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
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