Life, as a sports fan, is like a pendulum oscillating between heartbreak and ecstasy. I learnt this the hard way. My first visit to Old Trafford ended with Manchester United being outplayed by a bottom-of-the-table side like Burnley. A 2-0 defeat on that cold and wet Manchester night had triggered one of the most infamous […]
Life, as a sports fan, is like a pendulum oscillating between heartbreak and ecstasy. I learnt this the hard way. My first visit to Old Trafford ended with Manchester United being outplayed by a bottom-of-the-table side like Burnley. A 2-0 defeat on that cold and wet Manchester night had triggered one of the most infamous walkouts by home fans in the club’s history. Cut to today: the Red Devils are playing their first final, against Villarreal in the Europa League, in four years and I’ve been sleepless in anticipation since the weekend.
My journey, supporting United, has traversed through the treble-winning highs of 1999, the romance of the class of ’92, the golden era featuring Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney’s heroics, and the club’s fall from grace since Sir Alex’s retirement in 2013. Neither of his successors could fill the massive boots that he had left behind.
David Moyes was the first casualty; and both the celebrity managers in Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho fell apart with the club’s ownership (and also the dressing room in Mourinho’s case). The last two did however, lead United to silverware: Van Gaal won the FA Cup and Jose claimed the ‘treble’ of the Europa League, the Carabao Cup and the Community Shield.
But both of them left behind too many broken pieces of United’s traditions for the successor to pick up from. In the aftermath of Mourinho’s sacking, the overpaid squad was led by an underperforming Alexis Sanchez and a demoralised Paul Pogba; no centre back was fit enough to play through the season, and the backroom staff – from physios to data analysts – almost went kaput.
The rebuild that should have started in 2013, was nowhere close to its commencement almost five years and three sacked managers later. The unlikely call-up of former Manchester United legend, Ole Gunnar Solksjaer as caretaker manager in 2018 was seen as another stop-gap solution; more of a nostalgic throwback to the good ol’ days of glory.
The team went on a lengthy unbeaten when he was ‘at the wheel’ initially, but his appointment as full-time manager on a three-year contract coincided with a poor run of results. Manchester United finished sixth at the end of the 2018-19 season, sparking endless #OleOut versus #OleIn debates online.
The following season was shaping up to be another disaster, till that Burnley game, where yours truly was also in attendance. But the signing of talismanic playmaker Bruno Fernandes from Portugal’s Sporting CP, a few hours later, proved to be a turning point for Ole’s career.
United was one of the fittest teams to emerge in the Premier League’s Project Restart following the lockdown, last year. Despite 66 points, they leapfrogged most rivals to finish third on a dramatic final gameweek. They also reached the semi-finals of three different cup competitions, but were unable to go all the way.
The 2020-21 spell then saw some unprecedented events, apart from almost the entire season being played behind closed doors: first, the formation of a now-defunct breakaway continental league, which was led by Europe’s top 12 clubs, including United; second, fan protests against the ownership of the club by the American billionaires, the Glazers. Fans had stormed the Old Trafford pitch ahead of the United-Liverpool game last month, causing the postponement of the match.
These protests were the tip of the iceberg that was formed through the actions of the owners since their takeover of the club in 2003. Manchester United fans claim that the Glazers have drained the club off one billion pounds. Solksjaer was also not backed in the transfer market last summer and fans were left frustrated by no marquee signings, especially the heavily-linked Jadon Sancho, while other clubs like Chelsea invested heavily in their squads.
Regardless, the current Premier League season ended on Sunday with the team placed higher from 2019-20, at second. The finished above last year’s champions Liverpool, a high-spending Chelsea, a smartly-run Leicester City, a highly-rated Tottenham and Mikel Arteta’s ‘promising’ Arsenal. It’s also the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement that United qualified for the UEFA Champions League in back-to-back seasons.
The fitness of the players, who looked huffed and puffed in second halves during Mourinho’s reign, has also levelled up. Three United players featured in the top 10 players to have played most minutes in Europe, in 2020.
Ole’s eye for man-management has often been cited as the central reason behind the club’s return to its ‘traditions.’ The resurgence of left-back and the current ‘Player’s Player of the Year’ Luke Shaw, under his management, speaks volumes about his ability to get the best out of the players.
“He deals with situations perfectly in terms of what is needed, especially at a big club like Manchester United,” Shaw had told Sky Sports.
“He takes the pressure off the lads and takes it all himself. Sometimes it is not fair because we are the ones on the pitch and we need to take our fair share too.
“For me, especially, from what I had before Ole came in, it is a total difference. It has pushed me to a new level.”
Upholding the club’s legacy of promoting youth, he has also handed debuts to as many as 16 academy players, including a current regular Mason Greenwood. United’s last match of the PL season on Sunday, saw academy graduates Hannibal Mejbri and Will Fish become the latest youngsters to join this list.
Ole opted for youth in that game in order to rest some of his usual first-teamers, ahead of the Europa League final tonight. It’s the team’s maiden final under Ole and their first since 2017. A win here might add a rather insignificant piece of silverware to the club’s glorious trophy cabinet from the past.
But it could do wonders for the future of the rebuild that finally appears to have been set in motion under Ole.
“These are big nights for us. It might be the stepping stone for something better to come, a bright future because this team is a young team,” Ole had admitted in the pre-match conference.
“It’s a team that we’ve rebuilt over the last couple of years, so hopefully this is the start of something more.”
Sir Alex has also travelled to the Polish venue of the Gdansk for the final. A win against three-time tournament winner, Unai Emery is something that he would be hoping for, too. The last time he was present for such an occasion was the 2017 Europa League win under Mourinho.
But there are clear differences between the two Manchester United teams. As things stand now, in-form veteran striker Edinson Cavani has extended his stay at the club, with 19-year-old Mason Greenwood as his talented understudy. The creativity department has been boosted by some mind-boggling numbers from Bruno, with support from Marcus Rashford. Pogba has had a memorable season, starting in his favoured position, and is reportedly happier than he has been despite his contract situation.
The defence has witnessed strong performances from Maguire and Shaw through the season, earning them England call-ups for the Euros in June. The club will be on the hunt for an able central defensive partner for captain Maguire in the coming transfer window. The need for a right-sided attacker and a defensive midfielder has also been identified by fans and experts alike. Pogba’s exit could prompt even more signings.
After ages, it feels like the club knows where they need to strengthen. Instead of buying left-winger Alexis Sanchez despite promising youngsters in Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial vying for that position in 2017, this summer could be filled with purpose.
Cynics don’t trust the Glazer ownership to help fulfil this promise though. But Ole has demonstrated in the past that he can keep the fans happy while also tackling the internal challenges at the club. Tonight is the perfect opportunity to take home the club management’s faith in his rebuild, once and for all. A lot rides on the result of the final.
Images source: Twitter/@ManUtd, @EuropaLeague, @PaulPogba