Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Everyone is familiar with these five stages of grief.
Football fans around the world recognize these too, some of them can go through these very stages during a season, and in some cases during a single match.
For almost ten years, Manchester United fans have experienced these emotions as often as Paul Pogba changes his hairstyle. The odd faint glimmer of hope is dashed by another staggeringly bad result. A potentially influential signing ends up going out on loan. A transfer target missed, replaced by a second or third choice for a horrendously over-the-odds fee.
Most United fans accepted quite some time ago that a tilt at the Premier League title, or another Champions League, is a long way away. There have been false dawns, most notably a runner-up finish in the Premier League last year. Having added a World Cup winner (Raphael Varane), an exciting winger (Jadon Sancho), and a true footballing legend (Cristiano Ronaldo), hopes, for some, were high.
However, nine months later and with the new signings in the bag, things have not only gone south, they’ve practically fallen off the compass. Everyone has given their diagnosis, what needs to change, who needs to come in, who needs to leave etc. Any football fan can see what the problems at United are, every dog in the street knows what’s wrong. That’s the easy bit. How to fix it, that’s the conundrum.
One thing the large majority of United fans agree on is that whatever the future of the club is, it can’t involve the Glazer family. But as long as the balance sheet continues to be healthy enough to service their debt, they will be there. But not there. I’d challenge any of the family to find Old Trafford on a map of Europe, let alone be able to name the ’77 Cup Final starting 11.
Then again, knowing that 11 doesn’t instantly qualify you as a ‘proper’ United fan. What does is passion for the club, the history, the foundations, the youth, the ethos, and the legacy. The Glazers have no interest in any of that, they never had, and they never will.
The one positive thing they have contributed, contrary to some opinion, is that they have never denied a manager (and they’ve had several to choose from) a transfer budget. They have sanctioned each gaffer’s shopping lists, and have spent well over one billion pounds doing so. That can’t be denied.
But that isn’t the problem. United’s recruitment policy is the problem. Those shopping lists weren’t drawn up solely by those managers. And as a result the wrong players were identified and bought, almost every time for an inflated fee.
The Glazers shouldn’t be putting their trust in a recruitment structure that has given us the likes of Falcao, Diouf, Sanchez, Darmian and Schneiderlin. But they knew no different, they haven’t got a clue about running the football recruitment side of the business. Their biggest mistake was that they thought Ed Woodward did. The man who ensured that Manchester United now has an official wine sponsor, a logistics partner, an airline etc etc, had been charged with heading up the search for the best footballing talent on the planet. And? We signed Bebé and Harry Maguire.
Another new dawn is upon us with the arrival of manager number eight (if you count Giggs and Carrick) since Ferguson left. Erik ten Hag comes with promise, tactical knowledge, pedigree, and a style of football. But over the past three months United fans have asked each other if he really knows what he’s getting himself into?
I wasn’t sure, and when the rumors of his appointment cooled off over the past weeks with the explanation that he wanted ‘total control’ over the footballing side, I became nervous. After all, United would never accept that, would they? However, this week, with news that both the chief scout Jim Lawlor, and the global head of scouting Marcel Bout, had left the club, I’m thinking well maybe, just maybe, Mr ten Hag got his wish of him.
Is he bringing in his own people, is he restructuring the recruitment system? Time will tell. Rumors that he’s being handed a warchest of £ 200 million to ‘rebuild’ the squad, are another positive. But ten Hag’s real work will be who he gets out of the club.
Again, most football fans can see who the problem players are at United, who exactly should go. When I start to put a list together of players that I think should be axed, there wouldn’t be enough room on the coach. There are maybe six players out of the entire senior playing squad that I would keep. The rest, in my opinion, should think about career changes, or Love Island.
The capitulation at Anfield on Tuesday night was the lowest point in the past nine years. Lower than the 5-0 drubbing handed out to us by the same team earlier this season, lower than the 2-0 battering City gave us the following week. Lower than the lot. So low, it even broke Roy Keane. To watch Keane enter stage five of grief, acceptance, after the game was heart-breaking for us United fans.
Gary Neville, who is at the same stage as Roy and the rest of us, shared the viewpoint that the club was ‘broken’ and he’s dead right. It’s broken from top to bottom, from the owners, through the boardroom, down through the recruitment structure, and into the dressing room, where the atmosphere must be nothing short of septic.
One thing is for sure, if Mr ten Hag gets his way, that dressing room will look a whole lot different come August, and who knows, maybe Joel Glazer will give it a lick of paint while he’s at it.