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Monday, November 29, 2021

Is America the next Manchester United?

A great football club’s fall from grace offers a cautionary tale for the U.S.

Predicting what post-Trump America might look like is a difficult task. We don’t even know if we can call it the “post-Trump era” because we still don’t know whether President Donald Trump will stick around. Will he simply retreat back up his golden elevator and live out his days in Trump Tower, like Saruman? Or disappear into his showy, sultry, sticky, soon-to-be swamp at Mar-a-Lago, like Shrek? 

Alternatively, becoming embroiled in legal trouble after leaving office, could fuel the sense of martyrdom that might motivate him to buy a television station like 

One America News Network (OAN) or Newsmax. By retaining a platform he could pretend to be “president in exile” while preparing for another run in 2024 and continuing to evangelize as high-priest of the “Stop the Steal” movement which is quickly becoming his own personally-concocted, uniquely-Trumpian Dolchstoßlegende, his own “stab-in-the-back myth.”

Irrespective of whether this is the end of Trumpism or merely the end of its first chapter, there’s no obvious precedent that can help us better understand how a modern country as wealthy, powerful, respected and culturally influential as the U.S. might fare after suffering four years of neglect, ineptitude and vandalism under the leadership of someone like Trump. While countless nations have gone through their own politically tumultuous times, it’s difficult to find a historical example of a nation that’s similar enough to the U.S. to make any comparison that illuminates what the future holds for America. The Nazi Germany comparison is valuable in some ways, but limiting in others. This is why America’s best modern analog isn’t a nation at all—it’s a sports club. A football club, to be exact (real football).

While I was coming of age as a political junkie during the optimism of President Barack Obama’s years, I was also coming of age as a devout football fan. In my home city, newly christened Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion team Seattle Sounders FC hit the ground running, with a quality squad and fervent fanbase fueling success both on and off the field. But MLS has a much lower quality of play compared to Europe’s best league’s—often making matchday a frustrating affair. So I looked across the pond to the Premier League, where Manchester United was at the peak of its powers, hailed by all as the most wealthy, powerful, respected and culturally influential club on the planet. Little did I know that by becoming a loyal Manchester United supporter, I was investing unhealthy levels of emotional energy into a club only years away from a spectacular fall from grace, caused by—and resulting in—extreme neglect, ineptitude and vandalism at the highest levels.

At United, mismanagement has resulted in the entrenchment, normalization and, at times, celebration of mediocrity. To be considered successful, this is what the Biden-Harris Administration must prevent. And this is why the tragedy of Manchester United offers an invaluable cautionary tale for an America suffering an identity crisis—an identity crisis in which the country is as chronically uncertain over how to conduct itself at home as it is over how it should project its values to the world.

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In the middle of the 2008-09 season, Manchester United was most certainly not suffering an identity crisis. It was the most valuable and popular team in the world. The club’s airtight defence, including the formidable center-back partnership of Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic with Edwin van der Sar in goal, had just set a Premier League record of 14 consecutive shutouts. Ageless stalwarts Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs continued to pull the strings in the engine room. Up front, the attacking firepower of Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo produced the fast-faced, counter-attacking football that had long defined the club. United sat atop the Premier League, on its way to a third consecutive title and possibly a second consecutive UEFA Champions League title.

This was arguably the third truly great squad that legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson had built since arriving at United’s iconic stadium, Old Trafford, in 1986. Never afraid to put his trust in younger players, Ferguson took great care to integrate top talent from United’s academy into the first team. This was best exemplified by the Class of ‘92, the core group of youth players (Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Nicky Butt and David Beckham) who became the spine of the team for the better part of the next two decades, forging a feared dynasty. 

United’s tradition of promoting young players goes back to the 1940s, 50s and 60s. Sir Matt Busby developed a strong young team, affectionately known as the “Busby Babes,” and then rebuilt the team after the 1958 Munich Air Disaster, which killed 23 people, including eight “Babes.” Just 10 years later, United won the European Cup with a revitalized squad, including “The United Trinity” of Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best and Dennis Law, now immortalized in a statue at Old Trafford, waving across a brick square to a statue of Sir Matt.

United spent time in the wilderness during the ‘70s and ‘80s, with several managers tried and failing to rediscover the winning recipe. Ferguson initially struggled after arriving from Aberdeen, but things started to click for the Class of ‘92 began meshing with mercurial talents like Eric Cantana.

