12 April ~ Among criticisms of the FA, referees and – somewhat bizarrely – a policeman, Alex Ferguson managed to chastise his club's own fans over the weekend. He was unimpressed by the "quiet, sunbathing" crowd that attended United's home win over Fulham on Saturday. Ferguson could start a fight with his own reflection, but when it comes to the complacency of United fans, he has a point. Old Trafford was devoid of any atmosphere on Saturday. The home supporters were continually mocked with shushes from the travelling Fulham fans.
Fulham supporters are not exactly famed for their boisterousness, but they had every right to denounce their hosts: I have been to more raucous funerals. By the time the final whistle blew, half of the home fans had left. A victory over a resurgent Fulham team that edges their club closer to a record 19th League title is obviously not exciting enough for some people.
There is an odd complacency among United supporters this season. I spoke to one fan on Saturday who suggested that the quality at the top of the Premier League is so low that no club should be awarded the title this year. The idea that the winners will be victors "by default" has proved popular over the past few months. The belief that the league's top clubs have grown weaker has some merit. United have sold a world-class forward before each of the past two seasons; Arsenal seem incapable of growing up; Chelsea seem to have grown too old together; for all their money Man City seem content with Champions League qualification; Liverpool barely warrant a mention.
But these moaners shouldn't be given too much. If United do win the League, the achievement will be deserved. Last month Didier Deschamps claimed that the current United team lacks the "fantasy" of previous sides. And while some of the club's recent flair players have moved on (Ronaldo and Tevez) or been recast in more defensive roles (Scholes and Giggs), there is still plenty to celebrate about the current crop. Far from being a boring, efficient machine, United are the league's top scorers, both at home and away. Dimitar Berbatov is the division's most prolific striker with 21 goals in 29 starts. Javier Hernandez, who has contributed a goal for every two games he has played, has offered fans much more than they could have expected for a young Mexican with no Premier League experience. And, while off-colour for long patches of the campaign, Wayne Rooney managed to pop up with the goal of the season in the derby at Old Trafford.
Quite why United fans are so downbeat is beyond me. They have dropped two points in their 16 home games this season. They were unbeaten in the league until February. In Nani they possess the most creative player in the division – his 18 assists are considerably more than those achieved by the four midfielders nominated for the PFA player of the year put together – Charlie Adam, Scott Parker, Gareth Bale and Samir Nasri have managed only 15 between them. And in Nemanja Vidic, United possess the one truly outstanding player of the season.
Much of the fans' despondency seems to come from the idea that United are not the iconic team they once were. Fans look back wistfully and yearn for the heady days of the 1994 team, that behemoth of icons that lined up in a classic 4-4-2 and still manages to reduce even Ferguson to teary-eyed sentimentalism. But fans need to recognise that the game has fundamentally changed. Park Ji-sung and Michael Carrick might not inspire memories as golden as the beloved title-winning teams of the mid-1990s, but they offer an unshowy effectiveness in European matches that previous United teams never attained. The godlike team of 1994 were knocked out of the Champions League by Galatasaray in the second round. The current squad conceded only two goals en route to tonight's quarter-final second-leg.
While United fans remain curiously unaffected, the players have quietly worked themselves to within ten victories of another Treble. For as long as the Glazers remain in charge of the club, an uncertainly will linger over United. Their fans would be mad not to celebrate the greatness of this team before it passes them by. Paul Campbell