Manchester United went into this season with confidence still fragile even after a promising pre-season and with two decent defensive signings. More arrivals would have boosted their conviction, but it was helped by the win against Chelsea, upheld by the draw at Wolves and then battered by Saturday’s home defeat to Crystal Palace.
Please don’t let this be like 1989, when United opened the season at Old Trafford with a thumping 4-1 win against a London giant, drew 1-1 away in the next game and lost their third match en route to a 13th-place finish. There was the consolation of an FA Cup at the end of that season – Sir Alex Ferguson’s first trophy, no less. And perhaps that’s the most realistic trophy for United again this time.
United have to pick up the pieces before Saturday’s game at Southampton. Another defeat, like in ’89, would bring a sharp deterioration in the mood. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer might be building for the long term and fans will encourage that, but such success depends on the short-term results. He’ll be cut slack since a title challenge isn’t expected and there will be more defeats, but nor is another sixth-place finish anticipated.
United must improve on last season, but the Palace defeat was dreadful – even more than the 0-0 draw against Palace last November, though the performance was better. Results matter over style of play, and any stats which showed the dominance of Solskjaer’s side were almost meaningless – 71% possession but only three efforts on target. United’s free-kicks and corners were woeful, and Palace did what clubs used to do against United – sat back and put it on United to break them down. Frank Lampard’s Chelsea play open football which suited United.
A penny for the thoughts of Paul Scholes, who stood with vocal fans on the Stretford End on Saturday.
There was another reality at the weekend. Liverpool and Manchester City both did what they do best – they won football matches. They don’t look like dropping many points this season, while United have already let three slip against a team that haven't won at Old Trafford since 1989 – a game that saw the famous ‘Three years of excuses, Ta Ra Fergie’ banner unfurled.
Instead, Palace become another unwelcome post-Fergie statistic for United fans. Just like Cardiff, who won at Old Trafford for the first time in 65 years in May, Sunderland who took 42 years, Newcastle 41, Norwich 36, West Brom 35, or Southampton 27. They’ve all ended those droughts since 2013. Despite an improving atmosphere and continued sell-out matches, the fortress Ferguson built is no more.
United won only 10 of their 19 home games last season and had a goal difference of +8. The top four had goal differences of between +26 and +45. Depressing as the thought is, it’s unlikely that United are going to be above either of their main two rivals again all season. They’ve set the bar so high that I’m reluctant to look up at it.
Aside from when I’m sent to cover them for work or when they play United, I don’t watch Manchester City. What’s the point? I watch too much football as it is and quite like seeing my wife and family, yet three City season-ticket holders – an old school mate and his two boys – visited on Sunday and they wanted to watch the game.
I sat half-watching City beat Bournemouth on television, which was an awful experience. They are exceptional – their bench alone had Joao Cancelo, Rodrigo, Fernandinho, Riyad Mahrez, Claudio Bravo, Phil Foden and Angelino on it. Gabriel Jesus and Benjamin Mendy are injured.
My mate Steve is a lifelong blue who followed them everywhere when they were bad and far worse than that. His worst time wasn’t the third division, but watching Stuart Pearce’s early-noughties teams and feeling that City didn’t have money to compete or come close to winning any trophy.
“And all that while United were at their peak,” he said. “With your odometer on the Stretford End showing how many years it was since we won a trophy. But our nadir was the third division and yours seems to be finishing sixth.”
Steve’s noticed a change.
“Now, for the first time in my life watching City, there’s no tension,” he says. “It has never been like this – and that tension was part of the attraction. I was glued to every game, even when we were winning the league with Mancini and Pellegrini. Now, everything is under control, especially at the start of the season.
“Without sounding arrogant, I’m convinced that we’re going to win every week. I can’t see how teams are going to beat us. There’s a bit of edge against the top-six teams and especially against Liverpool, a bit of edge towards the end of the season, but that’s it.
“When I take my boys to the derby, they ask me why I’m nervous because they’re so confident that City will win. It’s a historical tension.”
Alex, 11, was born a month before City were bought out by Sheikh Mansour. He’s only ever known glory. They live three miles from Old Trafford.
“Of the football fans in my class, 12 are of them are United fans and five City fans,” says Alex. They’re part of the Stretford and Urmston supporters’ branch who call themselves ‘Blues in Bandit Country’ because the area is so red.
“Almost everyone in my class is a United fan but four of us are City fans,” adds Thomas, 8, who sits at the back of the family stand with his older brother and dad, just in front of where Fernandinho’s family sit. They shake their hands before matches, hug them when they win. Why am I even writing this?
“I’ve never felt more like singing the blues, City win, United lose,” chided Steve after their 3-1 win. He should have been thrown out there and then, but then he put up with decades of abuse from United fans.
“The only consolation from you winning is that I’m going to write an article about you lot and earn money for it,” I added.
“Yeah, but when you spend that money by putting petrol in your car, a percentage of that goes straight into our transfer kitty,” he winks back. As if.
Every dog has its day, and didn’t it feel like it on Sunday. And we’re still only in August.
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