It’s becoming difficult to remember the eighties. That’s not always a bad thing – piano ties deserve to be consigned to memory landfill – but it’s increasingly harder to recall what it meant to be a United supporter back then. Time does that of course, but it’s circumstance too.
United were still Britain’s biggest club in that decade – attendance figures alone will confirm that, as will the amount of media coverage the club garnered – but on the field they lived in the shadows; trailing behind the Merseyside duopoly of Liverpool and Everton. They secured a couple of cherished FA Cups, yet the league form was haphazard and disappointing, the knight-less Alex Ferguson was subjected to severe scrutiny and rumour on a weekly basis, and our prolonged wait, and desperation, for the title grew more anguished each year.
Of course, since then we’ve been spoilt. The nineties brought nothing but triumph and trophies; the noughties replicated the success. We’ve enjoyed twenties years of incredible accomplishment. We’re lucky.
So lucky, perhaps, that our thinking may have become skewed. Our expectations, once so mundane, have become stratospheric; we expect, rather than hope, for success. Routine thrashings are regularly predicted of lowly league opponents, and huge discord and diatribe is experienced when United, inevitably, fail to conquer all.
Last season, still raw for most of us, was an amazing achievement when you examine it coldly: an injury-ravaged squad missing key personnel for large chunks of the campaign took Man City to the last day and the last minute. A City side that received fulsome acclaim, and yet one that only tasted success because, ultimately, United collapsed at the wrong time. A City side – who benefited from a significantly less-employed treatment table – that, let’s be honest, played very well and produced some excellent football, yet could only oust United with one last defiant kick of the season.
This year, after the first month or two at least, injuries have been far less severe. A factor that has proved to be as pertinent as Van Persie’s arrival, Carrick’s form, or the thrilling advancement of Rafeal. The result: United are fifteen points clear in March. Even if City had been able to maintain last season’s form and attained the same number of points at this stage of the season, they would be still be five points behind.
Considering the relentless pace City set for most of last season, that’s some achievement by United. Consider the volume of the praise our closest rivals received last season. Recall the compliments eagerly thrust in Chelsea’s direction when, under a swaggering Mourinho, they racked up the highest points total in Premier League history (a record, incidentally, that could potentially be beaten by United). Most of it was deserved too, yet the begrudging, mumbled, weary coverage United receive hardly bears comparison.
Part of the reason can understandably be attributed to the novelty of Chelsea’s and City’s rise to the league summit. A change in the status quo will always be welcomed by the media and fans in general, attracting a greater level of positivity than those who occupy top spot season after season. Plus both clubs possessed a certain glamour; rich, ambitious owners elevating a club at disproportionate speed towards success: they were a magnet for captivated journalists. But it’s more than that. It’s easy to get caught up in the Anyone But United line of thinking, but with good reason for at least some of the time.
There is undoubted objectivity in some corners of the media but there’s resentment of United too. Whether it’s the disregard Sir Alex often demonstrates towards the press and television reporters, or the simple fact United remain Britain’s biggest and most successful club, but they undoubtedly remain the easiest and most rewarding target. However you feel about it, it’s hard to deny the praise United have received so far this season has been fairly minimal considering their achievements so far. They have won nothing yet, and may end up empty-handed, but that’s beside the point. So far they’ve dominated the league in a way that hasn’t been witnessed in over a decade. 74 points from 29 games. 69 goals scored at an average of 2.4 a game. It’s some achievement.
We’ve seen Carrick attain his best-ever form, Van Persie (excusing the last few games) excel in first season for the club, witnessed sharp interplay between Rooney, Kagawa and Cleverley, seen the return of Rio and Evra to something near their best form, and watched De Gea establish himself as an outstanding goalkeeper.
It’s been a season of positives. Yet you wouldn’t think so from watching Hansen and Shearer mumble disparagingly about United on Match of The Day, you wouldn’t think so from the inane comments regularly made by the ‘experts’ on Talksport, and you certainly wouldn’t think so from the barrage of journalists who have covered United’s season with barely-disguised cynicism. They often like to selectively pick out games from the season as proof of times we didn’t perform, but deserved victories, for example, at Stamford Bridge and the Etihad can easily counter that argument.
It may be an agenda that dictates their views, or a long-held dislike they are unable to bury deep enough. Or it may be that they are right. After all, there are certainly United fans unimpressed with a large proportion of our performances this season. Are they right? Yes, there have been some frustrating games – and the last home fixture against Reading was pretty woeful to say the least. Yes, United have not hit the heights of 1999, or 2009. But how many teams do? Despite some limitations, my view is this team has far exceeded last season’s, typified by some excellent football at times.
A lot of the impressive attacking displays in the first half of the season were unfortunately masked by calamitous defending, and the reinvigorated defensive solidity and resilience from January onwards has perhaps taken the edge off the attacking intent. United probably haven’t got the balance quite right yet but there’s still been much to admire either side of Christmas, and to suggest they have bludgeoned their way through his season while rarely playing well feels a long way from the truth. It’s clear this United team is not perfect.
It can certainly be improved. But it’s good; good enough to warrant a great deal more recognition than it has received so far. Good enough, surely, for us to seek positives rather than search for negatives. But just in case the media is right and United can forge a fifteen point lead without even playing well, then I can’t wait to see this team when it actually hits some form.