Manchester United’s participation in the “world club championship” in Brazil this month might have been designed to make a point about the unhealthy imbalance between the English champions and every other club in the land.
Most of the national newspapers, many of which derided the tournament as worthless when United’s trip was first mooted, have nevertheless sent their star writers to cover it. There is clearly more to occupy them in three or four United matches against dubious opposition than in the whole of the league and FA Cup programme back home. The BBC, similarly, has leaped upon the tournament as a rare opportunity to show some live football. Never mind the quality, relish the chance to say “Manchester United live on the BBC” at every possible opportunity.
The result of the nation’s top scribes spending two weeks with only one team to cover is, of course, that United figure in an even more disproportionate number of stories than usual. In fact, it means there has to be a major Manchester United story every day.
The ins and outs of Alex Ferguson’s future place on the board are the latest hot topic, following on from the revelations of what Martin Edwards said about Sir Alex to BSkyB, the Roy Keane wages drama and the ongoing crisis of the Old Trafford mud. Even before United had kicked a ball in Brazil the WSC office was under siege from journalists wanting to know what we thought about David Beckham wearing his wife’s G-string (we were divided).
That was after we had survived Christmas, always an important time of year for retailing enterprises. In some areas of the high street United’s penetration has become almost embarrassing. Hamley’s toy shop in London, for example, has a whole floor marked “Sports/ Manchester United”.
Even before that, the entire football calendar had been rearranged to the disadvantage of every club other than those which qualified for the latter stages of the Champions League – the FA Cup third round crowd figures should have seen a flurry of claims for compensation landing on Martin Edwards’s desk.
Manchester United are now treated as being more important than football itself. They have become a stand-alone cultural phenomenon which no longer appears to depend even on their connection to the Premier League, let alone any other part of English football.
This separateness is far more profound even than the vast gulf between United’s income and that of the other Premiership clubs would suggest. It’s a product of their unique appeal to overseas markets, which has led the club to project itself over the heads of the people who come to watch the team play, to a different constituency altogether.
What can be done about it? Nothing, probably. Man Utd’s status as a semi-detached participant in English football may become even more absurd in future, but it is hard to see the football authorities or the other clubs doing anything about it. Who is going to be the one to stand up and propose that principles are more important than revenue when it comes to accommodating the wishes of the Premiership’s biggest draw? Certainly not anyone representing a club that is part of a plc.
Perhaps the only person in a position powerful enough to keep Manchester United in the mainstream of English football has been Alex Ferguson. For all Martin Edwards’s invective, Ferguson is the one man whose power the United chairman fears, since it is based not on his shareholding but on his hold over the fans and his respect in the wider football world.
Unfortunately, Ferguson is not really one for quixotic gestures (such as insisting his team plays in the FA Cup), no matter how popular they might make him. For all his much-vaunted background as a strike-leading Govan shop steward, his decisions at United have always been governed by pragmatism rather than principle.
Nor has he bred a team of independently-minded players who might have a view on what United have become. Giggs, Keane, Beckham and Co are not paid to think, of course. But given the aura of greatness that is customarily attached to the club, it seems perverse that there is not one individual there who seems concerned about United’s increasingly arms-length relationship with the rest of football.
United has been a club which has set itself apart at least since Munich, but until recently its ambition was to be the best football club in England and, ultimately, Europe. Now, with the happy collusion of the media, it seems well on the way to becoming the only one.
From WSC 156 February 2000. What was happening this month