Everything Burns: Why United’s golden age COULD be over

June 22, 2012 in Premier League

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I know, I know, never write United off. To say that they won’t be competing for titles is to say that Clark Kent isn’t Superman. Old man Ferguson is probably still the best manager in the world even now, and his canny ability to get the best even out of lesser players is probably unmatched in the history of the game. It strains credulity to the point where it might as well be magic. And to say that this is tempting fate is a massive understatement. Tempting fate would taking a picture of Phil Jones next to a headless chicken and saying that they could basically be twins, tempting fate would be to say that Jonny Evans feels like a profound long-term bomb that Ferguson will stick with long after he should. No, this is basically slapping a lion in the face with its paw, asking why it is hitting itself. But fuck it, my team just won the Premier League for the first time, and there’s never been a time to make a sweeping statement you’ll probably regret like now. I think the second best team in Manchester’s Golden Age ended when City won that title on May 18th. I think their time as the definitive top dog in British football is over. Not to say they won’t win titles, or even win next year, but that overlord status, the default Premier League winner being United? Yeah, that’s part of history now, I think.

I don’t say this entirely out of fan bluster; I think very much that Man City will win precisely jack next year, and our challenge will be how we deal with that. But going into the 2012/13 season, in terms of quality at least, I think United have the third best team on paper. United fans will scream and cry about that, probably shout about Shinji Kagawa and losing on goal difference etc. But assuming Chelsea revamp their team with several of the most talented and fearsome players in the world, as one has to assume they will, they’ll be back with a renewed vigour. And City, whose team managed to topple United despite endless in-fighting, scandal and squabbling and seemingly a complete lack of team spirit, something that we only seemed to see in those final 6 games. They already have better players than United, but now they will be more harmonious, more familiar with what works and what doesn’t. Not to mention the boost of being title winners.  United with its ageing central midfield, inconsistent defence (Evra, Evans, Jones and the ageing Ferdinand were all weak points during various points of last year) will certainly compete to the end, they have a better manager than either by miles, but I think they’ll start third on the grid, unless Abramovich has a drastic change of heart with his money. Call me crazy.

And then there’s the challenge. Throughout Ferguson’s period of record-breaking domination, it has felt that they’ve only ever really had to deal with one foe at a time, defeating one before the next reared its head. They downed Blackburn before Newcastle came along, they slew Newcastle before Arsenal came along, and Arsenal just about faded as Chelsea came along, and Chelsea fell to pieces in the very year Man City mounted their first challenge. So the pattern was always there. But I think United had to beat City to the title to restore the order. And if they had? Who knows. Perhaps Mancini would have got sacked, perhaps it would have thrown the team into chaos, caused the Abu Dhabi conglomerate to panic spend, and put the team back to 2009. Then when Chelsea 2.0 came at them this year, full of players attracted by that shiny Champions League trophy, they would have been the only ones United were dealing with, the mind games could be played, and Ferguson could outsmart the green Di Matteo. Then maybe he would have been sacked, and the ride goes round and round. But they didn’t put City down. So now they face a first, legitimate 3-way challenge, with two teams that at the very least won’t be considered worse then them. It’s always been a duel, now it’s going to be thunderdome. And more importantly, I don’t think either of these teams are going to go away. So while United will still win titles, I’m sure of it, they won’t win them like they used to. They won’t win eight out of ten or five out of seven; I imagine these three teams, and who knows maybe Arsenal and Tottenham if they build on where they are now, will share the spoils. But it will be much less than United knew in the 90′s and 00′s.

This isn’t necessarily about whether they win next year, they probably will, if only because I wrote this article. It’s more that the influx of billions in Chelsea and City has left the rags with the toughest challenge I think they’ve ever had - to maintain their alpha dog status as the kings of English football, as they were emphatically for the last 20 years. And I think that might mean three of the next ten titles instead of six, and while they’ll still be a force, a monolith in the game, they won’t be what they were. In part because of what they were was so unimaginably good, but I say all the same. Their golden age is over.