Manchester United: Return of the People's Champions

nigel smithCorrespondent IMarch 2, 2010

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 28:  Goalscorer Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates with the trophy after victory in the Carling Cup Final between Aston Villa and Manchester United at Wembley Stadium on February 28, 2010 in London, England.  (Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images)
Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

These must be the worst of times for fans who hate Manchester United.

Last weekend, the champions were victorious at Wembley again, beating Aston Villa 2-1 to claim the 50th League Cup.

Wayne Rooney is the most celebrated footballer in the land and a racing certainty to be named the Players Player of the Year and the Football Writers' Player of the Year.

United remain competitive in  the Premiership—a league that no team seems to want to win this year—despite all the predictions of doom that followed Cristaino Ronaldo's defection to Spain.

Top talents continue to be linked with the club, too.

How this must stick in the throats of the Red-haters who rally to the Anyone But United (ABU) standard.

These ABU fanatics regularly take to the airwaves in fans' phone-ins to vent their fury at United's iron grip on television schedules, the dodgy penalty awards and Sir Alex's one-man campaign against referees' time-keeping

When they are not sharing their rage with readers and listeners, they are firing off contributions to web sites and Facebook pages. They even produce their own ABU merchandise.

Some ABU high priests have staked out lucrative publishing careers, conveying their Red contempt to like-minded brethren.

‘Manchester United Ruined My Life,’ authored by City fan Colin Shindler, is well-written and entertaining read but it is also an un-coded, anti-United diatribe.

United-haters are often dismissed by those who reside within the Red kingdom as bitter malcontents but the range of their activities and depth of their jealousy, envy or plain dislike remains startling.

Football is a hotbed of regional and national enmities but it is unthinkable that a Spurs fan would score a runaway publishing best-seller by committing to paper a disgust for all things Arsenal.

Two decades of Liverpool dominance did not inspire the multimedia canon of contempt that now afflicts United.

It was not always this way. Once, there was a  fondness for United. The club belonged to everyone. For many, United were the default 'second team.'

The Munich tragedy of 1958 cemented the position of United as the ‘uber’ club of English football. United were able to rise above fierce city and regional rivalries because the club’s story became an international drama taken to the hearts of an international public at the dawn of the television era.
Looped images of the Munich runway, a stricken manager on his hospital bed and the loss of a young, photogenic team of talents, made Manchester United an iconic brand which had the personalities and the glamour to hypnotise popular culture.
English football paraded many great players in the 1960s and 1970s but United had Law, Best and Charlton, the most recognisable emblems of the era.
A story which began in death and despair and finished with the 1968 European Cup triumph was an irresistible story arc.

If the title ‘People’s Champions’ could be awarded to a football team as easily as it was bestowed upon  individual icons such as the boxer Muhammad Ali, then in England, for the better part of the 1960s and 1970s that team was United.

Alex Ferguson’s arrival in 1986 changed everything.

United stopped being a drinking club for low achieving big stars and became a haven for winners.

Fuelled by Sky television's riches, the club came to be seen by some as an unfriendly, arrogant, winning machine, attracting the support of prawn sandwich-eating glory-hunters.

In short order, United moved from flaky drama queens and plucky underdogs to football’s Terminator and a national love affair cooled.

United remain popular of course as national and European titles rain down like so much confetti. But the deep popular affection the club once enjoyed has withered amid a profound visceral loathing.

So, who are the People’s champions for the new decade of a new century?

Liverpool, perhaps?

They haven’t won the title for two decades but exert little hold over the national imagination despite having two of the game’s finest players in Torres and Gerrard.

Chelsea as the peep’s champs then?

Not likely. Ditto Manchester City. The vast wealth of both clubs and the likelihood that they could soon turn the chase for the Premiership title into their own private parlour game forbids anything but partisan affection.
Aston Villa on the other hand are a great story awaiting a better script. The club has a definite pedigree. The team is based on English stock. The American chairman seems like a philanthropist compared to his peers at Liverpool and United.
Manager Martin O’Neill’s departure from Celtic to take care of his sick wife, should be a meat and drink staple of Britain's celebrity culture.
So far, so good for the Villains. Alas, finishing sixth or seventh in the table every year is to travel but  not to arrive. Birmingham, much improved as a city, remains an unsexy location.
Spurs under Harry Redknapp could rise in the national  attachment index if the team progresses and the manager can stay out of jail.

The club certainly has the history and so far, has not acquired the cultural negatives of, for example, Leeds United. It would be an easy sell to project the appeal of a London-based team across the country.
Which leads this scrutiny very neatly to Arsenal. They are an aesthetically-pleasing London team which has cast off a dour image, embraced the purist of the sport's values, and now offers the most attractive product in the country.

The team suffers for its exemplary skills, too. Lesser opponents deploy roughneck tactics against Arsenal. It is hard not to see this as being in part responsible for the career-threatening injuries suffered by three Gunners in the past four years.

These ingredients invite the sympathy of the English public, as does the fact that Arsenal seem to have been divinely punished for their excellence as they don’t win titles any more.

This is the stuff of which emotional connections are made. The nation should be on tenter hooks wondering if this is Arsenal’s year? Will the kids be alright?
The team and its manager are worthy of intellectual investment too. Arsene Wenger, a giant of his era, has been at Arsenal for 14 years. He has prospered by marrying foreign guile to English ambition but his luck appears to have run out. 

Will Wenger's career confirm the old saying that all public lives end in failure or disappointment?
Is his battle for the Premiership now a Canute-like struggle against the overwhelming forces ranged against him?

Can Wenger triumph with old fashioned principles when the opposition has long ago succumbed to cynicism and plays only to win?
Such themes may not find a hearing beyond north London. Is it because Arsene Wenger doesn't know how to make nice for the camera? Perhaps, his strict Alsatian education has denied him the avuncular charm that so bewitches the English?

Perhaps, his team can never be recognised as the 'People's Champions' simply because it carries only the faintest traces of John Bull?

United may no longer be loved but the 'failings' of other teams means Fergie's men will continue to hold the nation's attention for some time to come.

However, it may be that the retirement of Sir Alex and the dreaded implosion of United, accelerated by £720 million of needless debt, could help to recover the nation's affection.

The fall and rise of United is likely to be the compelling sports narrative of the second decade of the 21st century. The kudos of being the 'people's champions' may return only  after a crash of spectacular proportion, the death throes of a once great institution covered minute by minute by an insatiable media.


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