Underwhelming results on both domestic and European fronts.
An ageing, totemic club captain creating unwanted headlines. Controversy over the public criticism of players. A megalomaniac, authoritarian manager some observers believe to be past his sell-by date and in danger of losing the plot. To say that Manchester United are anywhere near crisis point as they fight for their survival in the Europa League would be overstating the case but it is noteworthy that the side preparing for Thursday’s crucial match against Feyenoord does have plenty in common with the most recent version of the club to exit European competition in ignominy before Christmas. Should they lose against Feyenoord and Fenerbahce beat Zorya, United will be bounced out of Europe before the festive season for the first time in more than a decade. On that occasion there were no shortage of distress flares to be seen in the sky over Old Trafford.
While many United fans have argued that early elimination from the Europa League might not be cause to reach for the smelling salts, the furious reaction of José Mourinho to what he described as his team’s lazy effort in defeat against Fenerbahce suggests he might not necessarily agree with them. As well as offering backdoor entry into the Champions League during a season in which his team have so far come up short in their attempts to navigate the usual course, failure to progress to the knockout stages of European football’s second tier competition would be a conspicuous one for a manager hardly renowned for his magnanimity towards those who specialise in, or even flirt with, lack of success.
United’s embarrassment in 2005-06 was certainly acute. Fresh from the hostile takeover of their current owners, the Glazers, Sir Alex Ferguson’s side qualified for that season’s Champions League after finishing third in the title race before seeing off the Hungarian champions, Debrecen, in qualifying to earn their place in the group stages. They would advance no further despite being drawn against what should have been a reasonably straightforward opposition in Villarreal, Benfica and Lille. Fans already angry at the seizure of their club by unwanted American interlopers were left incensed when they finished bottom, after allowing the Portuguese champions to come from behind and beat them at the Estádio da Luz. Such were the reverberations, referee Kyros Vassas’s final whistle prompted a glut of epitaphs for Ferguson’s career that would turn out to be hilariously premature, but at the time the Scot was widely perceived to be a busted flush and looked certain to be fired come season’s end after a reign spanning just shy of 20 years.
It was a season that started badly for Manchester United and went quickly downhill. The first serious fissure in the relationship between Ferguson and his captain, Roy Keane, had appeared at a pre-season training camp at Vale de Lobo in Portugal. Organised by Ferguson’s right-hand man Carlos Queiroz, it was not the first time in his career Keane had decided temporary facilities were not to his liking and he made no secret of his extreme displeasure.
His apparently incessant grumbling eventually led to a confrontation between himself and Ferguson; “a real set-to”, the Scot would later write in his autobiography. It was also a frank exchange of views that would signal the beginning of the end of relations between the pair and ultimately lead to Keane’s departure from the club. “We were both being childish,” the Irishman later conceded.
Things got worse. Early in the Premier League season, Keane broke his foot playing against Liverpool in a match that would prove to be his last for the club he had served for more than 12 years. He would play his next game for Celtic in the less glamorous football environs of Cumbernauld, where he made his debut in a humiliating defeat against Clyde for the team he had supported since he was a boy.
United’s Champions League campaign had got off to a middling start with a scoreless draw against Villarreal and, without Keane, they beat Benfica and drew with Lille at Old Trafford. After a 4-1 league humbling at Middlesbrough, the injured captain was invited on to MUTV to offer his opinions on the game and famously cut loose in an interview that would never see the light of day. Its content was, however, leaked into the public domain and made for fascinating reading.
Keane had been merciless in his criticism of players he felt disgraced themselves in his absence, singling out John O’Shea, Kieran Richardson, Darren Fletcher, Edwin van der Sar, Alan Smith and Liam Miller (who had not played) among those who he believed were not pulling their weight. Rio Ferdinand, in particular, was left in little doubt about what Keane thought of him. “Just because you are paid £120,000 a week and play well for 20 minutes against Tottenham, you think you’re a superstar,” was the withering assessment.
At the behest of United’s chief executive, David Gill, backed by Ferguson, the video was shelved and destroyed. “Like it was a nuclear weapon or something,” Keane would later write. “Did someone drive out to the countryside and bury it in the fuckin’ ground? Or did a bomb-disposal unit come and destroy it?”
Whatever way United’s in-house biohazard team disposed of the toxic material, the video was not the only thing to go. After it was shown to the players, who Keane has since insisted seemed fairly unfazed by what they saw and heard, the captain tore into Queiroz again. Onwards and upwards: Ferguson claims he was next to feel the lash of the Irishman’s tongue over his own fractious disagreement with the former Manchester United shareholder John Magnier. That particular Irishman had fallen out with Ferguson over the ownership of the cashpoint-on-hooves that is the retired racehorse and stallion Rock Of Gibraltar.
In choosing to go to war with Magnier, Ferguson had made the rare mistake of picking a fight he had little or no chance of winning and it is far from ridiculous to suggest that, as well as being a source of personal embarrassment for the Scot, the Rock Of Gibraltar affair ultimately led to Manchester United ending up in the hands of the Glazers. Using the tawdry episode as a cudgel with which to beat Ferguson was never going to end well for Keane, although he has since denied that it was during the fallout from his MUTV interview he raised the subject of his manager’s equine interest and its interference with his work at Manchester United.
“What I noticed about him that day as I was arguing with him was that his eyes started to narrow, almost to wee black beads,” Ferguson would later recall. “It was frightening to watch. And I’m from Glasgow.” Some time later, Keane turned up for a long overdue “mediation session” only to be stunned by the news that he was being sacked.
In their first match after their Middlesbrough debacle and its messy aftermath United were beaten by Lille and they could only draw their next Champions League match at home to Villarreal four days after Keane’s departure from the club. With their chances of advancing to the knockout stages still alive they travelled to Lisbon for their final group game, where Paul Scholes’s early opener in front of 61,000 people was cancelled out by a Geovanni diving header. A 20-yard drive from Beto before the interval consigned United to defeat and left Ferguson facing serious questions about his future as Manchester United manager.
He would answer them fairly emphatically, steadying the ship to steer his team to second place in the Premier League, before defying all expectation by winning it the following season and reaching the Champions League semi-finals.
That was then and this is now: a spookily similar season in which negative news stories have once again focused on the club’s disaffected captain, the flaming and shaming of various players and mixed results on both domestic and European fronts.
Despite his side’s uncharacteristically feeble assault on Europe, Ferguson was able to placate fans by turning things around to prove what many perceived to be an impending crisis was little more than a temporary blip. On Sky Sports last weekend, Gary Neville repeatedly spoke of the much-needed “statement win” that continues to elude Manchester United under Mourinho. They will need to beat better opposition than Feyenoord to record it but defeat at the hands of the Dutch side would be a significant statement loss.
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