THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

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

Comments (4)
Comment by technicalslip 2011-04-12 11:06:58

While I agree that it would be foolish not to celebrate our achievements this year, I do think the author is overlooking the gulf not only between the 2010-11 team and the 1993-4 side but even when comparing the current team to the two great sides of the 2000s (the Ruud and Ronaldo peaks). I watched my Treble DVD again the other day and it is painful to see how even that 1998-9 side (who were inconsistent, a bit lucky and very scrappy) could still absolutely tear teams apart on the counter. This year, like last, Ferguson has been obsessed by this godawful conservative 4-5-1 masquerading as 4-3-3.

I suspect SAF is on the defensive because he is aware of growing discontent with two particular aspects of his management - team selection and formation. There is never a justification for trotting out Park, Fletcher, Carrick and the now-pedestrian Giggs all in one game - it's so brutal for those watching, this is meant to be Manchester United for heaven's sake! I can't agree that the fundamental change in the game makes conservative team selection and formation inevitable. If you have the ambition to be the best in Europe, which United very much should, then (like Barcelona or Real Madrid) you play your own game and make the opposition adapt. Those occasions when we have been treated to 4-4-2 this year have been among the most fluid, exciting and -most importantly - dominating of all. The worst have been all those stretches of hanging on to a 1-0 or 2-1 lead and the total inability to put games to bed. [On top of that, his man management has been as bad as ever - even Berbatov's detractors among the fans (and there are many) are appalled with how he has been treated this year, never mind getting rid of heir apparent Ben Foster and chucking poor Evans under the bus at every given opportunity.]

As for Nani, while he's had a decent season I am constantly surprised by the adulation for him in the press. He has hardly come on at all since joining United and has shown no hint of maturing and improving the way Ronaldo did after a couple of difficult years bedding down in the Prem. While Nani does notch the occasional wonderful effort, he is still frustratingly profligate and far more often than not chooses the wrong option for his final ball (usually a rising shot into row Z followed by a look which would suggest it missed by a couple of inches). And he can't cross very well, nor does he track back (something Valencia does very well - even Berbatov works harder when United are defending than Nani does!). His passing has improved but I'd still be happy to sell him on if we could get something approaching £25m. Isla or Sanchez, for example, would be more useful as multi-faceted attacking midfielders.

I sometimes watch Arsenal and get a bit jealous about their beautiful football even if it sometimes lacks a final result. But as so many United sides over the years have shown, there's no reason you can't have both. So, while I'll definitely be celebrating, the fact that it's been some ugly, unimaginative and unfulfilled football that will have brought in whichever trophies we manage to bring home (and let's not count the chickens just yet!) does take the sheen off it.

Comment by Paul Rowland 2011-04-12 13:15:47

Some people say you should never criticise the paying public, but - and this is something I never expected to say - I think I can see where Sir Alex is coming from here.

Slag off the ref, you get fined and banned from the touchline. Not ideal.

Slag off the media, they use their superior intellect and command of the language to have a sly pop at every opportunity, portraying you as an inarticulate whingeing half-wit. That's not brilliant either.

Make even the slightest derogatory comment about one of your little darlings out there on the pitch, and he throws a fit, downs tools and hands in a transfer request. It's enough to make you weep.

You can't win, can you Sir Alex?

ON THE OTHER HAND... slag off the fans, and what happens? Nothing. They might have a little carp about it on the internet - like Mr Campbell has done here - but it doesn't really matter because they still turn up next week anyway. They still hand over their hard-earned, and they still sit there, albeit in complete silence. The words "sitting" and "duck" spring to mind.

So, given Sir Alex's paranoiac tendencies, his short fuse, his pathological desire to be universally loathed and his insatiable appetite for slagging people off all the time, the fans are undoubtedly his most suitable remaining target. He slags anybody else off, and he gets his butt kicked. It's either the fans, or another kicking... or he stops slagging people off altogether.

Well that's not going to happen is it? ;-)

Comment by ChrisBud 2011-04-12 15:02:47

The accusations of winning by default surely have much to do with the abysmal away record and the total failure of any other team to mount a credible challenge. Has a title-winning team ever won fewer away games than Man Utd has at present? Not to mention the general level of performances.

Had either Chelsea or Arsenal managed to attain any level of consistency, perhaps the author would be agreeing with his fellow fans...

Comment by ooh aah 2011-04-13 05:20:55

"This year, like last, Ferguson has been obsessed by this godawful conservative 4-5-1 masquerading as 4-3-3."

Is this the same god awful conservative 451 that was used to dismantle Arsenal away last season, as well as in the CL semi final the season before, and has been regularly used since the 7-1 thrashing of Roma 4 years ago?

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