For 90 minutes on Sunday, Manchester United were out-hustled, out-played and out-classed by cross-city rivals Manchester City.
They lost 3-0 at home, in front of a restless home crowd, on a day to honor Sir Bobby Charlton, who died earlier this month and is widely considered the greatest English player of all time with two decades at United.
Those glory days are long gone. So is the time of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo and the legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who led United to two Champions Leagues and 13 Premier League titles before his retirement in 2013.
These days, the most successful team in the history of English soccer is deeply mired in futility, enduring their worst start to a season in more than 30 years and bumbling through a series of off-field issues that have included a failed takeover bid and the loss of a talented young player after allegations of attempted rape.
On Sunday, Old Trafford stadium – known in happier times as the Theatre of Dreams – again featured mutinous protests against the Glazers, the Florida-based family who own the club as well as the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“They have overseen 10 years of mediocrity off the pitch and on the pitch,” Gary Neville said recently, one of several club legends who have been fiercely critical of United in the post-Ferguson years. “They set the culture of greed, ill discipline, indecision and uncertainty that runs right through the club.”
The team’s demise has sent shockwaves through the sport given United’s previous status as one of European soccer’s genuine heavyweights. Rival fans have taken malicious pleasure from the downfall of a superpower that used to dominate the league. “Old Trafford is falling down,” the City fans sang on Sunday to celebrate a 3-0 victory.
The Glazer family took over in 2005 and have been trying to sell the club for more than a year. Earlier this month, talks collapsed over a possible takeover by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al Thani of Qatar’s royal family amid reports the Glazers wanted $8 billion for a club whose market capitalization on the New York Stock Exchange is estimated at just over $3 billion.
Sheikh Jassim pulled out of the negotiations after purportedly valuing the club at around $6.3 billion, with a further $2.1 billion earmarked to improve the stadium, training ground and other facilities that former manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer described recently as “neglected.”
Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the second richest man in the United Kingdom and a United fan, is expected to take a 25 per cent stake for $1.6 billion, with many observers viewing that as a step toward seeking a higher stake. For now, however, the Glazers, who rarely visit Manchester, remain firmly in charge, with protests against them at every match.
Fans forced the abandonment of a match against Liverpool in 2021 by breaking into the stadium and invading the pitch. On another occasion, a group of 20 hooded United followers turned up outside the house of Ed Woodward, then the executive vice-chairman, and sprayed the building with red paint and let off flares and smoke bombs. Jeers have come in the form of shouts from fans in the stadium and banners flying overhead.
In April 2021, Joel Glazer admitted United’s owners need to “become better listeners.” Two months later he added: “Our silence wrongly created the impression that we aren’t football fans, that we only care about our commercial interests and money. And I can assure you, nothing could be further from the truth.”
After 16 years on mute, this indicated a move towards greater dialogue. Yet in the months that have followed, little has changed and large swathes of United fans still feel cut off from their club’s U.S. owners.
The front cover of the latest Red News, United’s oldest fanzine, sums it up: “We just want to be proud of our club again.”
Along Sir Matt Busby Way en route to Old Trafford, one banner hanging from a railing says: “History, Dignity, Integrity, You Stole It All,” directing ire towards a regime that bought the club in a leveraged $1.4 billion takeover in 2005. At the end of a game against Nottingham Forest in August, there was the first sit-in protest at Old Trafford in its 113 years of existence.
“Imagine living in a beautiful house for many years,” Rene Meulensteen, Ferguson’s former assistant, said recently. “You look after that house, you love living there. Then, one day, you leave. You can drive past your old house but it has been taken away. It has gone. You look through the window and, on the worst days, you can see how messy it is.”
Worse, United’s decline has coincided with the rise of City, once a team of serial losers who rarely threatened the elite clubs and were little more than an afterthought to Ferguson during long periods of his 26-year reign.
Ferguson was so dismissive of City he jokingly referred to their stadium as “the Temple of Doom.” But these days, City have genuine aspirations to be known as the best soccer team in the world, bankrolled by the exceptional wealth of Abu Dhabi and on a run of three successive Premier League titles under Pep Guardiola’s expert coaching.
Guardiola was the Barcelona manager who gave seven-time Ballon d’Or winner Lionel Messi his debut, putting together what was widely acclaimed as the most beautifully assembled club team created.
It does not help United that they previously coveted Guardiola to be their own manager. In 2012, Ferguson met him for dinner at a restaurant in Manhattan, hoping to set the groundwork for Guardiola to replace him one day at England’s biggest club. Ultimately, however, Project Pep was launched at United’s cross-city rivals.
“Put it this way,” said Meulensteen, “if he had been the one (to replace Ferguson), I don’t think United would have gone 10 years without the league.”
Instead, United have gone through a succession of managers without sustained success. None has been able to deliver United more than relatively minor trophies, put them back on an upward trajectory and keep them there.
