"The watch comes with the job son."
Mulleted bunder-inducer and Hannah Montana’s dad, aka Billy Ray Cyrus, may well have unwittingly (or otherwise) foretold the average Manchester United fan’s reaction to the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson with his 1992 smash hit ‘Achey Breaky Heart’. Not so much with the lines ‘you can tell my arms to go back to the farm’, of course, but with the iconic chorus. Because it seems to me that, understandably, there’s a numbness and something of a denial, certainly afflicting United fans of my age (rapidly approaching 30) who have known nothing but a Fergie-filled world.
And a Fergie-filled world was ordered, measured and wonderful (for aforementioned United fans, at least. For the rest of us it was a living nightmare, as if God had arrived on the planet, omnipresent, as a belligerent old Scot who didn’t actually like people, particular you/your club, and seemed hell-bent on always popping up to remind you of the fact, even when you were convinced he had finally been bested and ESPECIALLY when it was by your club). United fans – you’ll win something this season or if you don’t, you’ll win something next. Ferguson brought those guarantees. And even when you didn’t win you were normally runner-up. Heartbreak then is a newfound emotion, in a footballing sense, for an entire generation of United fans.
And so as the rug is pulled from beneath the 20-somethings, they emerge bleary-eyed into a new reality. A new reality that is discomfiting and altogether unnerving. The reality that a leader with an almost mythical will to win has gone and who may, just may, have dragged Manchester United’s air of invincibility with him. To use an incredibly geeky analogy as we are wont to do on this blog, it is as if you United fans have, for 20-odd years, been watching football cloaked in an overshield (to use the parlance of a very popular multi-billion-dollar computer game franchise). And now the overshield has gone, the flood are coming. Maybe. Are they? No one knows, of course. And that’s the killer. This is what real life feels like Manchester United fans.
Interestingly, what Ferguson’s departure also potentially offers up is a form of fandom that is more in line with what every other poor bugger in England has to endure. Aside from the odd anomaly – Ferguson, Wenger, Gradi,
‘Crises’ more in line with those experienced by Arsenal fans may become more the norm at Old Trafford, the inverted commas used because fans of 100+ other English clubs would probably put their feet up with a cuppa and a biscuit, and think that securing Champions League football every season for 15 years was really very nice (in fact, they’d probably get used to the success and become just like Arsenal fans now I think about it). I say this as a York City fan who was at Dagenham & Redbridge for the final game of the League Two season, a game we had to draw to guarantee staying in the football league (we won). Not a pleasant experience when relief is the best possible outcome.
Of course, there are degrees of footballing terror. A Wolves fan would argue that their relegation to the third tier is worse than merely losing a manager, albeit after clinching the league title. But it’s a terror United fans of my age have had the luxury of living without. A cossetted world where when their side goes one up, they, along with every one else in the country, thinks ‘that’s that then’. It’s a new kind of fear because United fans are back with the rest of us, in that horrible uncertain bubble when you don’t know if your new manager is good, lucky, unlucky, bad, about to fall out with a striker, about to fall out with an owner, ‘doesn’t understand’ the club (the wonderful, idiotically arrogant argument that has damned many a manager down the years), about to make signings that don’t work out, about to make signings that turn out brilliantly, about to win the league, about to win a cup, about to win nothing at all, about to sleep with the physio’s wife, about to drop your goalkeeper, about to go all Paul Lambert on you, about to go all Sam Allardyce on you or, worst of all, is actually Jose Mourinho.
United fans must now be more aware than ever of the fact that they are competitors in a league that is competitive. Which constitutes a new kind of fear because United have never really been a club that has to overstretch itself or its resources to succeed. Ferguson has just always been there to somehow guarantee it. Sure, they’re in mountains of debt. But they’ve undeniably been helped by the fact that their position as arguably the top club in the world has been unassailable since the Premier League started pushing its brand global and they just happened to be the team at the top.
It’s a bit like someone has taken the 13-time winner of ‘World’s Best Apple’ and put it out to pasture. No one knows quite what to do and everyone is just sort of looking at each other because without that apple, this fruit bowl becomes an entirely new proposition. Not one shorn of its identity or anything so philosophically profound. Just one where all concerned are acutely aware of the need to avoid onions like the plague, in an environment where there are lots of onions, some deceptively masquerading as apples, ready (but totally unfit) to wear the sash and crown.
So no one’s happy or sad, as such. Just a bit nonplussed. A world without Fergie, for many of us, is completely unfathomable. That said, he will still be a director at United and we would expect still involved in some way as Moyes works an apprentice year with the team Ferguson built. We’re not saying United will suddenly disappear, because that would be ludicrous. But the landscape at Old Trafford looks very alien all of a sudden and if it’s a little unnerving for us, it must be doubly so for those used to worshipping seemingly endless streams of trophies their entire lives.