It’s almost a year now since this column fulfilled a near life-long sporting ambition with a trip to Chicago to see the Bears host the Green Bay Packers at the iconic Soldier Field.
Years spent watching games on TV embedded images of frozen fans sat huddled in countless layers watching a team with a blue-collar tradition that had always leaned on a mean defense and an offense that was gridiron’s version of stuff-it-up-the-jumper.
It felt a little odd then — and positively wrong — to make for the stadium that Sunday under blue skies and in temperatures that would reach a positively balmy 21C to watch a game that delivered a welter of fireworks with seven touchdowns. Green Bay did extract full payment for the unseasonal warmth and excitement. They cakewalked it 38-17. The Pack have featured heavily in our thoughts again this week.
Green Bay against the Dallas Cowboys in January
Not just because they return to the Windy City this Sunday to face the Bears – unsurprisingly under new management after an embarrassing 2014 campaign – in the season’s opener, but because of the history lesson Green Bay provides for those who have long held a soft spot for Manchester United.
United host Liverpool at Old Trafford tomorrow in the 5.30pm kick-off. Once the blue riband fixture of the English game, it is in danger of being relegated to one of faded glory. Like a meeting of Offaly and Wexford in hurling or Meath and Galway in Gaelic football. Two once-great powers still trying to flex muscle that has long turned flabby.
You’ll likely have seen the headlines and read the words of BT Sport pundit Rio Ferdinand in this paper and elsewhere yesterday. The one-time United favourite dispensed with subtlety and any ill-conceived sense of loyalty by offering a withering verdict on his old club and their new manager, Louis Van Gaal, whose list of detractors must now be reaching David Moyes proportions.
Ferdinand is unsure what United’s philosophy is, he bemoaned the club’s boring style of play, all but scoffed at their chances of challenging for Premier League or Champions League honours and scratched his head over a transfer policy that leaked money like nobody’s business but yet still ended up with Daley Blind playing at centre-back.
Where, he asked, has the Man U of Alex Ferguson gone? This is where the Packers story began to gnaw at us. You don’t need to have much interest in American football to know who Vince Lombardi was: his name is bandied about by sports journalists with a frequency that can be nauseating — guilty! — so we’ll restrict ourselves to a quick synopsis of his resumé here.
Lombardi took over a storied club languishing in the doldrums and guided them to five world championships, including the first two Super Bowls, in his eight years. But the Packers found themselves cocooned in mediocrity for a full quarter century after their commander-in-chief left in 1967.
Sound familiar? The comparisons with United now — and the post-Busby club — are uncanny.
Green Bay looked to a succession of different managers, none of whom came close to turning round their spiralling fortunes, and bad personnel decisions were endemic, just as they were at United in the 70s and may prove to be again, given the current trend for top-heavy recruitment of attacking players.
Who knows how long United will take to rediscover their mojo? It may not take 25 years — though it took them 26 to bridge the gap between league titles claimed by Busby and Ferguson — and a prosaic start to the latest Premier League season has done nothing to suggest that the club is any closer to where it needs to be than this time last year or the one before.
The impression remains that they are simply ‘too big to fail’.
The record kit deal with adidas and the similarly outsized sponsorship agreement with Chevrolet would suggest that this is a club that is firmly entrenched at the summit of the global game, but such realities only make it more necessary for United to win big and win big now because the already fading allure of the club is in danger of dissipating entirely.
United used to be a romantic ideal. The Busby Babes, Munich and the 60s version of Best, Law and Charlton all imbued the club with an other worldliness that few could match and a new alliance of traditional swashbuckling play with modern successes under Ferguson attracted a new generation of devotees throughout the 90s and noughties.
That attractiveness waned even before Ferguson left, the emergence of a more functional United combining with the corporate arm’s insatiable appetite for new revenue streams making them more and more difficult to warm to and the United of Van Gaal now is as unattractive on the pitch as it has long been off it. Quite the achievement, in its own weird way.
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