The new Premier League season starts on Friday night, with Manchester United, last season’s runners-up, at home to Leicester City, the 2016 Champions. And after much thought, I’ve worked out that you’d have to go back to the early Eighties, the period when my gorge rose over Football’s insouciant bandying around of large monies when their primary audience was getting deeply embroiled in the first Thatcher Recession, before you could find a time when I felt less interested in the new season.
The explanation for this is very simple: Jose Mourinho.
I don’t do ‘I Told You So’s, I do ‘I Wish I Wasn’t Right’s. Two years ago, from the first moment Mourinho was mooted as a replacement for Louis van Gaal, I was against it. To me, Mourinho was the wrong man, the incorrect fit for Manchester4 United, our history, our style, our way of doing things.
I wasn’t the only one, but we who doubted were outweighed by the greater number who looked only at Mourinho’s record: a winner at every club he’d managed. And that’s what they wanted: United winning things again. Now, two years on, all of the United fans where I work have the same opinion about United’s forthcoming season: it’s going to be an Absolute Fucking Disaster.
Much of the preconception about this is coming from none other than our sainted Manager who, from the start of a spectacularly unsuccessful USA Tour, has been talking down our prospects in a manner you would usually expect to hear coming from the mouths of Bitters and Scousers. To listen to Mourinho, you might get the impression that this summer’s World Cup, instead of being an international tournament played at four year intervals for the last 68 years was instead something specifically and maliciously designed to make Jose Mourinho’s job difficult.
Much has been made of how well Paul Pogba played at the World Cup, with especial reference to how much better than he plays for United. Now he wants a move to Barcelona, which every commentator has interpreted as a yearning to play for a manager who isn’t Mourinho, and I can’t blame him. Mourinho is also on the point of driving out Anthony Martial, and much as I think he’s a brilliant player, an exciting player, and I don’t want to see him go, I think he’d better for the sake of his career.
Mourinho’s having the same effect in every corner. He’s doing his best to destroy Marcus Rashford’s progress, and the crop of youngsters that van Gaal began bringing through, all of whom looked so promising, have stalled to say the least. United are famous for having had a homegrown player in every single matchday team/squad since before the Second World War: I dismally expect Mourinho to fuck that record over before season’s end.
But it’s the style of football we now play that is the most depressing, to the point where the word ‘style’ is seriously misleading. Famously, United are and since the appointment of Matt Busby in 1946 always have been a vibrant, attractive, attacking team. It’s not enough for United to win: that win’s got to be exciting. We can bore teams to death in a drab 1-0 game if we have to, but we don’t set out to do it that way. Not in our tradition.
That’s no longer the case. I have spent a lot of painful time with YouTube videos of United games under Fergie and what stands out is that the first instinct of every player, once they get the ball, is to move forward. The other half, the other penalty-box, that is the target. In contrast, Mourinho’s United team have a very different first instinct: don’t make a mistake. They play completely scared. Don’t fuck up or he’ll get on our backs.
It’s even more seriously depressing that the old rivalries can’t be sustained at the moment. Of course, the old bedrock animosities towards the Scousers and the Bitters never dissipate, but by common consensus, these two teams are playing the best football going at the moment, and what’s worse they are playing the football we would normally associate with United. We should be these teams: we are not and we are light years away from being able to match them over anything longer than possible 90 minutes of a Derby.
When the rivalry with hated rivals runs out of steam, maintaining the energy of support becomes proportionately more difficult.
By the time Friday comes round, the Transfer Window will have closed. Pogba may have gone. There’s talk today of shipping Juan Mata out. There does not seem to be talk of United bringing in any serious targets. The pursuit of Jerome Boateng, whose record as a centre back is no better than any of the coterie we already have, comes over as more of an urge to buy for the sake of buying. That’s not how United should be behaving.
It’s now been five years since the last title. The last time we went that long, it was twenty six years before the duck was broken. It’s beginning to look like we may have to go a lot longer. Already, the feel is that the big players are not keen to come to United, because they have a realistic appraisal of our chances to win the big trophies, and they don’t want to play football the way we play it.
That’s a death spiral. And we may be in one already, if Mourinho stays the whole season.
It begins again on Friday night. Emotionally, it hasn’t got me with it yet. Not since the early Eighties.