This ain’t the 80s

Depending on who you are or where you’ve lived, we all have different recollections of the Eighties. For those who are old enough to remember that is.

The Eighties was a decade of considerable transformation. The world witnessed the fall of the Berlin Wall, which sparked the disintegration of The Soviet Union, and was the beginning of the end of The Cold War. The United States government declared a war on drugs and Pablo Escobar. The Crack Epidemic was in full swing, putting millions of dollars into the pockets of the Crips and Bloods and turning American working-class areas into war zones. Fashion and music from the era, although sometimes ridiculed, persists to this day.

South Africa was on the brink of civil war. More and more households were buying TVs, albeit in black and white. M-NET made it’s bow and became the fourth channel on local TV screens, after SABC owned TV1, TV2, and TV3. I’m really showing my age here but M-NET was a pay channel, one many South Africans couldn’t afford. To advertise their product to a wider audience, M-NET had a daily 2-hour window known as Open Time that usually aired from 5-7pm. On weekends this would coincide with football from the English First Division (known today as the Premier League). It is during Open Time that I had my first memory of English football. The culmination of the 1989/90 season, The FA Cup Final.

The 1980s was not an easy time to be a Manchester United supporter. The last time United had been crowned English champions was in 1967.

That famous generation managed by Sir Matt Busby, included Paddy Crerand, Nobby Stiles, and the Holy Trinity of George Best, Denis Law, and Bobby Charlton. United would go on to be the first English team to win the European Cup (today known as the UEFA Champions League) in 1968, but soon Charlton would retire, Law would leave the club, and Best would descend into a life of alcoholism. The most important departure however was Busby stepping down as the manager and moving into a directorial role within the club. United’s decline was a spectacular one, suffering the ignominy of relegation in 1974, a mere six years after being European champions.

Even though United would bounce back after 1 season in the Second Division, supporters had to watch as their arch-rivals Liverpool became not only the dominant force in English football but also the best team on the continent. It would be 26 years before United became champions of England and in that time Liverpool racked up 11 championships and 4 European Cups. Anyway, back to the 80s. United didn’t have a bad side. It’s that Liverpool were just so good. In fact, good is an understatement.

Any aspirations that any team had of winning the league ahead of Liverpool, meant that you had to be the best team, not just in England, but in Europe. Aston Villa became European Champions after winning the League ahead of Liverpool. Nottingham Forest won back to back European Cups. This was the bar that had been set for United or any other pretenders. And remember, these were the days when only the champions qualified for the European Cup.

Ron Atkinson took over the reins at United in 1981, and under his tenure the Red Devils played attractive football, finishing 3rd for 2 consecutive seasons and winning the FA Cup in his second season in 1983. Success in the FA Cup meant qualification for the now defunct UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup. Where the highlight was knocking out Diego Maradona’s Barcelona, before losing in the Semifinals against Michel Platini led Juventus. There was frustration amongst United fans that it had been nearly 20 years since United won the league, but there was optimism that Big Ron’s team were on the right path, and a Championship was on the horizon.

Another FA Cup win followed in 1985 against reigning champions Everton. A match that has gone down in United folklore, firstly due to United being the first team in FA Cup Final history to be reduced to ten men following Kevin Moran’s red card, and second,  Norman Whiteside’s excellent solo goal in extra time to win the FA Cup. It really did seem that it was a matter of time until United arrived at the promised land. But there would be no European football the following season due to Liverpool fan involvement in the Heysel disaster which resulted in a 5-year ban for English clubs in European club competition.

Regardless, Big Ron was convinced his team would not be denied. Winning a club record first 10 matches of the season, at one point finding themselves 10 points clear at the top of the log. But United’s form took a dramatic nosedive in the new year, an injury to talisman Bryan Robson being a key factor. Liverpool, who else, would go on to triumph in the league. United carried their bad form into the next season until in November 1986 United Chairman Martin Edwards decided enough is enough and sacked Ron Atkinson. Aberdeen manager Alex Ferguson was named as his replacement.

This is where current Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer comes in.

Over the last couple of weeks, United’s current predicament has drawn comparisons to Ferguson’s early years at Manchester United. A time when media and fans alike wanted Ferguson out of the club. Are these 2 situations really similar? Let’s take a look at some numbers. Alex Ferguson was 44 years old when he took over the manager’s job at United. Solskjaer was 45 years old. Ferguson had won 10 major trophies in his career before United, including breaking the Old Firm duopoly of Celtic and Rangers in Scotland.

