Unloved and not winning the top prizes: why Manchester United and Sir Alex Ferguson should part company.


Messianic Barca murder United as Slogette watches match through the medium of masochism

In an act of impetuous insanity that would’ve been impossible without her father’s genes to guide her, my elder daughter dragged her husband off to Barcelona on Friday night, the better to watch the Champions’ League Final in a bar filled with 2,000 fanatical Barca supporters. My son-in-law – who likes football, and yet inexplicably follows Spurs – kept himself to himself during the game (a wise move) but when United’s Wayne Rooney swept in the equaliser against Barcelona after 32 minutes, the fact that his wife was the only ManU fan in the bar became instantly apparent.

As young people do in such circumstances, my daughter texted me excitedly. I knew she was in Spain, because my wife spotted this development on Facebook. It’s the only thing that makes the site indispensable, because otherwise you’d never get any news about your children ever again. Anyway, Barca went on to win easily 3-1, and so the crazy product of my loins was left another sixty-one minutes in which to earn the wages of foolhardy ways.

I suppose as a United supporter, I should be unhappy this morning, but I’m not. This is down to having wonderful weather, a tree full of perfectly ripe cherries to go at, and the certainty that I devoted 93 minutes last night to watching the beautiful game being, for once, absolutely beautiful. I think it possible that there will never again be a team as great as the current Barcelona outfit: they have that tremendous skill and inventive attacking ability that is hard to find outside Spain, Portugal, Brazil or Argentina. But above all, they have Lionel Messi. The man is a genius – and astonishingly, seems to be quite nice. But he is up there with Pele and Best when it comes to understanding that even individual brilliance works better in a team crammed with talent. Diego Maradonna never grasped this, which is why he needed the Hand of God to score some of his more important goals.

For the first ten minutes of the match, Manchester United gave a display in which they beat Barcelona at their own short-passing game and added an element of harassment that clearly knocked the Spanish side off balance. In the eleventh minute, Barcelona worked out what was going on and returned it in kind – the only difference being that they knew what they were doing. They put United under unbearable pressure, and then scored a wonderfully simple goal. The English champions had never looked like doing this.

For the next six minutes, I had the awful feeling that my half-serious prediction of 6-0 might be coming true, but then Mr X who cannot be named for legal reasons played a perfectly executed one-two with our Wayne, and the Scouse potato-head swept the ball in – showing that he too is a genius, just much less intelligent than Messi. (Mr X, by the way, was offside).

The unflappable confidence of Barcelona was pretty clear from then on, and my memory of the rest of the game was Messi giving a masterclass in entertainment, while United made brilliant tackles to foil him…..but seemed to be going backwards an awful lot. Messi’s goal when it came was the picador at his most merciless, idiotically described by ITV’s pundit for the night as “one that Van der Sar should’ve gathered”. That’s the trouble with your Dutch goalkeepers, they don’t have X-ray vision. David Villa wrapped it up with a third soon afterwards – which in a way was a shame, as it ruined the game as a competitive spectacle, leaving United the thankless task of chasing after the ball while the Spanish short-first-time-pass game made them dizzier and dizzier. As a born Redeye, I have to admit it could easily have been 7-1, had the Catalans decided to move up a gear.

I am now going to suggest something that will earn me huge amounts of vitriol from the MUFC website, but it must be said. I think Sir Alex should call it a day, and give someone younger the  job. There are two important reasons why I offer this sagesse.

The first is that Fergie has spent a glittering career trying to build a European-style (as in, continental style) team capable of matching those players unfortunate enough to be in the eurozone at their own game. On the whole – in a domestic game dominated by foreign players – this has made for an unbeatable formula. Even with only two European Cups, Sir Alex is still the most successful manager of all time, because he has achieved his astonishing silverware record at a competitive level, and under the sort of pressure, that Bob Paisley couldn’t have imagined. But Ferguson’s time has passed: the club now needs fresh thinking.

Call me old-fashioned, but I feel that English club sides (what the Salmondellas do is their affair) have spent too long now learning off foreign sides. It’s time they feared us for being different, not just as good as them. And the long, pinpoint-accuracy through ball has always been one of the most exciting aspects of the British game.

There’s a simple reason why it’s effective and enjoyable: footballs travel faster than players, and leave defenders flat-footed facing the wrong way. The associated skill of feinting one way and then delivering a defence-splitting pass in another direction is what gets real fans of the game off their seats and roaring for more. Picking up such passes from John White built Jimmy Greaves’s career.

