Jose Mourinho’s appointment as Manchester United manager last May was greeted with consternation from some Reds, particularly the older generations.
“Okay, he’ll bring success back to Old Trafford but he’s not a Manchester United man”. That seemed to be the gist of it. “We’ll win trophies but at what cost?”
It was as if their virginous prom queen daughter had started dating a thrice-divorced man. Sure he owns a string of successful businesses but just look at how he treats his staff.
Given the nature of their concerns it became briefly tempting to misremember Alex Ferguson’s long reign as an entirely benevolent one where the Scot was always classy in defeat and didn’t bully, intimidate and harangue any member of the press or matchday official that he viewed as a dissident to the United manifesto. Indeed so sincere were their worries that they prompted a bizarre moment of doubt from even the staunchest of the club’s critics. Perhaps Ferguson was in fact an avuncular Bob Paisley figure all along? Maybe the United brand has been held in the utmost regard by the rest of football this past quarter of a century: lauded as global ambassadors for Britain who represented fairness and sportsmanship and doing things the right way. Now here comes along a self-appointed ‘Special One’ to turn the Theatre of Dreams into a cauldron of scandal.
For anyone who has been coma-free since 1992 and doesn’t insist that Ryan Giggs is a role model for all the family that doubt lasted precisely two milliseconds by the way. Reality doesn’t tend to hang about when it comes to utterly farcical notions.
In the event, United supporters’ delusional conflict of morality was unwarranted anyway. This season has seen a calmer, more measured Mourinho in the main, the odd gripe and thumping of his new club’s badge in front of Stamford Bridge’s East Stand aside. Granted he is never going to be statesmanlike and even squeezing out basic magnanimity pains his face into a deep frown but he has resisted gouging at the eye of an opponent or berating a team doctor for doing their job so controversies have been kept at a minimum.
Where the Portuguese Pulis has devalued – or at least continued the decline of – United’s reputation however is on the pitch. At what cost? We’ll see.
While Reds are under the mistaken belief that their club is held in high esteem for their virtue (someone should really tell them that Sir Matt Busby retired in 1969) their estimation of United’s standing across the world for their footballing merits is pretty much bang on. For all of Ferguson’s behavioural flaws he instilled an attacking, arrogant, exciting ethos into each of his sides that on the domestic front put the opposition firmly on the back foot whether it be at Anfield or White Hart Lane while internationally, millions marvelled at their defiant spirit to come back against Bayern Munich in 1999 and batter Roma 7-1 eight years later.
They were one of our finest exports and certainly the Premier League’s brightest star: an exhilarating, entertaining behemoth that – love them or hate them – did England proud.
Now, after Moyes’ flailings, Van Gaal’s sterile injection and Mourinho being Mourinho they are reminiscent of Fun Bobby in Friends. They are a husk of what they used to be. They don’t really go out anymore.
If you’re wondering why I have prioritised their international reputation above over their belittling quests for a top four spot when once they challenged for titles it is simply because United are infinitely more than a club. They are a brand, they are a PLC, and their virtuous adventure and value are tied up together as one. With a reputed 659 million supporters around the globe it stands to reason that some will be hardcore but many will be fair-weather, willing to fund summer investments through the purchasing of merchandise and continue to elevate them to superclub status and all that brings just so long as they get something in return. Ideally glory. Failing that thrills and spills.
This is where Jose Mourinho has greatly failed United this year and this is why he has damaged their reputation far more than any moment of madness could.
The stat that is floating around claiming that Manchester United have had more shots on target this season than any other club is a complete misnomer. Because anyone who has been unfortunate enough to witness their Sisyphean struggles this term (I have seen all but three) will know this is a team built on pragmatism and power over risk and reward. This is a team that goes to Liverpool and Manchester City too timid to exhibit any swagger and instead play like underdogs for a goalless draw. This is a club strategizing for fourth. This is another post-Ferguson incarnation of United who are about as box-office as a subtitled film about ennui. Where once Sky mythicized Cantona and Scholes into gods now they flatly pass comment on a hoofed clearance-cum-cross to Fellaini.
It would be quite wrong to suggest that Alex Ferguson only ever sent out attack dogs but when he opted to neutralise rather than pulverise it was the exception. With Mourinho – boasting the most expensive Premier League squad in history let’s not forget – it’s the rule. For that there will be consequences not least a hard-earned reputation that will soon fade to memory.