Last night Manchester United exited the Europa League after an aggregate defeat at the hands of Liverpool. It capped a nightmarish season thus far for Louis Van Gaal, and one that has been characterised by mistakes and reversals that suggest that replacing the manager simply won’t change the trajectory of the club.
Manchester United, once one of world football’s leading clubs, appears to be in steep decline. This was not inevitable, but nor should it be entirely surprising.
Empires fall. I’ve written extensively on the subject over on Fields. It happens when they become complacent or arrogant, or when they lose the hunger or when they simply exhaust themselves from a failure to freshen things up by bringing in new ideas.
Disastrous leadership also brings them crashing down. Manchester United appear to be afflicted by the latter, but that Moyes was so quickly dispatched after his own failing suggests there more to it than that.
Manchester United is no longer a club that is hungry for success. They are like a street fighter who has somehow ascended to the heavyweight belt and forgotten how to use the tools that got him there in the first place.
Remember Rocky? In the first movie he was a club fighter who got a shot at the crown. In one of the key scenes of the movie, Apollo Creed is in his office, going over financial affairs, as his trainer watches news footage of Rocky training by pounding raw meat down at the abattoir.
“Hey champ, you better come see this boy you’re gonna fight,” he says, over his shoulder. “Looks like he means business.” He is shocked when Creed’s only response is a nonchalant “Yeah, I mean business too,” in a very different context.
When the third movie opens though it’s Rocky who’s become complacent and soft, posing in TV ads and for newspaper covers. It’s Clubber Lang, eyeing the title himself, who we see sweating and running and exercising like a man preparing for a warzone.
Today’s modern footballers are like that; it’s no surprise that with their pampered lifestyles there are a few, a very few, who’ve reached the pinnacle of the game with the hunger and the drive still intact. At Manchester United you see a group of multi-millionaires who’ve gone there looking for the biggest payday of their lives and little more.
The decline of big clubs does happen. At United they’ve replaced a core of players who would have fought and died for the jersey with those who saw Old Trafford as a big cash machine.
That’s the first thing.
The second is that they’ve lost a manager who had become one of the rocks on which the church was built, a guy who, himself, never lost the hunger and made sure the team had it burned into them too. He only signed players who had it. He only kept those who could keep it going hot.
The third is that they allowed themselves to be defined by money and what success off the pitch looked like.
Too many people inside Manchester United are obsessed with the “brand” without properly appreciating that the brand only stays viable as long as the fundamentals on the pitch are solid. This might be the greatest lesson our club can take from it.
But there are other lessons too.
Let’s take Liverpool. During the 1980’s they were easily the most successful club in Europe, if not the world. They have vast resources, a passionate fan base second only to the one at Celtic Park. They are, by no stretch of the imagination, a struggling club. Yet they’re without a league title in decades. They are not considered one of the “major” clubs in the country any longer. Their successes have been few, and sporadic.
Celtic won’t ever fall to the level of Liverpool, where we’ll go years and years and years without a title. But we can be supplanted at the biggest club in Scotland if we allow ourselves to forget that it was hard work and effort, and respecting the fundamentals, that made us that in the first place.
There is nothing inevitable about decline, but there’s nothing inevitable about success either. You do need stability, but it has to be structural. You need fresh ideas and new innovations, but they can’t be allowed to distract from the core purpose … to win football matches and to grow the brand by being successful.
Last night at Old Trafford, what should worry those who care about Manchester United most will not have been the manner in which they went out of European competition but the weary acceptance of that, and of where they find themselves right now.
It’s as if they’ve simply given up trying to be more.
We can definitely take a lesson from the dangers of doing that.