Solskjaer has won 3 trophies. Ferguson had won 2 major European trophies whilst Solskjaer has none. Some might say how can Ole be expected to win a European trophy with Molde or Cardiff City. Well, Sir Alex did it with Aberdeen. Solskjaer took over the reins at United with the club sitting in 6th on the Premiership table, whilst Ferguson found United placed 2nd from bottom.

I’ve been gauging the mood amongst United supporters on social media throughout the season and there seems to be 3 prevailing opinions. The first opinion is that Ole is out of his depth, matters are unlikely to improve, and the plug needs to be pulled sooner rather than later. The second group feels, the problem is bigger than Solskjaer. The issue is Chief Executive Ed Woodward and the owners of the club, the Glazer family. Who’s primary concern is the clubs bottom line rather than success on the field. And the final group feels Solskjaer needs to be given time to work with one of the youngest squads in the league. Just as Ferguson was given time to build a Championship winning team. Rather painfully I might add.

Arriving at Old Trafford in November of 1986, Ferguson replaced a hugely popular manager amongst the players in Ron Atkinson. So popular, that a number of players attended Big Ron’s farewell party. Which infuriated Sir Alex. Priority number 1 was getting rid of the “drinking culture “ that he found at the club with Bryan Robson, Norman Whiteside, and Paul McGrath squarely in his sights. But these were the best 3 players at the club, and selling them would not go down well amongst the supporters. But Ferguson is a strong character, we know that, unlikely to lose sleep of what others think about him. So long as the desired result is achieved.

Of the 3, only Robson would remain. His second priority was finding a top-level goalkeeper due to first-choice keeper Gary Bailey struggling with a serious knee injury. Scottish shot-stopper Jim Leighton was brought in. Steve Bruce, Viv Anderson, Brian McClair also found their way to Old Trafford. Perceived “troublemakers “ like Gordon Strachan were also sold. His third priority was a complete overhaul of the club’s youth scouting network, which he felt was inferior to crosstown rivals Manchester City.

United managed to avoid relegation that season, and would finish 2nd the following season behind…….. you guessed it, Liverpool. By the beginning of the 1989/90 season, Ferguson was under mounting pressure. Not only had the club not won a trophy during his tenure, but the team had regressed in their chase to catch Liverpool. With Arsenal and Everton being seen as the challengers, despite big money spent to bring in Gary Pallister, Paul Ince, and the return of Mark Hughes. The lowest point of the season came in September 1989 as United were beaten 5-1 at Maine Road by Manchester City. Leading a United supporter to unfurl a banner at Old Trafford that read “Three years of excuses and it’s still crap… ta-ra Fergie!”.

The moment of truth would arrive in January 1990 where United had been drawn against Nottingham Forest in the 3rd round of the FA Cup. To this day, Sir Alex insists his job was not on the line on that cold Nottingham evening. Club chairman Martin Edwards, who was just as unpopular amongst United fans, also claims Ferguson’s dismissal was never a topic of discussion for the board. What we do know is that Mark Robins scored the winner that set a course for a cup run that led to Wembley, Crystal Palace, the FA Cup Final, and the makings of an iconic manager.

The Wembley spectacular also contained it’s own subplots, Mark Hughes scored a late equaliser in a 3-3 draw to ensure a replay. Lee Martin would score the solitary goal in that encounter to hand Manchester United their first trophy in the Alex Ferguson era. But the Mark Robins goal against Forest is the defining moment that began to turn the tide for the Glaswegian tactician. The 1990 FA Cup win marked the birth of an unprecedented run of success for Manchester United. Winning the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991, League Cup in 1992, and finally, the Holy Grail in 1993. The club’s first league championship since 1967. And well…. We know the rest of the Sir Alex Ferguson story.

Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton, Ron Atkinson are the managers who followed the gigantic shoes of Sir Matt Busby. Managers who tried and failed to win the league at Manchester United. Managers who are associated with the dark times, in some cases unfairly, whilst Lancashire rivals Liverpool flourished.

The post-Ferguson era has brought a new list of names for United fans.

David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, and Jose Mourinho. Red Devils faithful are desperate for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer not to join the list. Things began so well Ole, 14 wins out of the first 19 matches, including away wins against Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, and PSG. It wasn’t just the wins, but the manner. It was like the United of old(not 80s old). Blowing teams away on the counterattack, getting the best out of Paul Pogba. United supporters were excited again. Solskjaer was awarded a 3-year contract. Complaints of premature action by Ed Woodward were drowned out. And then there was the trip down south to the Emirates Stadium to face Arsenal.

