Happy anniversary to us, dear reader. It’s 20 years to the week since this column began, and how very different the United world is today.
With one exception.
Back then, we were masters of all we surveyed and on the cusp of being crowned world champions.
Manchester City were still a music-hall joke, barely able to squeeze out of the third division. Liverpool were no threat and still reeking of Eau de Spice Boy. And, no-one at Chelsea had ever heard the name Roman Abramovich.
Moreover, Manchester United was a plc, and I proudly owned one share in ‘my’ club, as did most of my mates.
I also still had my hair, a wife, a young man’s naive zeal for life, and faith in the British Labour Party.
I do miss the hair.
Before kick-off yesterday, I looked glumly into the bottom of my glass, as though hoping to see a future as bright as that past, spelled out in the sulphitey dregs. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but I swore I could make out the letter ‘O’.
Of course! The one constant over all these years — the man who was the most popular personality at the club in 1999, and still holds that position today. Come on, Ole old son; make an old man happy again.
By half time yesterday, as Chelsea dominated us all over the park and threatened to start the earliest Cracked Badge Crisis Week the club has ever seen, I was solely looking forward to refilling that glass several times.
Enter instead that whiff of 1999. Call it the “football, eh — bloody hell!” factor if you like. Has anyone checked what the odds were at the break of United ending up scoring that many goals?
Judging by the Red fan grumbles about what the first 45 had delivered, I doubt anyone inside the stadium made such a bet.
Our subsequent collective laughter may have been a tad sheepish, but it was nonetheless raucous. Chelsea had been turned over as brutally as, well, Bayern or any other of our late 1990s Ole-inspired mugging victims. The crack in the badge can wait awhile; the party-time buzz engendered yesterday could keep us all going for weeks, if we’re lucky.
‘Hang on a minute, fella’, I hear some of you mutter. You are rightly pointing out that we’ve been in this position with Ole before.
Allowing ourselves to get carried away by mere results whilst ignoring fundamentals was what did for us back in late winter.
Rashford and Martial may have temporarily quietened the ‘no Lukaku replacement’ debate in emphatic fashion yesterday, but the fact does remain that the squad has emerged light and under-resourced from the summer, accompanied by much anti-Glazer-and-Woodward agitation in the stalls.
Far be it from me to discourage any such generalised suit-abuse, but part of me does want to agree with my Red Issue Online colleague ‘Commandant’ Jay, who argues it is time we stood by our supposed principles.
🚨 MATCH HIGHLIGHTS 🚨August 11, 2019
Namely that seeing young unknown lads promoted from within to replace the likes of Lukaku or Herrera should not necessarily be seen as a poor substitute for splurging big bucks on old foreign stars.
Those of you who’ve been with this column for the full 20 years will know why I and Reds like me are tempted to sign up to that reasoning.
It is because we are prepared to get behind a trophy-less team as long as it plays the right way and contains individuals we feel warmly towards.
Lads such as Scott McT, for example, remind us that not all football stars are necessarily arses who have to be endured.
They can also be what Mancs like to call ‘sound’. Just like their manager was, and remains today.
I look again into my glass. Empty already. That’s age for you; they go down faster every year, especially when you’ve just battered Chelsea.
Drink prompts self-questioning. Am I still ‘sound’? Was I ever?
Twenty years writing about the Old Trafford circus on these pages has taken us all to some wonderful places — Moscow 2008 above all — but also down to some dark depths, and none darker than the Great Schism of 2005.
I swapped my 1999 share in MUFC plc for a founder’s stake in FC United Of Manchester in 2005, and have never regretted it.
So I now write about a club of which I am no longer technically a ‘member’, and sometimes I’m not sure that’s very ‘sound’.
Ultimately, dear reader, you’ll be the judge of that, just as you will all be of Ole.
Back to those odds-makers again — I wonder which of us they’d make as favourite to still be here come next August?