While watching the dreary Manchester United versus Fulham game at Old Trafford on Sunday, the sight of Simply Red frontman Mick Hucknall seated next to the former manager Sir Alex Ferguson must have provided a welcome distraction to fans who love his music and also follow the fortunes of the Red Devils.
In a way, his presence underlined that a fan is a fan no matter what happens to the fortunes of your favourite team. This because I also vividly remembered the award-winning singer perched in the lofty stands of the Nou Camp in Barcelona in May 1999 during the club’s finest hour against Bayern Munich when United claimed a memorable Treble in a manner that became (until this season at least), United’s stock in trade.
Because under David Moyes, United have reversed an exhilarating trend, turning it into a heart-breaking trait that has seen them fail to close out games, turning wins into draws and draws into losses.
The stats will tell you that had United not developed this galling habit, they would have been seven points better off, in fifth place, and only two points behind Liverpool in their quest for Champions League football, ignoring their iffy form.
It is not just the concession of late goals that hurts, but the caliber of clubs that have dished out a medicine that United were specialists at: West Bromwich Albion, Cardiff City, Southampton, Sunderland and latterly, Fulham. These have generally been punching bags in a different era.
For now, the Red Devils season stands on the precipice of ignominy. The ignominy of no European football for the first time in 20 years, no travelling fans to such diverse places like the Ali Sami Yen Stadium, that cauldron of noise and hostility; the concrete bowl of the Guiseppe Meazza a.k.a. the San Siro, the Stade Velodrome as well as the more acclaimed arenas like the Santiago Bernabeu, the Allianz Arena and of course, the aforementioned Nou Camp.
Indeed it has been a season of firsts for the wrong reasons. United have their lowest tally at this stage since the 1990-91 season; eight defeats at this stage for the first time in the Premier league era; their lowest placing by this stage in the English Premier League standings and curiously have not fielded an identical line-up in successive Premier League games so far this season.
Optimists will point at the fact that United are still in the Champions league and got the best draw in Olimpiakos of Greece but Hucknall, Fergie and 75,000-plus fans at Old Trafford probably felt the same before the Fulham encounter.
The Cottagers had lost their last four league games, losing by heavy scorelines to the likes of Hull City and Southampton and the feeling must have been Fulham would bear the brunt of all United’s frustrations this season. Right?
Wrong. For 81 crosses and 31 attempts at goal later, United only had nine attempts on target and two goals, one a scrambled finish from close range and the other a deflected effort that seemed to signal the start of better luck as the season nears the business end.
Coupled with 75% possession, this was only worth a paltry point, yet admittedly, a massive one to United’s former assistant manager Rene Meulensteen’s struggling side. If you can’t beat the weakest in the league, how then do you qualify to play against the best of Europe?
The welcome distraction of the UEFA Champions League from an often hectic Premier League schedule will be sadly missing next season for fans who are finding it hard to digest this weird and unpleasant medicine being forced down their throats by such unlikely figures like Fulham; a portion that United have dished out time and again to both small and big opponents.
As another London side desperate to restore former glories and surrounded by a crowd of doubting Thomases prepares itself for a mission to finally push the Red Devils off the cliff and into the wilderness of mid-table at the Emirates on Wednesday, United’s season may well reach the nadir that looked as unlikely as the spectre of Sir Alex Ferguson seated in the stands and unable to influence Manchester United to a routine victory.
Perhaps the best summation may well be in paraphrasing Mick Hucknall; United may well wish they could fall from their nightmare and straight into the grateful arms of the Champions League.
For that to happen, something has to get them started. Because, after all is said and done, failure is to too tight to mention at Manchester United.
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