Ferguson’s second great team emerged in the late ‘90s, when players like Jaap Stam, Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke were hitting their best, with the Class of ‘92 still at the core. This team’s crowning achievement came in 1999, when substitutes Teddy Sherringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjær scored in stoppage time, dramatically winning the European Cup Final 2-1 against Bayern Munich, securing the elusive “Treble” in the process. United’s 1999 team remains the only English side to have won the Premier League, FA Cup and European Cup in the same season. This last-gasp victory against Bayern helped solidify United’s reputation for scraping out victories during stoppage time, a never-say-die tendency that caused some to speculate that referees added extra “Fergie time” whenever the fearsome Scot’s team was losing.

In the early aughts, Ferguson’s aging squad of the late ‘90s was eclipsed by Arsène Wenger’s “Invincible” Arsenal side, which included the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera and Dennis Bergkamp. But this United team still featured brilliant striker Ruud van Nistelrooy and reliable midfield rock Roy Keane. During this period of transition, the Class of ‘92 was cut in half by the departures of Nicky Butt and Phil Neville and by Beckham’s infamous falling-out with Ferguson, who was becoming increasingly irked by a distracted Beckham’s focus on building his celebrity brand. When displeased, Ferguson was known for giving people the “hairdryer treatment.” And During one of these verbal tirades after a defeat, Beckham replied to Ferguson with some sass, Ferguson angrily kicked a pile of football boots, one of which hit Beckham above the eye. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back—or, perhaps I should say, the metal stud that cut the pretty boy’s face. Beckham signed for Real Madrid that summer.

Ferguson could be verbally abusive at times, but players revered him. New signings knew what it meant to play for Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. During these transition years, players like Rooney and Ronaldo were lured to United because they knew that turning down the opportunity to play for Sir Alex would be insanity, like turning down God himself. Ferguson was a supreme motivator, but he couldn’t tolerate anyone who put themselves above the club. That his relationship with Beckham is now restored is a testament to his leadership. Ferguson knew how to cultivate talent and let them know they were part of something special.

And that 2008 Champions League-winning team certainly was special. But a year later, United couldn’t repeat the trick. Ferguson had presided over United’s march to a second consecutive Champions League Final, but once there, he was helpless as United were outclassed by Barcelona. Former Barcelona player Pep Guardiola, in his first year as Barcelona manager, was developing a new style of possession-based “tiki-taka” football. Led by Andres Iniesta, Xavi Hernandez and Lionel Messi, his team would slowly grind down opponents by passing in circles around them. United were one of the first high profile victims.

That summer Cristiano Ronaldo left for Real Madrid in a then world record £80 million deal. By the time United found itself against Barcelona again in the 2011 Champions League Final, it had still failed to adequately replace Ronaldo and other areas of the squad, especially center midfield, were beginning to deteriorate. Barcelona surpassed themselves from two years before, putting in what many consider to be one of the best team performances of all-time, overpowering United 3-1 in an absolute masterclass. It was becoming increasingly clear not only that the trends of modern football were leaving United behind, but that United was failing to adapt. United had won the league again that season, but people started questioning whether this United team was actually that good. Meanwhile, crosstown rivals Manchester City, the “noisy neighbors,” had just won the FA Cup, their first silverware in 34 years, forcing United supporters to take down a much-loved banner at Old Trafford that celebrated that trophy drought.

The next season was a rollercoaster that included an 8-2 victory against Arsenal, a humiliating 6-1 loss to Manchester City and a devastating final day in which City—just five years into their Emirati cash infusion—clinched its first Premier League title on goal difference, scoring two goals in stoppage time to come-from-behind and win its last game of the season. For United players and supporters alike this was a bitter pill to swallow. It was obvious that many areas of United’s squad were in need of reinforcement to keep pace with City, but of Fergie’s six new signings that summer, only one could be considered an improvement on what the United’s decaying squad already had to offer. And that signing was Arsenal’s prolific striker Robin van Persie. 

Filthy-rich Manchester City were also interested in signing the Dutchman, but when Van Persie signed for United he proved the power of Ferguson’s influence when he said, “If you look at all the players from Manchester United, the stadium, the manager—my choice was made very soon in my mind.” He then famously added, “I always listen to the little boy inside of me in these situations—when you have to make the harder decisions in life. What does he want? That boy was screaming for Man. United.” 

