Fear and Loathing at the Theatre of Dreams

This is war for the soul of Manchester United at the theatre of Dreams, and if putting up with the persona of a psycho-anarchist at the helm, then so be it.

(United have a corner, Beckham to take)

90.21 Can Manchester United score? They always score. Beckham…in towards Schmeichel…it’s come for Dwight Yorke. Cleared… Giggs with the shot.

90.35 SHERINGHAM! (Sheringham scores) NAME ON THE TROPHY!

91.15 As things stand we will go into extra time with a golden goal hanging like a massive shadow over this final unless Ole Solskjaer can find another……

(United have another corner, Beckham to take)

92.13 Is this their moment?

92.17 Beckham…into Sheringham…AND SOLSKJAER HAS WON IT! (Solskjaer scores) Manchester United have reached the promised land; Ole Solskjaer, and the two substitutes have scored the two goals in stoppage time and the Treble looms large!

93.33 (Final whistle blows) History is made, Manchester United are the Champions of Europe again and nobody will ever win a European Cup final more dramatically than this. Champions of Europe, Champions of England, the FA Cup holders, everything their hearts desire. United fans will ask where did you watch the 1999 European Final? Where did you see Ole Solskjaer win it with virtually the last kick of the final?

I wake with a start. There is a sheen of perspiration on my forehead. The clock on the windowsill with its ghostly green glow says ‘3:50 AM’. The alarm is set for five minutes later, for me to be up in time for the early kick-off at 4 am. On a Sunday morning, no less. Time differences are such a pain in the arse, especially on the west coast of this ‘soccer’ playing country.

Yet, here I am, wide awake before the alarm could go off. I never seem to need one on match-days. Dreaming about the past – even the good moments – is a tricky business. Some days, you wake up feeling elated, on top of the world. On other days, you just feel like poo. My current predicament is more of the latter, and there is nothing anyone could do about it.

The club I have supported for over half my life is playing at home, at the Theatre of Dreams. The home of the Busby Babes and Fergie’s Fledgelings; the mighty Reds renowned for our attack-minded philosophy. The saying, ‘if you were good enough, you were old enough’ rang true here. Equal measures of passion and perseverance had seen us rise to the highest echelons of football. The current squad is the most expensive ever assembled. A testament to the respect we command, and the draw of players new and old. Yet, that very same squad feels alien.

The pre-match rendition of ‘Glory, Glory, Man United’ seems to bounce off their shirts. They are good players, barring a few misfits, yet the collective feels nothing like a Manchester United team. Since the summer of 2013, my affair with football has been one of pain and disappointment, and yet, it is an experience I willingly subject myself to, week in and week out. Who in their right mind would do that?

Why would anyone willingly put themselves through ninety minutes of pain and misery?

This is the inherent flaw of human nature. The exact behaviour which is termed as an addiction and touted as damaging when it comes to alcohol and smoke, is wrapped in the noir concept of dark romanticism when it comes to sports and supporting the team you love. You stand with Edgar Allen Poe in the eye of the storm raging in your mind, because you know that he had looked into your soul and understood what you felt, – “The most natural, and, consequently, the truest and most intense of the human affections are those which arise in the heart as if by electric sympathy“, he wrote evangelically. Friends, family, work, commitments often take a back seat for those ninety minutes, every weekend, nine months a year.

Every week, they say, “Football’s just a game. You win, you lose. Time to move on with your life.” Deep down inside, you raise a glass to Gerard Houllier. That old French fool; he knew what he was talking about when he said, “There are those who say maybe I should forget about football. Maybe I should forget about breathing.” (He almost did.)

There is an identity and an attitude you fall in love with when you start supporting a football club, and now I find myself lost on YouTube trying to remember what it all felt like. So what if Moyes happened? So what if Mad Louie and his hard-boiled antics didn’t work? The self-proclaimed Special One had been brought in to salvage the club’s reputation in a marriage of convenience. The club has made its intentions clear. Short term success is the aim. A couple of young players have been kept in the mix to placate the fans, but the focus has clearly been on buying ready-made talents to win trophies.

