The day did not start well for the Manchester United fan. Bayern Munich announced the signings of two Manchester United transfer targets – Renato Sanchez and Mats Hummels. Gone to a club that had won the league for a fourth successive time and will be playing in the Champions League next season. Fair play.
Manchester United have not won the Premier League since 2012-13 but, before Tuesday's game against West Ham, they did have Champions League qualification in their own hands. The cross-town rivals Manchester City’s draw against Arsenal last weekend had been gleefully celebrated.
Boo, Manchester City!
After all, United could not only get into the Champions' League, but also keep City out of it in the bargain. And the thought of Pep Guardiola's arriving to manage a club with no Champions League to play in was fantastic. Watching Guardiola take a multi million-pound City squad to lesser-known eastern European cities for the Europa League would have been hysterical, and sweet revenge.
City fans had rubbed it in when the move to sign the Spaniard was announced as early as February, quashing any hopes United had of getting one of Europe’s most successful managers. Take that, Citeh!
All that was needed were two wins, against West Ham away and against Premier League newcomers Bournemouth at home. But, sigh, it was never going to be easy. Not only had West Ham had a great season by their standards, with a Europa League spot to play for, but this was also going to be the Hammers’ last game at their historic Boleyn Ground, where they had played for 112 years, before moving base 5 km west to the Olympic Stadium from next season.
For United, it wasn’t about crashing someone else’s party. It was about keeping your heads down and focusing on getting the vital three points. Instead, prior to kickoff, United fans came across a video taken by one of the players, Jesse Lingard, from the team bus, which was attacked with bottles by West Ham fans en route to the ground.
The clip showed the United players splayed across the bus on top of one other and having a proper shindig. Perfect preparation for a must-win game, right?
Crash and burn
It took West Ham barely 10 minutes bring United crashing back to reality. Diafra Sakho’s cool side-footed shot found the corner of the net and sent Upton Park into hysteria. It was easily the most electric atmosphere seen at a football ground in recent memory. United spent the rest of the first half haplessly, almost comically, trying to not let West Ham further extend their lead, and the fact that the scoreline at half-time was still 1-0 was quite a shock.
United found their feet in the second half and, by the 72nd minute, had even taken the lead. When you’re 2-1 up with less than 20 minutes to play in a must-win game at the fag end of the season, common sense would have it that you robustly try and defend your lead. Instead, the players committed unnecessary fouls in their own half, giving a team known for their great dead-ball play ample opportunities to come back, which they eventually did.
United decided to compete with City to decide who's best at throwing Champions League football away. United now have to beat Bournemouth on Sunday and hope that Swansea take all three points off City to qualify. It would be absolutely farcical now if City throw it away again.Who's next in the manager's box?
With the Champions League threatening to be out of reach next season, all United can do to stop this one from being an absolute disaster is win the FA Cup final the Sunday after next. But even if they do, should it warrant another season at the Theatre of Dreams for manager Louis van Gaal?
When he was hired after a disastrous 2013-14 season under David Moyes, the Dutchman was supposed to be the saviour – the man with the iron fist who would take control of a leaderless team in a shambles and get them back on track.
The first season was no fairy-tale, with a none too spectacular brand of football and no trophies, but at least a Champions League slot was secured again. At the annual season-end party, a more-than-tipsy van Gaal had given a riveting, galvanising speech to his troops, demanding silverware the following season.
Thus, hopes were high when the 2015-16 season began. Almost £250 million had been spent over two years. The fans were finally expecting to see the resurgence of the attacking United brand of football.
Instead, all we got was more of the same: another year of watching the players aimlessly stroll around the field passing the ball to one another and keeping possession, but not knowing what to do with it.
There was hardly any innovation seen in the final third of the pitch, apart from a handful of games. Van Gaal continued to field players out of their position in a bid to reproduce the Dutch brand of Total Football, but his experiments failed miserably. For Total Football to work, you need a skilled set of players who properly understand each other. That cohesion is just not there.
That United still managed to compete for fourth place right till the very end and reach the FA Cup final, which can still be called a success compared to the last two seasons, was largely down to two youngsters – Anthony Martial, 20, and Marcus Rashford, 18.
Their immense potential and exuberance – and goals, of course – gave the fans something to cheer about, covering some of the cracks that had appeared on the reputation of this once-great club. Van Gaal has to be given credit for giving youth a chance to thrive at Old Trafford, but then was that really out of choice or the lack of it?
Lessons in history
When the chips are down, United fans are used to seeing Sir Alex Ferguson frantically pacing the technical area at the edge of the pitch, mouthing obscenities and buoying his players. What we've seen at Old Trafford for the last two seasons is only a clueless manager sitting in the dugout and scribbling away in his large notebook.
Of course, every manager has his or her own style. Louis van Gaal is a great manager – he has the record to prove it – but his "philosophy" is just not cut out for Manchester United. And that's the reason he has to go, even if United somehow manage to qualify for the Champions League and win the FA Cup.
In December 1989, Manchester United lost 2-1 at home to Crystal Palace. Towards the end of that game, a famous banner had gone up at Old Trafford: "3 YEARS OF EXCUSES AND IT'S STILL CRAP… TA RA FERGIE". Alex Ferguson was three years into the job, and the team had lost 5-1 to City earlier. The fans had had enough.
Twenty-seven years later, it seems ridiculous that United fans wanted Ferguson out. The club backed him and he went on to win the FA Cup that season. The management's decision to give him more time was one that would go on to shape the history of the club for the next quarter of a century.
Some might say van Gaal deserves similar trust and time. I was too young to know the scenario in 1989, and so cannot tell whether van Gaal should be judged with the same lens, but these last two years haven't given me the least bit of hope that things are about to take a turn for the good. In any case, the 64-year-old has no plans to extend his three-year contract beyond the end of next season. So, why not relieve him right now?
It's been two years and £250 millions worth of excuses, and it’s still crap. Ta ra LVG.