How Revelling In Man United's Downfall Became A Global Pasttime
One of the more entertaining elements of MCFC.co.uk is a feature called “Rewind”. About 48 hours ahead of most Manchester City matches, some old TV highlights of a previous match with our next opposition is dug out. Classically, this would an Elton Welsby era Granada highlights package like last week’s offering of a 1990 clash between City and Sheffield Wednesday, featuring luminaries like Alan Harper and Peter Shirtliff and the Owls giving us a useful reminder that horrendous away kits have been with us longer than we think.
Very often there are only fragments of games available, but these matches do serve to remind me that Martin Tyler has had a very long career and that David White was important part of my young adulthood.
The fact that so little television footage is available is indicative of the fact that before the Premier League arrived in 1992, football as an entertainment was consumed almost exclusively from within a stadium. Understanding how rare (and often randomly chosen) televised football was in those days is something my kids simply cannot compute. They think that footballers from deep history like Gary Lineker or Graeme Souness or Glenn Hoddle regularly played matches that kicked off at 1730 on a Saturday and can’t understand why their OPTA stats and heat maps aren’t widely available. I am merely grateful that they do know that Lineker did something before he became the presenter of Match of the Day.
I am fortunate that my day job has taken me all over the world, and over the last fifteen years I have moved from rushing back to the hotel business centre on a Saturday evening to check the scores on a rickety dial-up connection – a bit like how I would watch the Grandstand vidiprinter in the shop window of Radio Rentals back in the day - to Premier League (and increasingly Championship) football being ubiquitous wherever I go.
Last weekend, work took me to Dubai, and to a regular haunt, a bar called Goodfellas. It’s in a part of town called Bur Dubai, which the locals will tell you is not where the investment and construction action has been for at least a couple of decades. In the unlikely event of Dubai having a hipster community at some point in the future, this is where the Meatpacking district will be.
The place itself is lit just about sufficiently to see the taps on the bar from the entrance, but it’s a close-run thing. Something seems odd, strangely dated. Then I realise that smoking is allowed in this place. The beer would not impress a visitor from the Campaign for Real Ale.
But around the bar, about twenty television screens sprout from the walls. The Ryder Cup and 20/20 cricket are on a handful of these and a Rugby Union international between Australia and South Africa will be accommodated later. If someone wanted it (and they sometimes do), then a screen will be given over to today’s offering from La Liga or the Bundesliga and I am sure that the management are used to dealing about once every three months with a travelling salesman from Wigan who wants the Rugby League on.
However, English football is utterly dominant. Goodfellas used to show several matches simultaneously on a Saturday afternoon, but the day I was there, presumably due to a change in the local rights deal, there were the Merseyside and North London derby matches bookending just one traditional Saturday afternoon kick-off. Interestingly, the alternative was from the Championship. Nottingham Forest and Brighton and Hove Albion fans were well catered for.
With Richard Keys presenting and Gray and Souness punditing in a big-budget studio, it all feels a bit Sky in 2006. Instead of just taking a feed of multiple games with minimal ceremony, the product is presented in a very polished, controlled and proscribed manner. Wearing my business head, that’s a very good marketing decision. As a fan, I hate it with a passion, but I am a commercial traveller taking a free ride on a product designed to appeal and be paid for by someone entirely different.
This all meant that I had to turn a necessity into a virtue. My beloved City hadn’t made the cut today. In their place, I would be watching Manchester United take on West Ham at Old Trafford. I’d not seen the Reds play since the last Derby match (I am told there have been some changes since then) and if we’re going to watch a game from another continent, it sort of seems appropriate that it’s them.
Of course, I couldn’t resist complaining loudly to an unamused barman that the omission of prawn sandwiches from the bar menu was a scandalous oversight. His contemptuous look made it clear that “yeah pal, you’re only the 207th witty City fan who has said that”.
I won’t get into the detail of the game. Others will write about both United and West Ham on Sabotage Times with more wit, insight and objectivity than I. But it did enhance the sense of deja-vu. Twenty years ago, I have clear memories of sunlit autumnal afternoons in Manchester watching a team of some attacking intent but clear emotional, defensive and organisational flaws scrape victories over West Ham – who by the way, are for good or ill, at exactly the same level now as they were in 1994. It was like watching United as managed by Brian Horton, and I feel for the poor souls in the stands. It is an exhausting experience to watch such games.
Something else has changed. I clearly remember watching United play Bolton Wanderers about ten years ago in a bar in Wan Chai in Hong Kong. The game was memorable for two very late goals. It was 1-all when as 90 minutes ticked up, United scored. The Chinese in the bar were ecstatic. The place rocked. Then Bolton went down the other end, there was a loss of concentration and an equaliser went in seconds later. The Chinese fell silent. The Brits and the Australians (setting aside the one Salford Red in the place) then celebrated with equal fervour.
10 years on, it’s different. United’s two early goals were acclaimed, but only mildly so. West Ham’s response got a full throated cheer with added head shaking and laughter about the way the corner was defended. Rooney’s red card got a bigger cheer still with one Brit breaking into a chorus of “we’ll meet again”. When Nolan’s disallowed equaliser went in, the place was on its feet – and back on its chair again when the camera cut to the linesman and the replay showed that he had made a tight but exceptionally good decision.
United’s descent from the gods to the fallen of the Premier League, mirroring as it does their journey in the opposite direction between 1990 and 1993, is an enormous domestic sporting story – one that offers serious support to the idea that whatever they do, they are the biggest talking point in English football. But make that even bigger. United’s decline has reverberated around the world. We used to say that foreign fans were plastic and unsophisticated. They may never have seen a game live at Old Trafford and would struggle to pinpoint Manchester on a map of the UK, but plenty of people from Dubai to Dar es Salaam, Bangkok to Boston, have learned about cynicism, thwarted ambition and delight in the misfortune of others through the medium of imported televised football. Maybe this is the unique selling point of the English game: Watching Real Madrid struggle (as can happen) is interesting and compelling but it isn’t funny, while United’s struggles are humour that translate internationally as easily as Basil Fawlty and Mr Bean.
Maybe the most globally understandable joke on our planet in 2014 is that Fawlty, with his height and organisational skills, may be a better bet for the Vidic role than some of the contenders we have seen so far this season. That last line is the simultaneous product of a crowing blue and the professional opinion of someone who is paid to understand global brands – and through gritted teeth respects the way United have exploited their potential. Many people are first to market. Many others are best in market. If you are first and best then I salute you.
And this is perhaps the greatest achievement of the exported Premier League. The fish and chips and burgers on the menu at Goodfellas now come with a side order of schadenfreude – and the travails of Manchester United have communicated something that has defeated our greatest writers, novelists, essayists and critics. It has explained to foreigners the meaning of irony.