United too big to go down? We heard that one in 1974

Club face same re­build­ing task Tommy Docherty was handed 45 years ago, writes Jim White

The Daily Telegraph - Sport - - Final Whistle -

Sol­sk­jaer is in pos­ses­sion of a team less in tran­si­tion than in A & E

In foot­ball, his­tory re­peats it­self, first as calamity, the se­cond time as com­i­cally de­luded farce. And for those of us with longer mem­o­ries than we might wish to make pub­lic, what is go­ing on at Old Traf­ford this sea­son has a hor­ri­bly fa­mil­iar feel to it.

In 1974, Manch­ester United were still floun­der­ing fol­low­ing the de­par­ture of a foot­balling knight who had de­liv­ered the club years of sta­bil­ity and suc­cess. Three men had been tried in the five years since Sir Matt Busby de­cided to va­cate the man­ager’s of­fice. But Wilf Mcguin­ness, Frank O’far­rell and a brief re­turn by Sir Matt him­self had done noth­ing to stem the slide from con­tenders to has-beens.

A new boss had been brought in and Tommy Docherty had quickly as­sessed what was re­quired: the gen­er­a­tion who had reached their sell-by date needed to be moved on, along with the in­ad­e­quate who had failed to fill their size­able boots. Trust­ing youth was to be the pre­sid­ing phi­los­o­phy, one which neatly tal­lied with the club’s long-held be­lief in their own in­ter­nal re­gen­er­a­tive qual­i­ties.

But Docherty’s revo­lu­tion was stut­ter­ing. It was all very well ex­tolling the virtues of the fu­ture, but the present was with­er­ing be­fore our eyes.

Be­fore long, an omi­nous pos­si­bil­ity be­gan to form in the col­lec­tive mind: this lot were so bad they might ac­tu­ally be rel­e­gated. Im­pos­si­ble, was the in­sis­tence: Manch­ester United were too big to go down. It was a be­lief that held sway al­most to the mo­ment they were dis­patched to the old se­cond divi­sion, helped on their way by their neigh­bours, glee­fully ap­ply­ing a boot to their em­bar­rassed back­side.

Which brings us to the United of 2019, sit­ting two points above the Pre­mier League rel­e­ga­tion zone. Just as 45 years ago, there are rea­sons for the de­cline that are way be­yond the con­trol of the man­ager. Not only has a great of man­age­ment not been ad­e­quately re­placed, but it has be­come painfully clear since his de­par­ture that Sir Alex Fer­gu­son’s ge­nius had for years cov­ered up the huge sys­temic is­sues that are the in­evitable con­se­quence of own­er­ship more in­ter­ested in div­i­dends than tro­phies. Fer­gu­son’s cun­ning masked a cor­po­rate ap­proach to the trans­fer mar­ket that has sub­se­quently been re­vealed to be about as ef­fec­tive as a blind­folded guest at a seven-yearold’s birth­day party at­tempt­ing to pin the tail on a don­key.

Like Docherty, Ole Gun­nar Sol­sk­jaer has sought to move on the in­ad­e­quate and pro­mote from within. But once again, the record sug­gests that, never mind the fu­ture, the present is slid­ing to­wards obliv­ion.

Since the end of Au­gust, for in­stance, his team have scored just two Pre­mier League goals. To put that in con­text, that is the same num­ber as Aaron Cress­well, Jeff Hen­drick and Ri­cardo Pereira in­di­vid­u­ally.

Sol­sk­jaer’s gam­ble on re­mov­ing the dead wood and hop­ing the young­sters might step up has left him with a squad who re­de­fine the term hol­low.

Maybe that is not his fault, maybe it is yet fur­ther in­dict­ment of the club’s se­rial in­com­pe­tence that they have the big­gest wage bill in the Pre­mier League, yet do not have suf­fi­cient qual­ity in depth to cover a tem­po­rary in­jury cri­sis. But what­ever it is, Sol­sk­jaer is in pos­ses­sion of a team less in tran­si­tion than in ac­ci­dent and emer­gency.

Too big to go down has al­ready started to be heard as an as­sess­ment. Af­ter all, this is a club with the most sub­stan­tial cash re­serves in world foot­ball. Even the Glaz­ers would surely ap­pre­ci­ate the need to buy in the cavalry in Jan­uary. Ex­cept, at the mo­ment, United are so in­ept, so im­pov­er­ished, so lack­ing in di­rec­tion, you could put Lionel Messi in a red shirt and he would pull his ham­string walk­ing out of the tun­nel.

The re­vi­sion­ist his­tory of Docherty’s rel­e­ga­tion has sub­se­quently re­cast catas­tro­phe as a nec­es­sary purg­ing, one that en­abled the re­build prop­erly to take root. Un­less some­thing hap­pens ur­gently to turn around Sol­sk­jaer’s for­tunes, we might get an­other op­por­tu­nity to ex­am­ine the ac­cu­racy of such anal­y­sis. And for those who in­sist it could never hap­pen, that is what we all said in 1974.

Go­ing down: United’s Jim Holton (left) in the 1974 de­feat by City that has­tened their exit from the top flight

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.