“I used to roll the dice

Feel the fear in my enemy’s eyes

Listened as the crowd would sing

Now the old king is dead long live the king”

With his engine charred and running on empty, Rooney’s return to his boyhood club was inevitable. Michael Carrick is the only player remaining from that era when United won three Premier League titles on the trot and lifted the Champions League trophy in Moscow to boot. When that team set foot on turf, home or away, I knew we had come to conquer.

There was a time when United had a player who was referred to as the King. Today, the memories of knighthoods and royalty have a tinge of sepia, and is only found in the box seats. Players on the pitch go by underhanded nicknames and crass unmentionables. This is when it really sinks in.

“I think history repeats itself. The cycles repeat themselves. But cycles change and that’s where we probably, as a club, are more aware than anyone because we know it does happen. That’s why we try to be one step ahead of everyone.

– Alex  Ferguson

Sir Alex was the only constant at United from 1986 to 2013, and he’s gone too. Players and managers come and go, and in some cases, the stadium changes its facade as well. What is it that we are cheering for, then? The badge? The shirt? The city? What do we do when our identity has been forsaken? United don’t have the luxury with which Barcelona swaggers about, draping themselves in their extraordinary commitment to the Catalan cause, nor can we keep playing the Busby Babes card almost 50 years since the incident. When Real Madrid’s Galacticos v1 hit the ground with a sorry-sounding splat, we all had a good laugh. What do you do when the same fate befalls you, that you once trolled others for?

Last season saw Manchester United somehow win 2 out of a possible 4 titles we played for. While our goal scoring woes continued thanks to a combination of poor finishing, rotten luck, and the damned woodwork; Mourinho did manage to stamp one part of his philosophy on the club. We conceded only 29 goals in the league last season, which is the lowest tally since 2009-10, a season in which we leaked 28 goals, scored 86 goals and finished second in the league.

United only lost 5 games last season, joint with Chelsea, behind Tottenham at 4 losses. Yet, with 15 draws all season and 54 goals scored, the Theatre of Dreams saw the proverbial snooze-fest. While numbers are in the end just that, numbers – they clearly depict the ailments of Manchester United and its players under Mourinho. We were witnesses to a meek Manchester United. Watching this group of players try to close out a game 1-0, and failing miserably at it was liked being forced to watch reruns from season 2 of True Detectives. Jose Mourinho is no Matthew McConaughey.

Jose Mourinho at the Theatre of Dreams

Coupled with injuries and certain players not giving a rat’s arse in training, and often mistaking games for training sessions, United were inevitably forced to play most of the season with the same tired cast of 15-16 players.  

I’d insert Albert Einstein’s quote about how insanity is trying the same things over and over and expecting a different result each time, but the wily Portuguese probably sees it when he closes his eyes. One thing is for sure though, the man knows how to grind out a win when it matters, and that’s a mentality this team sorely needs. Winning the League Cup and the much-maligned Europa League was necessary for this group of players. They needed to know that they could perform when it mattered, and currently, in world football, there is no coach better than Mourinho to instil that sense of self-belief in a team that sorely lacks it after three seasons of major disappointments and poor comedy.

Once we get past the exaggerated drama of the transfer window in England, it is blatantly obvious that the upcoming season is the most important one for Manchester United since the departure of Alex Ferguson. This team is at a crossroads. The players have the option of fading into obscurity. It is a luxury they can afford to get away with, because they take home weekly morbidly-obese pay cheques. They can come into Carrington, amble about the place, and be dispatched to the bench or the reserves for the rest of the season. Or they could man-up for Manchester United, and perform like they’re turning up for the most decorated club in England.

It could be worse, they could have ended up at hapless clubs who have not known what it is like to win in recent years, or even in distant memory. Here, they have the stage to become heroes of the new age. This is a war for the soul of the club, and if putting up with the persona of the psycho-anarchist at the helm is a battle each one of them must fight, then so be it. It could be worse.

Parashar Thanki

Manchester United. Spain. Cristiano Ronaldo. Step-over maniac. Coffee aficionado. Prefers playing sports to watching them. Anyday.