Manchester United are a big club – one of the biggest in fact – their recent blip but an aberration amongst the glories of the past 20 years. They’ll be back up there soon.
At least, they hope so. But Ed Woodward – ironically, for a man who’s name sounds like a fart in the bath – is making all the right noises. The last two summers have shown that they mean business – big money business, indeed.
It doesn’t matter how far down the table United slip, they’ll still be a big club. And that has nothing to do with their history and their fanbase, it has nothing to do with the facilities they have and the trophy cabinet that gleams with silver. It has nothing to do with the players they have on their books, or the plethora of former stars carrying their huge celebrity-names onto our TV screens each week to analyse games and talk up United. It has to do with their mentality.
United have the stance of a big club. There’s an arrogance and a swagger to how they hold themselves, even their manager has the same aura. It’s how the club does business and how it cultivates the public image.
Again, it’s not about class or success, nor is it even about what they do. More about how they do it.
After losing Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill in an emotional and highly destructive few months, United moved swiftly to bring in ‘Ferguson B’.
The appointment of David Moyes was a desperate attempt to avoid the profound sadness and grief that losing a manager of 25 years brings. But the sad fact is that it should bring grief and sadness. You have to grieve for what you’ve lost if you really cared for it. That’s just human nature. Instead, United were like a desperate and pathetic middle-aged man left stunned and broken by the break-up of his marriage to the one woman in the world he ever loved. It was as if they built shrines to Ferguson, preserved whatever belongings of his they could – perhaps they still kept his smell – and tried to replace him with something exactly the same. But it never works. They may as well have appointed a cardboard cut-out of Fergie. It was sad.
It’s because United have had continuity for years that they wanted continuity again. I can respect that, it’s fair enough. Especially when the club puts such a high value on tradition and heritage. But when you break up, you have to move on. Things don’t last forever, they fall apart.
And United are over it now. They’ve moved on and they’ve remembered that they’re a big club. They’ve gone through their grief period and are now swaggering around the European transfer market once again.
How they’ve spent money in the last few years has been ballsy and in some ways it’s been reckless – Luke Shaw cost £30m, for example. I’m not saying he’s not worth it, that remains to be seen, but it’s a lot of money to spend on a full back, let alone one who is still a rough diamond.
But that’s the point. United are a big club, and they’re proving it by going all-out to sign these players. It doesn’t really matter if they don’t quite work out. Angel Di Maria, up until this point at least, should be considered a bit of a flop for the money paid for him. I still think he’s a wonderful player and that he’ll come good, but he hasn’t done what you’d expect from a player who cost so much. But that doesn’t matter to United. They signed prestige and power, and in the process gained prestige and power back for themselves.
United’s spending spree was retail therapy. Sure, they needed some of those players, the squad as it stood wasn’t good enough and the key players – Nemanja Vidic, Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra, Robin van Persie – were ageing. But they didn’t need Radamel Falcao and Di Maria, they just wanted them. And they got them. Because they’re Manchester United.
The signings this summer are potentially similar. Matteo Darmian fills a gap in United’s squad. Memphis Depay adds another dimension up front, and United needed that badly – they relied too much on Fellaini’s height and in successive games against Everton, Chelsea and West Brom they failed to score, even though they dominated overwhelmingly. Depay will add a directness that they didn’t possess last season.
But the others, Morgan Schneiderlin and Bastian Schweinsteiger, they’ll battle out for the same holding midfield place, even though Fellaini can do that job, and if United are going to keep possession for the whole game, Daley Blind and Ander Herrera could probably do that job, too. Of course, Schweinsteiger is much better at it.
But that’s the point. United are signing players who will improve what they have, but they’re doing it for esteem as much as amelioration. They’re a giant putting his foot down, a man of status throwing his jacket over his shoulder and strutting around the city. Like Cristiano Ronaldo launching an underwear range with a 30ft high poster of himself in his pants, they’re showing off their power and doing it because they can.
And that’s why United will always be a big club. After a season wallowing in self-pity, watching re-runs of ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ on Comedy Central and eating Super Noodles from the saucepan, this divorcee has finally come out of grief and is once again strutting his stuff on the singles scene.