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27th Jan 2020

Sympathy for the devils? Why Manchester United don’t deserve your pity

Kyle Picknell

Manchester United fans must accept the harsh reality of the situation, no matter how traumatic it may seem: They support a normal football team now

You might have seen it over the weekend. An image that summed up the current state of degeneration, of ruination, of Manchester United Football Club. Haunting and terrifying in equal measure. Scarcely believable. A picture that, without saying anything, said everything that needs to be said. The Manchester United of old is dead. What exists in its place a husk. The Theatre of Dreams now a Colosseum to a nightmare.

Just kidding. Phil Jones can drive whatever car he likes. Leave him alone you weirdos. What I’m actually talking about is this, a tweet shared by The Man Utd Way on Twitter to the tune of almost 15,000 likes. Old Trafford glimpsed through barbed wire, the Manchester United sign glowing neon red, and the caption ‘Such a powerful picture. We want our club back’. Try not to spit your tea out laughing at the – how do you say – absolute fucking state of it.

Regardless of whether using the silhouette of barbed wire entanglements, calling to mind the only barrier between the trenches and no man’s land in World War 1, one of the deadliest conflicts in human history, over your stadium to illustrate some vague point about your club’s ownership is, you know, good, (it isn’t), the image reveals the discord between this particularly laughable subset of Manchester United fans and the rest of the football landscape.

The tweet was roundly, and rightly, mocked for attempting to convey Manchester United’s current situation – fifth in the Premier League, third richest team in the world – as apocalyptic. Bury Football Club, located less than 10 miles up the road from that devastated warzone that is the car park by the club shop outside a 75,000 seater stadium, have existed for 135 years. They were expelled from the English Football League in August.

It might be hard to accept for those raised on the giddy cough syrup of United through the Premier League years; a slurry of legends and moments and trophies; magic, perhaps more than any club really deserves; but history and prestige are not theirs alone. They do not deserve better now simply because they were better than everyone then. The Earth does not revolve around Manchester United Football Club, no matter the size and the gravitational pull of nostalgia. Or Harry Maguire’s head.

The man who powered much of the club’s fairytale existence through the 90s and 00s, who embodied it more than anyone else, would know that success is a privilege, not a divine right. It is hard-earned. To stay at the top for so long Sir Alex Ferguson had to continually adapt and evolve. His United sides recovered titles from some of the best teams the Premier League has ever seen. Shearer’s Blackburn, Wenger’s Invincibles, Mourinho’s Chelsea. Each appeared a dynasty in the making. Each time United wrestled back their lofty perch like an emotional walrus clambering onto an iceberg. Only the existence of Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona team, arguably the greatest of the modern era, stopped them winning more Champions League titles than they did. And they still won two.

Success breeds success but it also breeds resentment. A lot of people don’t like Manchester United because they spent their childhoods suffering in playgrounds because their team wasn’t as good as Manchester United. A similar feeling will probably be directed at Liverpool in a decade or two. There may be widespread revelry in their current plight, and this may seem unfair, but it is earned the same way Manchester United’s right to be a ‘big club’ is.

If Leeds United can crash and burn out of the Premier League as they did 16 years ago, and find new and more majestically painful ways of failing to return back year after year, then they have every right to tell a Manchester United supporter to get a grip because they’re losing their minds over the failure to sign a 60 million pound attacking midfielder. The same for fans of Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers. Sunderland, too. The same for fans of any club. More power to them.

There are salient points to be made of the Glazier’s ownership of Manchester United and Ed Woodward’s long-running ineptitude at the top of the dung heap. I realise that is the point beneath these agonisingly serious photoshops of Old Trafford, but there are far less embarrassing ways to make it. Luke Shaw starting at left-back again doesn’t quite equate to nuclear annihilation, whichever way you look at it.

Thankfully, this exaggerated sentiment only appears to resonate with a small fraction of the Manchester United fanbase. The ‘Delete This’ troll generation. The Twitter-banter clout-chasers. For them, the decline of their team is disastrous for reasons other than football. They can’t win arguments on the internet anymore. The cold, hard truth is that these Manchester United fans must accept the reality of their situation, no matter how traumatic it may seem. They support a normal football team now. That’s good for them. They’ll become better people for it. Less excruciating. Less obnoxious. Less insufferable.

Welcome to being a football fan 101, where today we will discuss the impending sense of doom that greats you whenever you think about your starting lineup. Next week it will be methods of coping without that signing your team desperately needs in the January transfer window. After that we’ll move onto more specialist classes such as ‘No trophies for 50 years, what’s the point?’ and ‘So you’ve appointed Tony Pulis, here’s what to do next’.

Like the vast majority of football fans, my own experience of following a team intensely throughout my life has been almost unequivocally terrible. It has been shit, to be honest. Almost all of it. Just one crushing disappointment after the other. Years and years of desperate, unfulfilled hope punctuated by pitifully brief windows of happiness. You lose more games than you win and the players you love get sold. That’s just football. At least you had the player to fall in love with in the first place.

Welcome to the real world Manchester United, we’ve been expecting you. Take a seat and make yourselves comfortable. Learn to moan about your football team properly. Try and laugh about it. Focus on the small joys. It gets easier, trust me, and you’ll be here for a while yet.