Another hugely neglected feature of our game is the burst of speed followed by an angled cross into the penalty area. Defenders are automatically forced to look sideways at who’s entering the penalty area, whereas the tall opponent is building up momentum for the header or volley to come. It is an impossible move to defend.

No doubt younger fans reading this are thinking ‘daft old fart’, but I’ve played the game at a reasonable level, and despite the contemporary pundit’s drivel about channels and width, football remains what it always was: a very simple game requiring dedication to skill enhancement, fitness and swashbuckling adventure. It is often forgotten now, but the first British side to lift the European Cup was not Manchester United, but Celtic. They beat the Italian champions in the 1967 Final by playing exactly the game I’ve just described. Get hold of the video if you can: it’s a fabulous display of Total Football.

These ideas are not ‘old-fashioned’. They are the ideas made flesh in the skills of Bobby Charlton, a man whose precision long-distance passing had to be witnessed to be believed. Such principles made the Dutch national side, and especially Johann Cruyff, the most entertaining players in soccer history during the 1970s –  the era when Ajax won everything, and only poor refereeing robbed the Dutch of a World Cup triumph against Germany. They were also the principles behind Argentina’s greatest side: for all I knocked him earlier on, Diego Maradonna was the most ambitiously adventurous player of all time: nobody has ever matched his self-belief apart from George Best.

The second reason Sir Alex should go is equally important: while everyone envies and thus dislikes the most successful club at any one time, most British supporters hate United. That’s the only word I can find to use. Before the game, I’d spent a delightful three-hour lunch with smart folks who aren’t that interested in footie; but when the subject of the Final came up, faces grimaced, and the host said, “Anyone but Manyoo”.

If you’ve been steeped in the United culture for more than half a century, this kind of visceral loathing of the Club is not part of the script. It is, by far, the thing that saddens me most about the team I will support until the day I die. In the 1950s and 1960s, the understated dignity of Matt Busby, the popularity of the original ‘Babes’, the 1958 Munich tragedy – and then the undeniable talent of Best, Law, Charlton, Crerand and Stepney – all combined to make MUFC the most loved club in the world. Outside the UK, they probably still are. But at home in Blighty, there is a spitting intensity about the way in which footie fans from elsewhere express their dislike of United.

I think Ferguson is in large part responsible for this. A manager almost devoid of fairness and objectivity while discussing his team is not unusual (Wenger at Arsenal is even worse) but there’s a mind-games bully inside Sir Alex which comes out very easily….and all too noticeably. His audio slip at last week’s press conference (about banning a journalist who asked a question about Giggs’s private life) was nothing short of disgraceful. On being beaten by a German side two seasons ago, after the game Ferguson remarked, “Aye well – they got our lad sent off and then beat ten men – typical bloody Germans”. Even if he thought it, he should not have said it.

Last but not least, Fergie’s incessant abuse of referees sets a terrible example to young kids about on-the-field discipline, and gives Sir Alex the air of an Essex yob storming into school to beat up the teacher who dared to tell off his hopelessly wayward son. I know perfectly well that Ferguson is an expert on French wine, speaks pretty good French, and knows his horses better than many a jockey. And last night, his embrace of the Barca coach at the end of the game did display some genuine dignity. But the civilised side of Sir Alex Ferguson is far too infrequently seen.

Such a view will be thought ‘naive’ by many, but it isn’t: principles and culture in football are everything when it comes to on the pitch performance – but soccer clubs and their stars are extremely influential on the culture beyond the professional game. I blog about footie only rarely, and when I do it is usually to take the mickey out of contemporary coaching-bollocks, or to describe football as Part of Our Problem. I love my club, and I’d like the neutrals to, at the very least, admire it. But most of all, I’d like our sportsmen to learn how to behave in public. (And yes Ryan, in private too).

On a closing note, did anyone see the Audi spot in the break immediately before the match kicked off? It was a very good rather than great piece of creative work, but the brilliant ‘stroke’ of dominating the most expensive slot of the evening was media-buying at its most daring and brilliant. It put me in mind of Mike Yershon at CDP, the man who went to the Colletts creative department and said “How would you like to make a 3-minute car commercial?” From this came the Fiat Strada robots film – a hugely successful launch vehicle for perhaps the worst Italian car ever made.

This too was swashbucking advertising that breaks moulds and does the unexpected. One of the many pioneers of this approach was Frank Lowe. Frank is and always has been a United fanatic. Somehow, that figures.