Ole and the players were confident of victory again, after triumphing a few weeks earlier at the same venue in the FA Cup. But an error by David de Gea, and a controversial penalty gave Solskjaer his first defeat in the Premier League since he was manager at Cardiff City. Originally first thought to be a minor blip, this was the beginning of an 11 winless run away from home. Worse was to follow, losing twice to Wolves in a matter of days. A 4-0 drubbing against Everton at Goodison Park, and humiliation at home against already relegated Cardiff at Old Trafford. Ole promised wholesale changes in the off season.

A 100% win rate in preseason and a 4-0 opening day victory against Chelsea glossed over the issues facing Ole.Money was spent on new signings Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry McGuire, and Daniel James; but Fans expected more incomings. Dybala, Eriksen, Bruno Fernandes, Maddison, Sancho, Mandzukic, Longstaff. The speculation was endless. Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Ander Herrara were allowed to leave with no direct replacements. Solskjaer has pointed to the number of young players coming through the ranks that this project is about the long term success of the club.

Tahith Chong, Mason Greenwood, James Garner, and Brendan Williams have all made their debuts under Ole. While Angel Gomes continues to be given more and more game time. But it’s the senior players who have let the Norwegian down. Victor Lindelof has made some costly errors. Ashley Young’s post-2018 World Cup slump continues. Though he could argue he’s being played out of position. Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic look like their best days are behind them. David de Gea has been inconsistent. Paul Pogba has been carrying a foot injury. And the less said about Fred and Jesse Lingard the better.

The supporter’s biggest source of frustration has been Marcus Rashford. Abject finishing, worse free kicks has often left United supporters with their heads in hands. 1 goal from open play this season tells it’s own story. But we need to remind ourselves, he is 21 years old. This is a major issue for Ole. Rashford along with 22-year-old Scott McTominay are seen as senior players. As a point of reference, the much celebrated class of ’92 had plenty of help along the way, bedding in with established stars like Eric Cantona, Steve Bruce, Dennis Irwin, and Peter Schmeichel. Ole will also be bemoaning the number of high profile injuries that have hit his squad.

Not all fingers have been pointed at the players, however. As the manager, Ole must take the majority of the responsibility. Currently, United must be one of the most boring teams to watch. Never thought I’d say that. A one-trick pony relying on the counterattack, bereft of ideas when teams sit deep. There has been the usual speculation that United will enter the transfer market in January. But Ole may not make it to January. He needs results to improve, fast. And the next fixture is one that suddenly terrifies the supporters, Liverpool. But this ain’t the 80s. Ole is not dealing with a group of supporters who don’t know the feeling of winning the league. This is a generation that has witnessed their club win everything in the last 30 years. Success he has greatly contributed to as a player.

Making the situation worse for Ole is Frank Lampard and Chelsea. Despite losing Eden Hazard and dealing with a transfer ban, Lampard has managed to turn his young team into a free-scoring, entertaining team to watch. No doubt United supporters are looking at the Stamford Bridge outfit with envy. And Frank Lampard has significantly less managerial experience than Solskjaer.

A significant portion of United fan anger has been directed at the executives of the club. Ed Woodward and the Glazers. Fans feel Woodward is clueless about what makes a club successful. A number cruncher hopelessly out of his depth. What fans would give for Martin Edwards now. Calls for a director of football role to be introduced into the club continue to grow. But the hierarchy seems to be happy with the job Woodward is doing. After all, the club announced record revenues in their latest financial figures.

But record revenues are of no help to Solskjaer who is in desperate need of his own Mark Robins moment. The talk coming out of the Old Trafford corridors is that the club is prepared to back Ole’s long term project as he returns the club back to the policy of signing young (preferably British) talent about to hit their peak and are desperate to join United. Hence the reluctance to complete the transfers of Paulo Dybala, and Christian Eriksen. But make no mistake, when the music stops, Ole will be the only one left without a chair. This ain’t the 80s, but will Solskjaer be Ron Atkinson or Sir Alex Ferguson?

If you’re a Manchester United supporter, we’d like to hear your thoughts on the whole situation at the moment & how you think it can be resolved!

Sizwe Luthayi

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References

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester_United_F.C.?wprov=sfsi1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liverpool_F.C.?wprov=sfsi1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matt_Busby?wprov=sfsi1

https://www.google.co.za/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/football/2014/mar/18/manchester-united-overturn-deficit-barcelona

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Ferguson?wprov=sfsi1