Once upon a time, there was a great great football club called Manchester United. It was the greatest club in the British Isles and beyond, across the vast European continent. At one point, in was the greatest on the face of the planet and probably in the entire universe.
Such was its glory and splendour that almost every footballer dreamt of playing for the Red Devils, as they were fondly known.
The English club, at the height of their powers, won all the major coveted trophies that a football club could possibly win. They bagged the UEFA Champions League twice in ten years and reached the final of that European elite club competition three times in four years, between 2008 and 2011, only losing to a Barcelona side widely regarded as the greatest of all time, in 2009 and 2011.
All these achievements were attained under the tutelage of the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson, who was United manager for close to twenty seven years. The team was almost invincible under him. His larger than life presence in the dugout or the touchline itself was enough to inspire his charges to victory week in, week out.
Manchester United was synonymous with glory, glamour and success. They won at least one piece of silverware every other season. The never say die winning spirit was interwoven into their DNA. Loses, especially at home, were few and rare. Such illustrious was their success that opposing sides dreaded facing the men in Red shirts. Psychologically, most of them lost their matches against United even before the ball was kicked.
Even in matches where they were trailing, United could press until the final whistle was blown. It was always a matter of when and not if they will score. At United, it was never over until it was over. They earned many of their incredible victories in the dying minutes of their most pulsating games. The few minutes added at the end of each match were enough for Ferguson’s men to create a chance out of nowhere and score an equaliser or a winning goal in what came to be known as ‘Fergie Time’.
The most famous of such instances was in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final at Camp Nou in Barcelona. With ninety minutes played, United were losing 0-1 to Bayern Munich. It was a foregone conclusion to almost everybody that United had failed to clinch the Treble that season, having already won the Premier League and FA Cup earlier. The Big Ears trophy had already been decorated with Bavarian colours and the name Bayern München was about to be engraved on it, with the UEFA President preparing to hand the trophy to the Germans. That however, was not to be. The men in Red had not given up.
In the 91st minute, substitute Teddy Sheringham equalised for United and less than a minute later, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, another super-substitute, scored the winning goal that left Bayern shell-shocked and United in seventh heaven. The Reds had snatched a famous victory from the jaws of defeat. That stunning performance earned then the title ‘Comeback Kings’, and it typified many of their other similar escapades.
After the tragic Munich Air disaster of 1958, in which eight players perished, Sir Matt Busby rebuilt another team that won the European Cup 10 years later. Winning had become their culture and character. Upon becoming United manager decades later, Sir Alex built his own team from scratch, the Class of ’92 that included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, a side that also conquered Europe years later.
With 20 top-flight titles, 13 of them in the Premier League era, a record 11 FA Cups, 4 League Cups, 3 European Cups, a Super Cup, a Cup Winners’ Cup, an Intercontinental Cup and a Club World Cup, not to mention 20 Community Shields, they are one of the most successful football clubs in the world. However, their current form has reduced them to just an average league side.
United are now a pale shadow of their former selves. Fergie retired after winning the 20th title for the club, and the club’s winning spirit seemingly retired with him. His hand-picked successor, compatriot David Moyes, has overseen the club’s worst Premier League season ever.
They are out of the race to retain the title and could miss the Champions League next season. Moyes will probably need many years, if he will remain the boss, to build his own winning team. But at the moment, losing matches even to clubs that had never beaten them at home for decades, United has completely fallen from glory and grace.