It’s the hope that kills you. Since leaving my teenage years I have tried to be blasé about football. I’ll watch the match yet remain emotionally withdrawn in an effort to keep my mood balanced.
Last night was different. United’s 2-0 loss to Paris Saint Germain came as a reality check. Having seen United hit form, this was a match I believed we would win yet barely threatened. A combination of better players, injuries and inconsistent referring meant that it’ll be another season of hoping Liverpool keep it to five rather than seeing United get to four European Cups. This morning I woke up feeling disappointed after a football match which hasn’t happened in years.
‘If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor’ is a line from ‘Sit Down’ which is a song by the Manchester band, James. The line typifies how it feels to be a Manchester United fan. Having seen the club lift the Treble in my first match-going season twenty years ago, the past five years have been difficult. That’s a ridiculously grandiose thing to type yet since Sir Alex Ferguson retired Manchester United has forgotten how to be Manchester United. Trophies were acquired, rather than won with matches becoming calculated rather than captivating. Aside from a handful of wins over the revitalised Liverpool and Manchester City, as well as cup final triumphs against Crystal Palace, Southampton and Ajax, it’s been largely meh.
Most of the joy I derive from football is largely irrespective of the result, I want to be entertained by what happens on the pitch and see teams try to win. Shed of the mind-boggling commercial interests and tribal sensibilities, football really is just a game. As a 15 year old, all I saw was a crowd of 50,000 people watching 22 players kick a ball around on a pitch. Beyond that there was a spirit and an element of risk which meant the game meant a bit more than three points or passage in a cup competition. I’d see United win by taking the game to the opposition and committing more men forward, not keeping it tight and occasionally finding some quality in the final third.
I wanted to see my team win, not simply because it meant trophies but because it signified a superior will to compete, to attack and to take risks. For five years that way of winning football matches has largely been absent from my club, that was until Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over.
His impact has been little short of miraculous and not just in the goal difference and points total columns. Where there was tedium, there is now tension which shows how far the team has come. When the draw was made against PSG the tie had a ring of impending doom to it with the likes of Neymar, Cavani and Mbappe running rings around the comedic duo of Smalling and Jones (which could still happen in the second leg). Since then, United have rediscovered their mojo which means there is more at stake and belief has returned. Yet it’s more than that, the team are taking risks and with that comes a sense of anything is possible. When your team are playing like that the belief swells to the stands and Old Trafford has become louder as a result. It’s suddenly become fun to go to the match!
In the past twenty years, football has become micromanaged. Sports science and psychology now have their own departments at football clubs as every manager looks for an edge. Pushing all that aside, a belief has returned that if United play the right way the path to former glories becomes increasingly tangible. Under previous managers there was a belief that the right way to win a football match was to contain the opposition, keep possession and edge the match out in 90 minutes of calm, calculated contentment with all the risk sucked out of it. Sod that, I want to see United relentlessly attack, attack, attack. I want to see skill. I want to see drama. I want to see chances.
I don’t get to the game as often as I should yet having seen United beat Bournemouth 4-1 and snatch a late 2-2 draw against Burnley I can see that the match has finally become something to truly look forward to again. In dark times, the match can be disregarded around the rest of the match-going day. From the pride of the smart and superstitious uniform of the same Best 1968 royal blue replica jumper, the Adidas Class of ’92 trainers and calf covering red football socks to the beers on the train, the walk around the stadium, picking up the programme and finding your seat as the stadium fills. If United won it was a bonus.
When I watch the match now I’m almost guaranteed two things; that I’ll be entertained and that United should win. I’d better get better at managing disappointment.