I have a little message for all United supporters out there – there’s a possibility your club might not win anything for a very long time, now you have had a change in manager. Now, this statement comes from someone who is not suffering sour grapes or overt envy at Manchester United’s continued success over the last twenty years - it’s from the view point of someone who did take the situation of their favourite club for granted.
My team were a member of the First Division, and then the Premier League for a long thirty-four years. At the time of their relegation in 2001, the only clubs with a longer tenancy in the ‘top flight’ were Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool. Some seasons, my club played so diabolical, it was miracle beyond turning water into wine they were not relegated before they actually were. This is what led to my complacency. I began to believe it didn’t matter how they performed – good, bad or indifferent – they would still be rubbing shoulders with Spurs, United and the Merseyside clubs. If you look at the honours these other clubs with longer residency in the English football elite have won, they are effectively a role call of where the major trophies have lived for the last few decades. Add United and Tottenham into the equation (fifth and sixth on the longevity list), and very few other clubs won any of the silverware.
I was fortunate in growing up on the edge of a city that had a football team who were ‘English Elite’ all though my childhood and adolescence. In fact, when other sides geographically not too distant from us gained promotion into Division One, I mocked them and poked fun at them, at their expense. How could these lesser teams (in my opinion), who had struggled and toiled to gain promotion – in some cases taking many years - be of any trouble to mine? More often than not, they would return to the Second Division with tails between their legs, but my team would remain amongst the best in the nation. The thought of picking up a fixture list at the start of a season and not finding out when Liverpool would be visiting was something I never contemplated – it was always going to happen. Always.
I relished the prospect of watching the best players in the land, if not the world. With my own eyes, I’ve seen many. Amongst the endless list, particular favourites of mine range from Eric Cantona, Paul Gascoigne, Frank Stapleton, Michael Owen, to Peter Shilton, David Beckham, Liam Brady, Stevie Gerrard, Gianfranco Zola, Glenn Hoddle and onto Kenny Dalglish, Dennis Bergkamp, Ray Wilkins, Peter Beardsley and Neville Southall. Looking down said fixture list, I anticipated with baited breath the thought of seeing the next new hero, the next big name play on our pitch at our home ground. The latest signing of the big clubs would be paraded and playing in front of me before I knew it. It was always going to happen. Always.
Unbeknown to anyone at the time, as the Premier League rapidly gained momentum and became the huge cash-cow it has now evolved into, my club had been punching well above it’s weight financially. In order to maintain parity with the more affluent clubs, we (somehow) attracted a big name manager, with big funds available to him, so he could persuade big name players to sign for a very mediocre club. They came – along with their big salaries. The performance’s on field radically improved – the relegation threatened days seemed a long, distant, dark memory from the past, something we could all forget about now. We were becoming a big club, honours were just round the corner. I looked at Blackburn Rovers – they had come from nowhere and won the League title right from under the nose of United! If they could do it, little Blackburn, we could do same – if not better.
Come the late nineties, the money began to dry up, so my club were forced to sell it’s best players (and cut the wage bill considerably) to appease the bank manager and balance the books. By the time of that fateful May in 2001, we had sold our best two strikers, our extremely influential midfield general, and arguably the best goalkeeper we have ever had had now retired. In layman’s terms, the side had lost it’s spine. The team looked – and played – like a side from outside the Premier League, and it received it’s just desserts at Old Trafford. Sir Alex’s team took no prisoners or expressed any sentimentality, going in for the kill. After all, they had a league title to win – Liverpool were breathing right down their necks. Despite leading the game 2-1 at half-time when it seemed our miracle would happen, we lost 4-2. Many have commented my club were like a limpit stuck to the bottom of a boat, in the way they would remain near near the bottom of the division, but never fell away. At 4.50pm on that unforgettable for all the wrong reasons Saturday afternoon, the limpit that had hung on against all the odds for the last thirty-four years lost it’s grip and fell through the open trap door beneath them.
From that moment on, ‘Match Of The Day’ on Auntie Beeb didn’t hold any interest or bearing to me. I couldn’t even stomach hearing the famous theme tune – for some reason an ice cream van that would ply his trade in our street at weekends would play it too, as to the stereotypical nursery rhymes. I’d cover my ears, as it just reminded me of what has happened. How could I watch the programme now? My team were no longer featured or were even mentioned. We were now forgotten. Second class. Yesterday’s news. It just rubbed in our plight even further. All supporters of Premier League clubs chant from time-to-time “We Are Premier League – I Say, We Are Premier League”. No-one sings about being in the lower divisions.
We were now a foot-note in the history of the top division football. The biggest irony is we only ‘fell’ into the Premier League by default. We were as good as relegated in 1992, the season before the Premiership was created, but due to an incredibly fortuitous result by the already relegated Luton Town over Notts County, my club became one of the Premier League founder members, not the black and white club from Nottingham.
As I mentioned earlier, I have never been envious to the point of distraction of the more success clubs. They deserve their spoils after all the hard work and effort to win a competition. The envy I hold is at the more average, run of the mill clubs that occupy the bulk of the Premier League. On size of support, fiscal clout, and being seen as ‘fashionable’, my team are equal to West Bromwich Albion, Norwich City and Fulham. I look at these teams, thinking and believing that’s where my club should be. We gave away our tenancy without a real fight, but it’ll be one hell of one to get it back. I’d like to say that one day we will return to the ‘top flight’, but it’s just the optimist in me with some wishful thinking. Truth is, we may never return. And this truth hurts. Like you wouldn’t believe. On the scale of things in life, breaking up with a partner hurts less – you can get over that. But this.
So I urge the fans of Manchester United, don’t expect things to continue the way they have, but be pleased if they do. After all, Lady Luck – that most elusive and fickle of sporting mistresses – might be just about to favour some other club with her smile.
Oh, I nearly forgot. My team – for my woes and damage to my health and mental well being – did anyone guess who they are? I’m a Sky Blue – Coventry City are my team, and for all their faults, problems and unbelievable stupidity, always will be. Always.