Friday, March 21, 2014

We ... need to talk (about Manchester United)

Some years ago I dated a girl who was no good for me. It didn’t take long for me to work this out – say a couple of months – but for a time I wrestled with the ramifications of us staying together or of me making the break.

It started in a flurry simply because we enjoyed each other’s company. After the initial buzz dissipated though, the relationship never 100% “worked: the good times with this young lady were fun – we had a similar sense of humour, liked the same stuff and were both basketballers of some repute and could bond over that. But we also argued a whole bunch, and the suspicion never went away that she mightn’t the best person with whom I could walk on through life.

This secretive doubt went on for maybe two months before I summoned the courage to talk to my old man about it. I knew he and my Mum liked the girl as a person but didn’t think she was a great “fit”, which in the end was true. The words my Dad had for me that day have stuck by me ever since: “If it’s only the right decision when you’re with that person, then that’s a bit of a red flag”.

In the end, the truth of those words compelled me to end a conflicted relationship, and it was the right decision.

This scenario sprung to mind on Wednesday as I watched the second leg of the Manchester United – Olympiakos Champions League tie. I found myself wondering how United could look so compelling (at least for the first sixty-plus minutes) when compared with recent performances against opposition of quality.

"My" United - complete with Mame Biram Diouf
United played a breezy first half and ... a second one, completely unencumbered by the self-doubt that has defined much of David Moyes’ first year in charge. The change in personnel was minor, as the team basically comprised a similar XI to Ferguson’s first-choice last year, but the difference in outlook was tremendous. Antonio Valencia displayed a right-sided briskness reminiscent of his best, Wayne Rooney showed he might be worth his new contract while a latter-day-Giggs performance just about sealed a perfect day for the Red Devil support.

To the tumultuous throng, it just felt right. And it hasn’t for some time. The mood of the team (and the media surrounding) has for six months been very bipolar, which manic peaks heralding the dawn of a new era and earth-shattering lows that have the players, hierarchy and even fans questioning what it actually means to be “Manchester United” in 2014.

Herein flaps the red flag: existential questions don’t plague happy teams. Very few such posers have been presented of Everton, or Liverpool, Man City or Chelsea. There may be mechanical questions – when/if to play Player X, Y or Z, for example – but none of these lineups, despite great change in personality, have had to endure the same all-pervasive, low-grade conflict as at Manchester United.

This has made watching United more of a chore than in years past: not so much the lack of success as a sensation of watching a once joyful union disintegrate. It’s like watching myself and the girl from my twenties again form the outside. The good times, like Wednesday, are still great fun but it’s harder to get excited about the prospect of the ill-matched 2014 iteration of United. Reasons for hope exist, but are overshadowed by the club relationships aren’t necessarily actually pointing in the right direction.

I’m no longer 25 and my relationship with Manchester United stretches back decades, rather than a few months. It was a good idea to get into bed (so to speak) with United, rather than my girlfriend of a decade ago – I’m not going anywhere. But Moyes’ United have the image of a couple – This is 40-style – tinkering to try and get the sparkle back, without realizing it wasn’t that sparkle that kept them together.

Good times and bad for Manchester United (and I) are still ahead.

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