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Butler: Stand up for Manchester United's annus horribilis

Noel Butler, TSN.ca
1/10/2014 8:55:40 PM
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What's that they say about doctors and the folly of self-treatment?

In March of 1998, with Manchester United a towering 12 points ahead of Arsenal in the Barclays Premier League table, a risk-aversive local Manchester bookmaker decided to shell out the winnings nice and early for all his customers who had invested in a fifth title in six seasons for Sir Alex Ferguson's band of merry football men.

We now know, of course ,United suffered a calamitous run of form which included a home defeat to the eventual champions, Arsenal. "Betfred" Fred Done's gamble that his beloved Manchester United would prevail ended up costing the bookie a not-so very cool million bucks.

Ferguson vented his spleen and, in no uncertain terms, let the bookie know, as the vernacular-laced Old Trafford statesman demanded there would be no repeat early payout on a United title.

Well, no need to guess what happened the day after April Fool's Day in 2012. Six weeks later, the Etihad was euphoric as the blue half of Manchester swept United's title aspirations aside in a come-from-behind win over QPR.

History has an awful record of repeating itself down Old Trafford way, or should we say, down Sir Matt Busby Way.

Those preseason whispered silence comparisons between Sir Matt handing off the United torch to Frank O'Farrell with Ferguson inviting Moyes 'round for a cup of tea to tell him he'd be the next United gaffer went up a decibel or 10 following two-straight BPL defeats at home to kick off December.

To follow up, that raspberry they kicked off 2014 with the unheard of three-straight defeats in three separate competitions, which included the champions getting knocked out of the FA Cup and finding themselves trailing Sunderland 2-1 heading into the second leg of their League Cup semi-final tie. All of this has got the red half of Manchester screaming louder than their now noisy neighbours.

It's as pointless for them, though, to offer up Moyes as their sacrificial lamb as it is for Ferguson's successor to lay blame with the officials for Manchester United's glaring inadequacies.

The "playing referees, as well as the opposition" post-match comment from Moyes following Tuesday night's Sunderland defeat sounds as if he's torn a few pages from the well-thumbed Ferguson copy book.

Where he didn't sound one bit Ferguson like was in the timid words he uttered the day previously in the pre-match press conference - when Moyes spoke of "trying" to win the game in the "hope" his club would get to a Wembley Stadium cup final.

"Try?" Well, that's a euphemism for failure. I "tried" to score, but shanked it high and wide. "Hope" is four letters-long and for those who tend to not do as well in the coping stakes.

With a PhD in distract and divert, Ferguson was a master of manipulating the media at his weekly Carrington press briefings.  Not that I'm advocating for Moyes to turn into a Ferguson impersonator, far from it, though, he does need some lessons in positive reinforcement.

No matter how close he gets to the players in the dressing room, Moyes won't ever get close to the respect levels of his predecessor. Like hard fought wins, respect has to be earned.

Moyes can't allow himself to morph into Manchester United's version of Andre Villas-Boas, who, after only one night after been installed as Chelsea boss, paraded around Chelsea's regal training complex in Cobham like a preened peacock - strutting his football gospel as he demanded immediate and complete respect from his players, many of whom were there when Villas-Boas was part of Jose Mourinho's back room staff during his original early-2000s tenure. There in a scouting capacity, Spurs fans can now attest to the fact that AVB isn't close to even resembling the Special One's parody puppet that, in a previous life, had his own Special One TV series.

Twenty matches in, and with a disastrous six defeats already this season, quite remarkably Moyes's Manchester United record stands him ahead of where both Busby and Ferguson were at the same stage in their debut seasons at the Old Trafford helm.

On top of that, factor in that Moyes inherited an aged squad that was thinner on the high-calibre player front than any hairline of Wayne Rooney's.

Ferguson prided himself on building from within alongside astute investments in the transfer market. Tom Cleverley has been at the club since age 12, but he obviously wasn't listening, observing or paying much attention whilst in the company of players like Paul Scholes.

What on earth did Ferguson see in Chris Smalling, a player who only got his first start as a Fulham player a mere 13 months and 12 more appearances later, before joining United for that world famous "undisclosed fee?"

The only thing that you could legitimately compare Smalling to with his club captain and fellow central defender, Nemanja Vidic, is the fact Ferguson purchased both players in the January window. The words "not fit to lace my boots up" come to mind.

Not long after Rooney's infamous "Manchester United lack ambition" bon mots when he was agitating for a move back in 2010, Ferguson banished Rooney to the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon to continue his rehabilitation from an injury layoff.  I hear Harvard is seeking visiting professors.

With much football still to play, talk of the title is not rational, but grabbing a Champions League spot is not that improbable. They are, after all, only five points adrift of Liverpool in fourth position.

Missing out on Europe's preeminent tournament wouldn't be a bad thing, though. It would certainly fast track a much needed Old Trafford player flush.

Then, factor in what a season on the Champion League sidelines did for two of European football's most illustrious clubs.

After falling a very distant six points outside of the qualification spots for the 2007-2008 Champions League, the current European Champions, Bayern Munich, responded to that failure by reaching three of the last five finals. You've got to love that German resolve and, my, what a perfect response to losing the 2012 final in their own backyard at the Allianz Arena.

An unprecedented sixth-place finish in the 2002-2003 La Liga season saw Barcelona miss out on Champions League qualification. The Blaugrana returned to the fold the following season and went on to conquer Europe three times in only six seasons.  

The indelible image for me from Sunday's 2-1 FA Cup defeat to their BPL opponents on Saturday afternoon, Swansea City, wasn't Wilfried Bony's last-gasp winner. It was to come just a few minutes later, when the 10 United players trudged off the pitch following the final whistle.

Tongues lie, but body language does not. The only thing they seemed to have in common was walking in the same direction. To a man, none of them seemed engaged in any form of a meaningful conversation, nor did any of them display a much needed look of anger.

If they did, the response at Sunderland 48 hours later would have been of high resolve and steely determination. My, how Moyes could do with borrowing a turbo-charged hair dryer from Sir Alex's collection right about now.

With the late kick off on Saturday, United will be fully aware how the two teams directly above them, Spurs and Everton, fared. No point in watching in on them, though, because they can't control or influence those two outcomes.

The 75,000-plus Old Trafford faithful will not likely enjoy their pre-match pie and pint as much as they would have done over the past two-plus decades. A certain apprehension and, likely, that famous Manchester rain will be in the air come kick-off. A fourth-straight defeat can't be contemplated, as next up for the champions is a visit to Mourinho and Stamford Bridge.

Currently out injured, I guess, if nothing else, the January 19 date with Chelsea gives Wayne and Colleen opportunity to go house hunting in west London.

Listen to Manchester United vs. Swansea City at 12pm et/9am pt live on TSN Radio 1050 and the TEAM Radio Network.

Noel Butler

Noel Butler


Noel Butler is an analyst for TSN's soccer coverage and his blog can be read on TSN.ca. You can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/TheSoccerNoel and listen to his radio program oranges@halftime on TSN Radio 690 Montreal.

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