In the 2012-13 season, Van Persie’s 26 league goals helped United reclaim the Premier League title from City. Ferguson had bet that Van Persie’s goals would paper over the cracks, and he was right. But the cracks were not getting any smaller. Now having won 38 trophies at Manchester United, adding his 13th Premier League title to his two Champions League triumphs, five FA Cups and four League Cups, Ferguson announced in May 2013 that he was retiring. Perhaps he could already smell the rot.

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Ferguson’s departure coincided with that of David Gill, the club’s chief executive. Gill and Ferguson formed a strong partnership in the player recruitment business, getting transfers done quickly and maintaining good relationships with agents and other clubs. As the most successful manager ever, Ferguson had earned the right to name his own successor, coronating David Moyes, a fellow Scot, who had proved his worth at Everton. But the decision of who would take over for Gill was made by the Glazer family, United’s American owners who controversially bought the club in 2005. The Glazers selected Ed Woodward, a physics graduate who previously worked as an accountant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and J.P. Morgan & Co. In other words, he had no experience in football.

So if Woodward was just a numbers guy, why on Earth was he given the power to conduct player transfers and make footballing decisions? The short answer: money.

When the Glazers pounced on failed negotiations between supporter groups and United’s board to create a trust that could prevent such a takeover, J.P. Morgan assigned Woodward the task of providing the “accounting agility” and “dextrous financial wit” needed to rescue the Glazers’ deal, which was “last-minute and desperate in terms of interest levels and the loans necessary.” In fact, the Glazers used only “£170m of their own money into the takeover, financing the rest with subsidised loans and roughly £265m secured against the club.” This “dexterous financial wit” earned Woodward a special place in the hearts of Malcom Glazer and his children, Bryan, Ed, Kevin, Darcie, Joel and Avram, (whose resemblance to Roland Schitt on Schitt’s Creek is uncanny). 

Since the takeover, fans have been hostile toward the Glazers for effectively “seeking to bleed the club dry after leveraging it up with debt.” By 2018, it was estimated that the Glazers had drained over £1 billion out of the club, approximately the same amount that Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour invested into City during roughly the same period.

After earning the Glazers’ trust, Woodward was offered a job as a financial planner at United, and in 2007 the Glazers gave him control of the club’s entire commercial and media operations. In this position, Woodward was a trailblazer in making lucrative new sponsorship deals for United across the world, exploding the club’s commercial revenue from £57.8 million in 2007 to £349.6 million in 2019.

For the Glazers, Woodward’s ability to convert United’s massive global supporter base from a “wasted resource” into a global brand and revenue stream was a dream come true. Woodward was always their star player—much more so than any of the actual players. David Gill, on the other hand, had deep expertise in player transfers and knew how to maintain and utilize United’s clout, but he had opposed the Glazers’ proposed takeover until it became inevitable, meaning that Gill’s own ouster was probably inevitable as well, had he not stepped down.

In fact, in Gill’s final years at Old Trafford, his communications with the Glazers were reduced to “barely once a week,” while Woodward remained in constant coordination with the owners. This continued until Woodward simply absorbed Gill’s responsibilities as chief executive in the player recruitment and schmoozing departments after Gill stepped down—not at all dissimilar to the way in which Chancellor Hitler created the new position of Führer for himself to absorb Hindenburg’s presidential powers after the senile field marshal died in office.

Woodward’s utter lack of footballing nous has meant that since becoming executive vice-chairman, the club’s footballing operation has suffered. But because business has boomed, the Glazers have been willing to sacrifice success on the field, just as business and industrial interests in 1930s Germany and present-day America have been willing to turn a blind eye to the Hitler’s and Trump’s less desirable traits. As an anonymous club insider told Bleacher Report, “Ed [Woodward] rose to the top job because he was adding to the bottom line. That’s where the power base lies now because he was the one who has changed things to bring the money in. That’s been his reward.”

This makes it stunningly clear that the Glazers judge the performance of their team based on revenues alone in the same way that Trump talks about the stock market as if it alone is the economy. And much like Trump, when it comes to looking for qualities and talents in employees, the Glazers don’t see the need to consider much other than personal loyalty. Just as Trump has forgotten that a soaring stock market doesn’t always mean poorer people are doing well, the Glazers have forgotten that a football club is not a successful one if all it does is make money for the owners—the team needs to win too.

