By Mark Payne
A football match between Manchester City and Manchester United in 2016 is a far different proposition to what it has been in the past. Fifty years ago it was a clash between teams slinging out for the league title. Ten years ago it was a procession under Sir Alex Ferguson. This Sunday, the game will be an irrelevance to silverware, almost an apology to what the fixture has been in the past.
So much of our identity is tied up with the things we associate with, whether that be a brand of clothing, a style of coffee, a sports team or a group of friends. But those things are as liable to change as we are, or the weather, or the clothes on our backs.
Manchester United’s position in the Premier League, the world of football and our hearts and minds is changing. Whereas once they were the standard-bearers for adventurous endeavour, now they are just another enterprise leveraging high-risk and trying to minimise loss.
The football seems to have got lost somewhere along the way.
A note should be made about how good United’s fans actually were at Old Trafford. The full songbook of past greats was wheeled out and a terrific atmosphere was created. How long will it be before another great European fixture graces that stadium? It is hard to say.
Unfortunately, as predicted by this publication, there was unnecessary trouble in the crowd at the fixture between United and Liverpool on Thursday. The idea of playing this fixture on St. Patrick’s Day boggles the mind.
My own take is that United fans baited their counterparts at Anfield by singing ‘Always the victims, it’s never your fault’. The truth in that line just pushes a nerve the Liverpudlian’s can’t cope with. The response from the Liverpool fans at Old Trafford was predictable and has led to charges from UEFA for both clubs.
It could have been avoided. In fact, if United had a better football team and had put in a better performance in Liverpool, the fans would have been less inclined to wind up the enemy. Nonetheless, the United faithful should perhaps have done better, despite that chant not being explicitly offensive.
In the past I have written about the Liverpool fan base and been on the receiving end of hundreds of death threats. Almost every journalist I have spoken to rolls their eyes when talking about Liverpool fans, shrugs their shoulders and advises people to just let them get on with it.
So, here I am, a writer and a journalist writing the truth as I see it. Which is supposed to be the job. The backlash will no doubt be threats to my safety, but so be it.
Of far more interest is the direction English football’s two greatest clubs are taking. Liverpool have been a spent force for a while now but Jurgen Klopp is an excellent appointment who seems to have the enthusiasm to take them back up the mountain. It will be interesting to see how far they get.
United, much as it pains me to say it, are in for a rough few years. Louis van Gaal is not entirely to blame for this, I actually believe David Moyes’s decision to sack Fergie’s assistants was catastrophic in terms of maintaining continuity, but he is not getting it right either.
The manager’s substitutions on Thursday night were not baffling, they were simply embarrassing. Not for the first time in his tenure, when one considers the expectations of a Manchester United manager, Van Gaal’s decision to tinker with his back four when we needed three goals can be seen as gross misconduct.
The man is on borrowed time.
United might beat city this weekend and keep Van Gaal in a job for a few more weeks and the idea of finishing in the top four remains on the agenda. There may not be much fun in that though.
Whilst my loyalty to United is unswerving, in terms of enjoyment, I go to my fantasy league team or Leicester City at the moment.
Things change, United are still with us, but they are a different animal nowadays. We all have to roll with it.
Mark is the author of Fergie’s Last Stand, just £4 this March
Follow him on www.twitter.com/markjpayne