United famine may
THE soundtrack for Manchester United supporters will follow a familiar theme at Anfield this afternoon. They will sing lustily about “Steve Gerrard” and how he slipped on his “f ***** ’ a**e” and “gave it to Demba Ba” and ask rhetorically if you have ever seen the former Liverpool captain win the league and, of course, they will bellow “20 times” on repeat.
And, if the opportunity arises and they end Liverpool’s unbeaten start to the campaign, they might poke fun at the 50,000 home fans who are again giddily starting to wonder if this could, finally, be the season they end their 28-year wait for the championship.
But away from the cauldron and the need to keep up appearances, there will be United fans who have talked quietly among themselves about what would have been unthinkable not too long ago — the prospect of a Liverpool-style title drought of their own.
Louis van Gaal claimed in January 2016 that United were “too big, too good and organised” to go through what Liverpool have done but, almost three years on and with the post-Alex Ferguson era rot thickening, it seemed telling that the Dutchman’s successor at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho, opted to sidestep that same question only the other week. “I don’t know what happened in Liverpool,” Mourinho said. “I just know the numbers but I don’t know why.”
There are certainly some of a Liverpool persuasion who will look at how the first six years of life after Ferguson are panning out at United and draw parallels to what happened at their club once Kenny Dalglish quit in February 1991, nine months after delivering their 18th — and last — league title.
United, of course, do not need to look down the East Lancs road to recognise the difficulties incumbent in replacing a special, serial winner from Scotland.
After Matt Busby stepped down in 1969 after 24 years at the helm, United went 26 years without winning the title again before Ferguson came along and shaped the club to his own will over the next 27.
But Liverpool’s woes in the wake of Dalglish’s departure provide a more modern context and a reminder of how quickly things can unravel when your rivals have a very clear plan and you are left floundering, stuck in a time warp, unsure how best to fill a huge void and given to increasingly desperate, erratic measures — scattergun spending in the transfer market among them.
The likes of United, Arsenal, Leeds and Blackburn in the early 1990s were to Liverpool what clubs such as Manchester City, Liverpool, Tottenham and Chelsea have now become to United, and once a posse of progressive clubs gain a head start, they can be hard to rein in.
One of the main counter-arguments to the notion of a title-starved future at Old Trafford is the club’s sheer wealth — they have the biggest turnover of any English club — but if the past five-anda-half seasons have proved anything, it is that money counts for a lot less than it should strategy.
Equally, it can be easy to overlook that when cash is being haemorrhaged on a dysfunctional first team, other areas of the business can start to suffer in time. One need only walk around Old Trafford to appreciate one of the great citadels of European football is in need of an urgent, expensive makeover, and the best academy players no longer reside at United but City, Chelsea and company.
At the height of their success, Liverpool failed to maximise their commercial potential in the way United would achieve to dizzying effect. But that did without a carefully crafted not mean they did not spend lavishly, and there is more than a whiff of United’s recent recklessness in the market to the way Liverpool splashed the cash so blindly in the years after Dalglish left, in stark contrast to the successful, joined-up thinking of their rivals.
Are the likes of Morgan Schneiderlin, Memphis Depay, Marcos Rojo, Daley Blind and Matteo Darmian greatly distinguishable from, among others, Paul Stewart, Nigel Clough, Neil Ruddock, Julian Dicks and John Scales, just some of those in whom Liverpool’s future was misguidedly invested?
Then again, is it unrealistic to expect anything other than a marked downturn in cases where one man (Busby, Ferguson), or a succession of men so closely aligned (Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Dalglish), preside over extraordinary periods of success? No other post-war clubs in England have experienced the sort of 20-year periods of dominance enjoyed by United and Liverpool and had to contend with the fallout once that dominance ends.
Graeme Souness has likened the job he faced succeeding Dalglish to the one David Moyes took on replacing Ferguson in 2013 and having to “tell players — in some cases legends — that their time is