What is the purpose of a football club if not to inspire devoted fans with trophies and attractive, entertaining football? What is the purpose of a government if not to expand opportunity and ensure that the poor don’t get left behind? Unfortunately, it seems that the Trump and Glazer families see governing and football as no different from any other business designed to further enrich the rich. But that should be no surprise when looking at the Trump and the Glazer real estate empires and their shared fondness for taking on massive debts. It’s no wonder that Ed Glazer is a Trump supporter. And as if it’s not a small enough world, the Glazers also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which recently acquired passive Trump ally Tom Brady.

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In the post-Ferguson era, United have been shambolic and rudderless on the pitch. However, since the cash is coming in, just as it has on Wall Street, Woodward and the Glazers have shown the same attitude toward demoralized, protesting fans that Trump and the Republicans have shown toward those who don’t like them—a cruel indifference which implies that anybody but themselves and their rich friends might as well not exist.

Whoever tried to fill Ferguson’s shoes had a difficult job ahead of them. But Woodward’s indifference and ineptitude have made that task a Sisyphean struggle. When David Moyes took the reins as manager in 2013, he inherited an aging squad which no longer had to fear the hairdryer. Because of Woodward’s incompetence in the transfer market, the new executive vice-chairman was unable to set Moyes up for success.

In August 2013, Woodward made a joint bid of £28 million for Everton duo Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellain. Why Woodward’s low-ball bid, which Everton called “derisory and insulting,” came in August, when Fellaini’s contract had a release clause of just £23.5 million that expired on July 31, is a mystery. Woodward also wasted most of the summer chasing Barcelona’s Cesc Fàbregas, who didn’t fit the club’s profile, but would’ve been marketable. With no major signings by transfer deadline day, Woodward panicked and signed just Fellaini for £27.5 million, nearly the sum he expected could get him both Fellaini and Baines. Fellaini was United’s first reinforcement in central midfield since 2007, but he only sometimes delivered. 

Woodward’s hapless summer set the tone for a disastrous year in which the team floundered without Ferguson’s magic touch. Moyes was fired mid-season and United slogged to a seventh place finish, missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 25 years. Under Ferguson, United hadn’t finished lower than third since 1991. Since his retirement, United has finished seventh, fourth, fifth, sixth, second, sixth and third, only surpassing 70 points once. After the league was reduced to 20 teams and the schedule was reduced from 42 to 38 games for the 1995-96 season, Ferguson’s United never earned fewer than 75 points. None of Ferguson’s successors have been able to rediscover the attractive, swashbuckling brand of counter-attacking football that used to define the club.

Instead, Moyes, Ryan Giggs, Louis van Gaal, José Mourinho and now former player Ole Gunnar Solskjær have produced unentertaining, dour, painful-to-watch displays. Ironically, United nowadays seems to only play well against big teams when it’s considered the underdog. This wildly inconsistent form makes it much harder for United to attract the best players. 

Every transfer window, United are linked with dozens of top players who have “the right stuff,” like Toni Kroos, Mats Hummels, Antoine Griezmann, Paulo Dybala, Matthijs de Ligt, Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho. But most stay put or go elsewhere because going to United no longer guarantees success. Just as Trump surely can’t get away with saying “Make America Great Again” forever, Woodward can’t seriously think he can continue offering transfer targets the chance to be “part of the rebuild” when “the rebuild” hasn’t gone anywhere.

United often gets stuck paying inflated prices for their second or third choices, players who don’t fit the United mold, or for established superstars who are too expensive and don’t make sense tactically. As Mourinho was trying to put his stamp on the squad with players who fit his style, Woodward blocked Mourinho’s two primary transfer targets, Ivan Perišić and Toby Alderwiereld, incensing Mourinho.

Yet Woodward has arrogantly refused to appoint a director of football (also called a sporting director or technical director), as every other major club in the modern game has done. This would free him up to focus on the commercial operation, while the sporting director would collaborate with the manager in recruiting players who could fit into a coherent style of play. Since Ferguson left, Woodward has spent over £1 billion on 36 transfers, yet the team has made little progress and most of these signings have been total flops, largely because Woodward made them with marketability in mind, not football.

