Matt Busby once wrote in Soccer At The Top: “If anything is to be gained from football, it is to be gained bywinning or losing with dignity. If there are nations whose people so losethemselves in their emotions as to encourage the thug and the cheat they can be educated only by example.”
I see football, and United in particular, via this prism. Sometimes it’s hard to get someone who is passionate and devoted to step back and see that football isn’t about winning; it’s about how you win. Or, even morepertinently this week, how you lose.
And Monday night, I am afraid, was an exemplar of how not to do it.
Of course, we weren’t very confident; you could sense that all week, and the footballing reasons for that nervousness have been well documented here and elsewhere (you can sum them up neatly in the phrases ‘6-1’ and ‘petrodollars’, if you like). But the fury of many United fans I know before kick-off, when they saw the team selection, was remarkable to behold; I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an outraged negative reaction before a ball’s even been kicked.
It wasn’t just that this was clearly a team set out to do nothing more than draw: it was one setting out to scrape a nil-nil (and was going to try and do so via the most eccentric of personnelselections). Some clubs are fine with that approach, and some teams have been good at accomplishing its goal. United have rarely, if ever, sunk into those categories.
Besides, the minute that set-up concedes, you’re in trouble unless you adapt fast, and radically. As regularreaders know, that kind of on-the-fly tactical mastery has never been inFergie’s armoury, and we all saw the evidence in the second half — too slow to adapt, too slow to make thesubstitutions, too slow to change the pace. Poor Park will forever be marked as the symbol of that cack-handed selection, a player whose last 14 starts witnessed seven defeats; the bench, stuffed with exciting attacking talent, sat brooding like a festering testament to management cowardice.
Later in the evening, when fans allegedly tried to storm the Manchester City shop, one wag joked that it was our first decent attack of the night.
But it was! One heartening element in the United fan reaction that slightlysurprised me was that quite a few younger fans objected not so much to the fact that we lost, but to the manner in which we lost it. I had begun to think that only the old school still cared about this distinction any more, and that the post-’92 Reds who have only known success might have gone over to the Dark Side. Lots of them have, true: but enough have seemingly adopted the old faith to make one hopeful.
After all, this was the one match in the year when even the most idealistic of us would have been tempted to turn a blind eye to dead-eyed Revieism in pursuit of victory; as one colleague knowingly quipped when Young was warming up: “Come on, Ash: get diving and win us a pen.”
In that black-humoured jest, he highlighted how the ‘big issues’ of last week and its predecessor — i.e. diving, and then how we should approach the derby — are closely intertwined in any discussion about what should be ‘the United way’ (which could be prosaically summarised as “don’t set out to cheat or bore”). A poster on a newspaper website opined that Red Issue’s well-publicised willingness to condemn Young in its recent editorial “showed that this club might yet still be seen as Busby’s”. No greater praise indeed. And now I wonder what Sir Matt would’ve made of Monday, and if he would still have recognised that his Manchester United were on that pitch.
* Richard Kurt writes a weekly Terrace Talk column for the Irish Examiner
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