There was an FA Cup under Van Gaal, the Europa League with Mourinho and the Carabao Cup won last season with Erik ten Hag, the current manager. The harsh reality is that United have not put together a genuine title challenge for a decade.
Figures published earlier this year showed United, the 20-time champions of England, owed almost $1.2 billion in various forms of debt. The Glazers were also instrumental in trying, and failing, to form the breakaway European Super League in 2021, a project that fell apart spectacularly amid huge opposition, prompting fans to break down the gates to Old Trafford to force the abandonment of a Liverpool match.
Nobody, however, can say United were not warned. Some fans opposed the Glazers’ takeover so vehemently they formed a breakaway team called FC United of Manchester and built a stadium in the north of the city. The club is now in the seventh tier of English football as “the Rebels,” also wearing red and white.
Six levels higher up, the 70,000-plus supporters who still flock to Old Trafford risk a drenching every time Manchester lives up to its rainy reputation. The holes in the stadium’s roof have become symbolic of the Glazer era.
For Ferguson, this is all rather awkward given that he, a manager renowned for his temper almost as much as his trophies, championed the Glazers as “great owners,” defended them from journalistic and fan scrutiny and robustly faced down the protestors who warned him it would not have a happy ending.
Now 81, Ferguson attends fixtures these days as a highly paid ambassador and director of the club’s football board. But he has seen the indignities stack up in recent years: a first home defeat to Cardiff City since 1954, the first against West Bromwich Albion since 1978, Sheffield United since 1973, Newcastle United since 1972, Burnley since 1962.
Liverpool, the team United always measure themselves against, thrashed their old rival 7-0 at Anfield last season and won 5-0 at Old Trafford the year before that. Both were records in the history of fixtures between what are, historically, England’s biggest two clubs.
Swansea City won at Old Trafford for the first time in their entire history. Sunderland had waited 46 years, Crystal Palace 30 years, Norwich City over a quarter of a century. Even with upwards of $1.2 billion splurged in the transfer market, very few of United’s big-money signings have worked out.
As for Ten Hag, he was hired from Ajax, where he had won the Dutch championship three times, and he did at least finish his first season in Manchester with a trophy. It was, however, one that United’s players from a previous era used to call “the Worthless Cup.”
Ten Hag’s tenure has also involved some high-profile rows. His first major fallout was with Ronaldo, culminating in the Portuguese superstar flouncing off to Saudi Arabia. Ten Hag has since frozen out Jadon Sancho, who cost $88.7 million from German club Borussia Dortmund and is the fifth most expensive player in United’s history.
For evidence about why United have been accused of lacking foresight and football intelligence, it is worth noting that Paul Pogba headed that list, costing $108.1 million from Italian club Juventus, even though the same player had gone the other way on a free transfer four years earlier.
Antony, a Brazilian who signed from Ajax for $99.7 million, is being investigated for alleged violence towards women. Mason Greenwood, a striker who came through United’s youth system, has been loaned to a Spanish club, Getafe, after a social-media clip went viral and sparked a police inquiry.
Greenwood was charged with attempted rape and assault, as well as a separate count of controlling and coercive behaviour, but the trial was abandoned after the alleged victim withdrew her evidence. Greenwood has always denied any criminality and so has Antony, who is being allowed, controversially, to play on despite Brazil’s national team dropping him from their squad.
It has been, in Neville’s words, a “toxic” and “desperate” period in the recent history of one of sport’s great institutions. “It would be best if they (Glazers) sold the club with some speed and efficiency and allowed the off-pitch items to be corrected properly (to) reset the tone and culture,” said the former player, an eight-time Premier League champion.
The fans’ anger is directed not just to the Glazers but also towards executives.
In particular, United’s issues stem from poor recruitment in the transfer market. Solskjaer told the story recently about recommending a little-known Erling Haaland, then 17, as a potential signing in 2018 when the player was available for $5 million from Norwegian club Molde. Nothing came of it and Haaland is now the most lethal striker in Europe, breaking all sorts of records in City’s colors and scoring two of their goals in Sunday’s win.
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Ten games into the Premier League season, Ten Hag’s team has lost five times and is eighth in a 20-team division. United has lost two of its first three matches in the Champions League and, amid a series of disappointing performances, Ten Hag’s position could conceivably have come under threat if his players had not salvaged a 2-1 win against Brentford last month, courtesy of two stoppage-time goals.
The last time they won a match so dramatically was the 1999 Champions League final when Bayern Munich, Germany’s most successful soccer team, were defeated by two extra-time goals and Ferguson’s triumphant quote – “football, bloody hell” – went down in legend.
That win secured an unprecedented treble of European Cup, Premier League and FA Cup. United thought it would never happen again and were happy to boast as much. Then Guardiola’s City did it last season, prompting a victory parade through the streets of Manchester.
Ferguson was once asked whether City could usurp United as English soccer’s top team. His reply could now be seen as a trick of the imagination: “Not in my lifetime.”
(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)