It’s 3:00am Sunday May 29th and Wembley stadium is cloaked in near silence. The floodlights illuminate the night sky as the surrounding streets echo with the glorious hum of exultant crowds. Football’s home is momentarily stirred by the zephyr of nature as a seagull glides down from the morning haze to pitch side. It settles purposefully aside a small pigeon who’s feasting on the remnants of a pie discarded in the throes of unparalleled joy.
“Where have you been Steven?” says the pigeon.
“Sorry mate. I was following this trawler, expecting something to happen…erm, anyway you had to be there, what have I missed?” replied the seagull.
“The whole ruddy thing! It was beautiful Vida and VDS lifted the trophy together, that’ll live with me forever!” *sniff*
“What does it mean though?” asked Steven.
“It means we’ve won the Champions League you twonk”
“No, I mean what does it mean, you know, what does it represent for us?”
Suspend your belief system as far away from reality as you can and imagine for one second that that lot from Spain win the Champions League this weekend. The eulogies having already been spell checked and proof read and are waiting in the draft email boxes of the world’s media, where they have probably been sat since the tournament began. For most people a win for Barcelona represents a victory for ‘Champagne football’. When the planets stand in unblemished alignment this is the outcome as nature intended it. The puritanical amongst fans reiterate their unflinching presubscribed belief in the inevitable triumph of a ‘total football’ philosophy. Gaurdiola and his gang of merry men already swathed in sanctimony pat each other on their divine backs and retire to their thrones where they feed each other golden grapes and such like, ensconced as kings of the castle while all the dirty rascals enviously drown in the moat of sycophancy, choking on superlatives below.
Barcelona epitomise more than most the true values of our favouritist of sports. They put the ‘B’ in the Beautiful game. They are theeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee. Whoops, sorry I nodded off there for a second. Probably because it’s just so, so BORING! If Barcelona were to win the Champions League final it would be the equivalent of us all having a 90 minute cup of tea.
When Manchester United win the Champions League, it’s a lot more difficult to quantify what that means for the club this season. I hesitate, nay outright refuse to repeat the endless diatribe vented upon our Premier League Champions because we’ve all stopped, looked and listened to all that’s been heaped upon us on the road to the season’s finale. I think we can all be adult about it and say that there have been numerous occasions this season where we have not been fully equipped to deal with our opponents in a way that we have come to, possibly unreasonably, expect. The 6th gear we associate with our usual flurry towards the business end of the season has only been glimpsed in fleeting moments (Whether this phenomenon, this strong-second-half-of-the-season mentality actually ever existed consistently throughout the last 15 years is also up for debate). My appetite hasn’t been whetted by the potential of a team with all its powers blossoming for a harmonious climactic show stopping performance. Instead it’s wondering which team will turn up.
Winning the Premier League had its obvious distinctly perceptible connotation. We are now domestically the most successful English club. We have ‘knocked Liverpool off their perch’. This has given the triumph its gravitas.
In winning the Champions League we will be labelled from most corners, as we were in winning the Premier League as fortunate. In some respects, although hardly with its foundation in any reality you could start believing, that if we were to win, it would be a hollow victory. We have been consistent and solid, where European Champions should perhaps swagger. We will be Champions of Europe. But without reaching a milestone as we did in winning the Premier League some of us feel the need to identify what the victory might actually represent.
For me what this season has emphasised more than before, and I know I’m not breaking any new ground with this theory, is how vital Sir Alex’s brand of omnipotence is to our success.
When SAF completed his touchline ban for voicing his opinions on Martin Atkinson and friends and instantly decided to reoffend, he was sending a message to the Manchester United squad. “I don’t care what they say or do to me. I only want what’s best for us!” The squad know what SAF expects because he sets the standard (When the technology is in place SAF may well replace the contract with a ritual similar to that in ‘The Temple of Doom’ whereby he collects the beating hearts of the squad to see who’s up for the fight).
The insistence in the ‘Us against the World’ philosophy is one SAF is not alone in. But where SAF succeeds and his adversaries fail is that he never allows his own ego (or that of any squad player) to overshadow that of the collective. You never see SAF gesturing to the crowd as if he’s the one who scored the winner, as you increasingly do now with other managers. SAF celebrates like a fan, like a part of the family. SAF is a staunch socialist and no doubt this directly shapes his football ideology. He may have come under criticism for his support of the Glazers, but for me this is just another example of how he intelligently navigates the modern game, and all its many fundamental failings as an institution, to ensure the club remain focussed on success (I fully expect SAF to condemn the Glazers and the numerous other similar takeovers blighting the game, once he has finally called it a day).
I like what Sparky once said, that, “United don’t ever lose they just sometimes run out of time”. Okay it’s hardly a bulletproof statement. But it’s a more than apt romantic nod to the ‘winning mentality’, we hear so much about, that SAF instills within his players.
I feel this season more than any other Sir Alex has perfected the art of creating a ‘team-ego’. Manchester United is the sum of its parts, carefully crafted by the boss, and stronger for it. This is what this double-winning season represents for me. (Of course if we do decide to all turn up on the night and just blow Barcelona away then that works for me too)
* Okay we all know birds can’t talk in our language, I had to use Google translate. They could barely speak pigeon English.