United must start acting part of big club in the market

Much has been made about Jose Mourinho’s penchant for functional football during — and in the time between — his two spells at Chelsea but any lack of ambition to be found at Stamford Bridge, where they face Manchester United on Sunday, is far more endemic among the visiting ranks.

United must start acting part of big club in the market

Nothing to do with the tactics David Moyes may use in London. United’s new manager is under the microscope to an excruciating degree but the identity of the man in the visitors’ dugout is of far less importance than the culture at a club which has always talked big but has become accustomed to acting smaller.

As another transfer window drags on with no sign of a billboard signing from United, Chelsea have already processed the papers to sign Nemanja Matic from Benfica. They may rue the spend required to bring back a player they let go for a pittance three years ago, but they can take solace in the fact that United were said to be sniffing around too.

Pipped again. How often have we heard that before?

United are no longer the behemoths of the English, let alone the world, game. The club that masterminded megastores and was in the vanguard that conquered the Asian market has been overtaken by the oil barons of the Middle East and Russia. Football‘s version of Darwinism overtook Liverpool before them and the same is happening to their successors down the M62.

It is 21 years since United broke the British transfer record for Roy Keane, almost a decade since they parted with £20 million for a bulky teenager from Everton and it was 2008 when they spent another £10m on top of that to bring Dimitar Berbatov to Old Trafford. Six seasons on and that last outlay still stands as the club’s single biggest splash — an eternity in football’s rapidly inflating transfer market.

United simply can’t compete anymore.

Or, to be more accurate, won’t.

They exist, financially, on a mezzanine level just below the game’s biggest spenders and, though they boxed above their weight to claim two league titles in Alex Ferguson’s final three seasons, there is the sense that they have punched themselves out in the fight to keep the inevitable at bay.

The club clearly read the signs long ago.

It is three years since Wayne Rooney went public with a transfer request and a press release questioning the club’s ambition. Rooney was vilified for his cheek but his challenge to the club’s hierarchy struck a chord with many and it was baffling at the time to witness the manner in which the majority of the faithful painted the player as the villain.

It is a credit to Ferguson’s managerial skills — though not his foresight — that United’s decline has only taken a precipitous turn since his exit. For years they have sought to navigate their way around their growing limitations with significant rather than seismic outlays on players like Ashley Young, Wilfried Zaha and Phil Jones. Berbatov, David De Gea and Robin van Persie have been their only extravagances and even they paled into comparison with deals done elsewhere.

Whatever about the constraints or otherwise put on new signings by the Glazers — and Ferguson has always insisted there were none — the fact is that the quality in United’s ranks has been allowed dissipate and the shame is that the capture of RVP two summers ago was proof of the rejuvenation which even one big-name arrival could have on a team in need of a kickstart.

Even the RVP coup was possible only because the player himself still cherished a childhood ambition to wear the red jersey rather than the blue of Manchester City — hardly a surprise given the latter fell from the upper regions of the top division down to the third at the time when a young van Persie was at his most impressionable.

United’s policies have merely stockpiled problems for Moyes and the timing of Ferguson’s departure added to them.

When Fergie took the microphone after his final game in charge last May and asked the Old Trafford faithful to stand by Moyes it could have been taken as an acknowledgement that he was leaving his successor with a complicated rebuilding job that should have been undertaken years earlier.

Ask yourself this: how many of the players currently at the club would elbow their way into the Best United 11 which Roy Keane chose in last month’s superb Best of Enemies documentary?

United may well surprise us and do something spectacular on Sunday. They may even make the top four, but the hike back to their peak looks considerable and it may well be beyond them unless they once again start to act big rather than just think it.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @Rackob

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