We have to change the way we talk about Manchester United.
Not forever, but for now, right now – that moment that is either desperate or hilarious depending on one’s specific allegiance or particular inclination.
And that’s a credit for the club, really – one of the few they can claim amid their worst spell in the Premier League era. Because, as they say, United are hated or loved, but never ignored.
Not even for a moment.
Friday’s front page The Teamfor example, was sported by the unique figure of Red Devils striker Marcus Rashford, who, according to the French daily, was considering a transfer to Paris Saint-Germain.
In Spain, coverage of sport featured Dutch midfielder and United transfer target Frenkie de Jong, shown applauding Barcelona supporters in a sort of farewell. It’s a misleading image, of course, as the 25-year-old’s gesture is quite common for a late substitution or post-match tribute to cheering fans. But the Blaugrana need to get rid of him for financial reasons, and such is their influence in the tabloids.
Meanwhile, Italian release Tutosport announced the arrival of United representatives in Turin – their presence was presumably aimed at convincing Juventus’ Adrien Rabiot to don the red shirt, although it is the mother of the player whose arm will have to be twisted.
The fact is that not only are Manchester United a totally unattractive prospect at the moment, but they are also a club where hopes will die. The Theater of Dreams has become a gambler’s graveyard, which is why Rashford is considering a change of scenery, why de Jong isn’t considering the change, and why Véronique Rabiot is even hotter than normal.
When juxtaposed with the glory days of Sir Alex Ferguson, the contemporary business is unrecognizable. But by looking at the Fergie years as a sort of vindication of prominence, as a guarantor of their identity, United are looking at precisely the wrong thing.
It’s their past, their story, and it’s a source of pride. No one can take it away. And yes, it can even serve to inspire players, managers and staff who care about this stuff.
But nostalgia doesn’t win football games. What is that box to do, however, is to depress a culture that will only feel a sense of failure when measured against those triumphs of long ago.
This is why the way we are used to discussing the club no longer makes sense, and why United themselves need to adjust their narrative.
Instead of turning to a world-class player like Frenkie de Jong, who is understandably more willing to take insults from Barcelona than move to Old Trafford, United should be looking to repair the roof of the stadium. Sanitary facilities could also need some work, and there’s always a job for exterminators, with the many embarrassing public rodent infestations.
There has been no significant investment in the ground since the Glazer family bought the club in 2005 (the development of the quadrants had been approved by the previous owners), and the old South Stand also needs a redesign.
If United are keen to set new standards, let alone match previous ones, the crumbling stadium as a metaphor for the decaying club is a good place to start.
In fairness, new manager Erik ten Hag is trying mightily to impose new standards – any standards, really – within the first team. Some of his most-discussed changes: regular weigh-ins and body mass index tests, fish and veg on the Carrington Training Complex menu, no alcohol during game weeks, and meals eaten as a team – without mobile devices .
In other words, welcome 10 years ago. Absolutely nothing about the Dutchman’s approach is revolutionary, and he, more than anyone, will have been flabbergasted to find a team accustomed to anything less.
If his methods have hit the headlines, it’s because even Carrington’s tea time is in the news. Never ignored, remember.
That said, United’s current condition, and in all likelihood a tough road ahead, is hardly unprecedented.
AC Milan, another giant of a club, went 11 seasons without Shield before winning it last spring and during that time only finishing fifth on three occasions. Between 2014 and 2018 they again came 8th, 10th, 7th, 6th and 6th. Local rivals Inter Milan failed to win Serie A between 1989 and 2006, and before regaining the title in 2021 they endured another 11-year drought.
The impetus behind the resurgence of Milan clubs? New property.
Even mighty Juventus – with a push of Calciopoli – spent eight seasons between scudetti of 2003 and 2012. At the heart of their revitalization? A new stadium.
Closer to home, Arsenal haven’t won the Premier League since 2004 but finally appear to be on the right track. Liverpool spent three decades in the wasteland before winning the title in 2020. The Gunners are 15 in their new stadium; the Reds suffered a nasty change of ownership in 2010.
The commonalities are obvious and should be instructive for Manchester United.
They can have a modern manager – someone who is rightly the most important person at the club – and throw money here and there to try to lure the best players to Old Trafford, but without fundamental transformation they will only spin their wheels in the mud. , desperately trying to return to a past that is no longer what they are.
Clearly the Glazers must go, and with them a tired and clumsy administration routinely left behind by sleeker, more modern operations. Given that their indebted property is leveraged against the club’s assets, they are unlikely to leave until their position becomes untenable. A planned walkout from this month’s game against Liverpool should help.
In the short term, little or nothing will improve on the ground. Which brings us back to where we started: we need to change the way we talk about Manchester United.
It is not a club struggling to reclaim an illustrious history. Rather, it’s one in a battle to be relevant.