A United sense of perspective

Posted by Musa Okwonga

"I hurt myself today", sang Johnny Cash, "to see if I'd still feel/I focused on my pain, the only thing that's real."

The country singer, in his beautifully wistful cover of Trent Reznor's 'Hurt', could have been speaking to the older generation of Manchester United fans. Many of them may feel oddly desensitised by the current era of almost endless success. The days of relative struggle, languishing thirteenth in the league, are so long ago that they might as well not have happened; to quote J. R. R. Tolkien in Lord of the Rings, "history became legend, and legend became myth". For those supporters, there is still something slightly dreamlike about the current era of the club's dominance. Many of them will recall the period immediately prior to Sir Alex Ferguson's arrival, when the Old Trafford crowd had apparently abandoned the idea of lasting success. Manchester United, pre-Ferguson, were a rock band who feared that their best material was years behind them.

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Now, though, they've got their swagger back. They frequently headline the Premier League, football's very own corporate festival, yet they still haven't quite got the hang of breaking Europe. To some younger fans, though, they were never a force whose powers had waned. There was a revealing moment yesterday on Twitter, when Manchester United's 1-0 defeat to Chelsea saw very different reactions from the club's followers. Shortly after Demba Ba had won the FA Cup quarterfinal for the Londoners, floating home a volley of which Alessandro del Piero would have been proud, the analysis began: by turns disappointed, and indignant. There were those who were annoyed that the season was shuddering to an unsatisfactory close; those merely just happy that their team, in any event, was soon to regain the Premier League title from Manchester City; and those angry that Manchester United had lost their shot at the double for another year.

The desire of some supporters to win multiple trophies each year is, in some sense, admirable: No club gets big, and stays big, without ambition. At the same time, though, the expectation of success is relatively new, and also quite problematic. For all of Manchester United's titles, financial power and marketing might, it is always important to remember how fragile the architecture of their supremacy once was -- and, in some sense, still is. Both of the club's UEFA Champions League titles, in 1999 and 2008, came down to the last kick of the match against opponents who were arguably far superior on the night. Several of their league championships came down to only a few points. Behind it all, of course, Ferguson has remained the constant, unstoppable impetus. Thanks to him, Manchester United's permanent place on the podium seems effortless.

At times like these, though, it is useful to reflect on those other clubs whose dynasties seemed as though they would proceed forever. Liverpool, in the 1980s, were so relentlessly brilliant that, were you to send them forward in time to the modern day, most people would have expected them to have won at least ten more titles. Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, undermined by his capricious transfer policy and the weight of cold, hard debt, looked for some of the 2000s as if they would reign supreme for the entire decade. Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, had they not succumbed to United in the Premier League title race of 2006-07, might have won an unprecedented number of consecutive championships.

So it is, then, that Manchester United's defeat to Chelsea should not be received with too much despondency. Rather, it should be met with the knowledge that, until the arrival of Ferguson at Old Trafford, the concept of a Double was something distant and revered, almost unthinkable. Moreover, as the old saying goes, "All glory is fleeting". Ferguson is the exception to that ageless rule. This loss, therefore, is not a time for recrimination; but a time to gaze gratefully from the mountain-top, knowing that few can survive this climb, still less survive long at this altitude.

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