Quality players like Radamel Falcao, Ángel Di María, Bastian Schweinsteiger and most infamously, Alexis Sanchez have all come to United as highly marketable assets and made no impact on the field at all. After his disastrous spell at United, Alexis Sanchez said he could tell after his first training session that something at the club “didn’t sit right,” so he called his agent asking if he could “rip up” his contract. The £90 million re-signing of Academy product Paul Pogba from Juventus was supposed to solve United’s midfield problem, but he hasn’t performed consistently or shown any sort of leadership skills, proving Ferguson right for allowing the talented but hotheaded Frenchman to join Juventus for free in 2012. 

Bruno Fernandes, who arrived last January from Sporting Lisbon in a deal worth £67.7 million, has been the only major success so far. But even this transfer saga was botched because Woodward had already refused to pay a lower price for the Portuguese midfielder the previous summer, meaning that he could’ve been helping improve United on the field a half-season earlier for less money. United were negotiating from a position of weakness, and Sporting exploited that desperation. This new reality for United, and Biden can’t let this become normalized for America.

Meanwhile, despite seven years of mediocrity on the pitch, the Glazers and Woodward seem content to normalize lower standards. United have a massive social media presence, with more Facebook followers than the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL combined. While United is laughed at in the real world, its social media pages have taken on a weird, propagandistic vibe, stopping just short of saying “aw shucks!” after every humiliating defeat. United’s social media accounts turn United from something to passionately support into something to “follow” for the sake of drama. Eyes alone are good enough for a Netflix series, but not for a football team expected to win every week. It smacks of the same cynicism behind Trump’s ability to control news cycles for his own purposes. Who cares if we never do anything to improve infrastructure after “Infrastructure Week”? Who cares if we’re so cheap that Old Trafford’s roof is literally leaking when you can buy a Lego set of Old Trafford for $300?

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After Mourinho’s falling out with Woodward over transfer policy, Mourinho mentally checked out and United nearly imploded. Because of United’s stagnation and stunted growth, Woodward promised to finally appoint a director of football, initially appointing much-loved former United player Ole Gunnar Solskjær as interim boss during the search for a permanent manager and sporting director. But after a string of positive results, Woodward gave Solskjær the permanent job, despite his only managerial experience being at Molde in his native Norway and an unsuccessful stint at Cardiff City in the Premier League. Once the elation of emerging from the Mourinho cloud had dissipated, Solskjær’s results didn’t remain at the historic standard of excellence; they dropped to the new baseline of mediocrity. Two years later, Woodward still hasn’t appointed a sporting director, perhaps feeling he can retain his dealmaking powers as long as a likable, but weak Solskjær remains thrilled just to have the job, doing barely enough to avoid the sack. 

If United wants to get back to where it belongs, then it needs to change with the times and appoint a sporting director and a qualified manager who can adapt United’s counterattacking game of the past for the demands of the modern, high-speed, “heavy metal” counterpressing game that emerged in response to the “tiki-taka” passing style. United must get back to basics, focus on developing youth players and act decisively rather than lethargically in the transfer market to buy players who fit the club’s vision—not random superstars with immense commercial potential who happen to be available.

Similarly, if the Biden-Harris administration wants to avoid becoming trapped in a new paradigm where America has lost all credibility in the international community and all sense of unity at home, then it needs to fight back against the damaging trends set in motion by Trump’s erraticism and polarizing lies. The new administration needs to go back to basics, by rebuilding our neglected diplomatic apparatus at the State Department. It needs to resume the tradition of rewarding competence. It needs to reach out to the Trump voters who should naturally be part of a new left-leaning working class coalition that can push for results on healthcare, social justice and environmental degradation instead of just talking about it on social media. It needs to remember that government, like a football club, exists at and for the pleasure of the many, not the few. 

The way that Trump imagined the world was “laughing at us” under Obama is the exact same way that the world has been laughing at Manchester United for the last seven years. President Joe Biden will go down as a successful president if he can learn from Manchester United’s mistakes in order to stop the laughter that has been heard ‘round the world since Trump first descended his escalator. Don’t get me wrong, America needs a lot more laughter. Just not this kind.

Written by: Benjamin Porter— bbporter@ucdavis.edu 
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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