed and tragedy that befell Yugoslavia was inevitable. Unified under his authoritarian take on nationalism, the disparate states that made up this artificial country held together. In his absence, simmering ethnic hatreds and feuds re-surfaced and you know the rest.
To a much lesser extent, for football is such a trifling matter in comparison, Manchester United’s current crisis of identity has its roots within the retirement of the club’s very own totalitarian dictator of the last twenty-seven years. It’s understandable why many of the club’s rivals might find a great sense of hilarity as United lurch from one indifferent performance to the next. In many respects, we’ve all been satellites of Alex Ferguson’s dominance of the domestic game during his tenure and it’s often the case that the oppressed take to the streets to denounce the old regime and burn homemade effigies after it’s gone.
Personally, my sense of equilibrium and understanding of football’s natural order has been irrevocably disrupted now that Ferguson chooses to spend his time watching thoroughbreds gambol whist dictating his memoirs to a ghostwriter – more of that in a bit. I do not support Manchester United but I have grown up in an era in which they have devoured all before them with such rapaciousness, that my sense of identity as a football fan is inexorably entwined with those last gasp victories, those trophies and the knowledge that my club will inevitably render their best players unto the Caledonian Caesar.
I guess I’m suffering from football’s equivalent of Stockholm Syndrome – I’m so used to life under Ferguson that I’ve developed a form of empathy towards him because I don’t know any better. If George Orwell had written 1984 for today, the final lines may have concluded with Winston Smith declaring love for his oppressor, Sir Alex. To borrow a phrase from another titan of the dystopian lexicon: it’s a brave new world out there and I’m not quite sure how I feel about it..
Those last gasp victories I alluded to are no longer quite as thrillingly charged. In fact they seem to be borne out of desperation and fear more than a self-assured desire to win. Old Trafford’s self-styled image as the Theatre of Dreams has somehow been inverted to mean that it is now visiting teams that arrive there dreaming of victory. It is no longer taken for granted that Manchester United will prevail and the club seems more introspective than at any time I can remember.
Of course, a lot of that comes down to the fact that a period of transition after such a tumultuous and incomparable reign is inevitable. It’s not David Moyes’ fault that he is not Ferguson. Nevertheless, as Arsenal and Liverpool (those two old foes) continue to stretch the points gap at the table’s summit, questions about whether appointing a diet version of Ferguson as his successor and allowing the retiree to have such a reportedly significant say in determining this, will inevitably surface.
The spectre of Ferguson looms large over Manchester United. When the camera occasionally captures him looking down from the elevated surroundings of his director’s box, it’s hard not to imagine him as one of Shakespeare’s ghosts, passing judgment on those lesser than he. Moyes appears to be stymied by the very fact that he has been cast as being made from similar stock as his predecessor. As a result, any deviance from the ideology is disingenuously analysed by everybody who has an opinion and has resulted in such buffoonery as ‘Moyes Out’ hashtags on Twitter. However, one does wonder where the power actually resides at Old Trafford. Would someone with a more defined set of footballing principles and ideology, a Pep Guardiola say, have been better equipped to navigate United through the post-Ferguson era?
For somebody who made such great claims about his socialist principles and that no one person was bigger than the club, the publication of Ferguson’s autobiography this week might be seen as doing more to destabilise the club and the foundations on which it has been built than anything Chief Executive Edward Woodward’s incompetence in the transfer market ever will. Throughout the promotional interviews for the book, Ferguson has been vocal about the importance he placed on “control” during his managerial career. As a result, challengers to his authority such as Roy Keane and David Beckham were banished once they were perceived to have risen above their station.
Any choices Ferguson made were his to make and that is fair enough. However, his open criticism of those players that were such a huge component of his success is unbecoming of someone so highly regarded in the game and Roy Keane’s reaction – “I remember having conversations about loyalty when I was at the club. I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word” – is an indication that Old Trafford was not quite the bastion of footballing excellence and unity that the popular mythology might have us believe.
Players will often author such lightweight offerings to grind axes and make quick cash out of the public’s thirst for salacious gossip, but Ferguson, being the manager should be above all that. All this does is open old wounds. It splinters United’s support into Loyalists and Dissidents at a time when the club is trying to evaluate what it is in this new landscape. Ferguson it would seem is more detrimental to United’s title hopes than anybody else from within and without. There is something of an irony in that.
In his inspirational New Statesman article and interlocking of verbally dexterous horns with Jeremy Paxman this week, Russell Brand made the compelling case for revolutionary change in our thinking about politicians and democracy. He suggested that to achieve this, “the disruption of normalcy [is] a vital step in any revolution.” In many respects, Manchester United’s “normalcy” has very much been disrupted since Ferguson left. What they see themselves becoming as a club is in their hands but the sooner they also realise that to try and replicate Ferguson is absurd, the greater the chances are that they will not go the way of Liverpool after The Boot Room came and passed.
Sir Alex is part of that problem. Manchester United are at the crossroads: fundamentalism or revolution?
Further reading: Sir Alex Ferguson: Attach Superlative Here
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