It's hard to pinpoint exactly when Manchester United became a joke. Was it before Alex Ferguson even left, the day David Moyes turned up to Fergie’s house to be anointed as successor deeply troubled by the fact that he was wearing jeans?
Moyes had been out shopping with his wife when he got the summons and had briefly considered nipping into M&S to buy some emergency slacks. Since then, in many ways, United have always been wearing the Wrong Trousers.
It will be deeply offensive to United fans that the club would be considered football’s longest running comedy revue, entering its ninth year playing to packed houses. This is a great sporting and social institution, a cultural titan, a global dream factory that can move hearts from Macclesfield to Mumbai. This is not Widow Twankey at the local playhouse.
Yet there is no arguing that for some time now the Theatre of Dreams has been the Theatre of the Absurd. It might even go back well before Ferguson’s emotional departure, to the Glazers’ takeover, which was precipitated by a row between the manager and the club’s major shareholders over the rights to pimp out a horse.
After Moyes came Louis van Gaal, a Dutch Basil Fawlty, all pompous rants and silly walks; then Jose Mourinho, a rootless figure lurking in his hotel like a malevolent Alan Partridge. The Ole Gunnar Solskjaer years were more heartwarming fare, the Norwegian’s schemes and dreams the stuff of Del Boy Trotter. This time next year, Rodders, we’ll be Premier League champions.
Of course, United supporters might feel that their struggle to recapture former glory is nothing less than a noble quest, one that has just claimed a tragic victim in Solskjaer. But then a lack of self-awareness is key to great comedy. The characters must not know that they are trapped in a ludicrous situation. That so many around Old Trafford held so long to the idea that the former manager of Molde was the right man for the job only highlights the scale of the delusion.
The story of Manchester United in recent years is not just that of a big club in decline. Arsenal have suffered a greater loss of status and have been almost as much of a hot mess without providing quite as much entertainment. The truly big clubs go belly-up in the most spectacular way because of a combination of self-importance and denial, the things that made them great becoming banana skins on which to trip.
In United’s case, the sense of ridiculousness was exacerbated by the sheer volume of wet-eyed bunkum that accompanied their every move. A supporting cast of fan media and revered former players helped shape a surreal narrative that this was not an industry-leading legacy organisation that required best-in-class strategic solutions, but rather a quirky family of misfits and rogues in thrall to a dominant parental figure: Mrs Ferguson’s Boys.
Above all that loomed the owners and those they put in charge of running the club — as incompetent as the spin doctors of The Thick of It, as self-regarding and entitled as the Bluth family from Arrested Development. There is much to be angry about the way United has been run, and not just for United fans, but so much of it has just been plain silly.
Taking the piss is the default stance of the modern age; even the successful are not immune. Pep Guardiola is a bald fraud, Jurgen Klopp has crazy teeth, Thomas Tuchel looks like a Die Hard villain. But United have supplied such a meme-worthy stream of comic moments that it is possible to speculate that their content-hungry executives have actually played a blinder.
There was Moyes’ six-year contract. Marouane Fellaini. There was the time Louis van Gaal fell over. The time Paul Pogba posted a picture of himself smiling in a corporate box but because the Old Trafford wifi was so slow, by the time it uploaded United had lost the game. The time Louis van Gaal made a drunk speech at the Christmas party. Ed Woodward: Transfer Ninja. Noodle partners. Alexis Sanchez playing the piano.
McFred. The time Ole said he wouldn’t park in Fergie’s space. The time they spent £80m on Harry Maguire. Pretty much everything out of Rio Ferdinand’s mouth in the last three years. The hilarious goal they conceded against Istanbul. The time the fans got really angry about the owners and broke into Old Trafford demanding change but then forgot about all that when they signed Ronaldo. Apologygate. Roy Keane, the giant Squid Game head with machine gun eyeballs trained on underperforming players. Michael Carrick: interim to the interim.
And on and on. At some point, United will stop being a joke. They are too big and too rich not to get it right eventually. History tells us that may only happen with a change of ownership. Certainly that was the case with Liverpool, who also escaped a nostalgia trap and useless, avaricious owners.
But maybe this is when United go straight.
At the time of writing, they are reported to be in talks with Ernesto Valverde over the interim position with an eye to Mauricio Pochettino or Erik Ten Hag in the long run.
All these men at least seem to be well qualified, none have played for the club before nor are they likely to lurch into vague waffle about wingers, comebacks, or the Class of ’92.
Someone will surely knock a bit of sense into United eventually. And what a shame that will be. Look around at their main rivals: Liverpool, Chelsea, Manchester City. They are coached by brilliant tacticians, operate smart, clear-headed recruitment policies and are run by proper sports industry executives. They are, frankly, no craic at all.
So, we will miss United’s comedy years whenever they sort themselves out.
Their fans might not get the joke but taking United seriously again will be no laughing matter.