In football, history can easily repeat itself, and for anyone that can remember the early to mid-1970’s, what is happening at Old Trafford this season has a disturbingly similar feeling about it.
In 1974, Manchester United were still stumbling and in a period of transition following the departure of a footballing knight, Sir Matt Busby. He had delivered the club years of success on the pitch and stability off it – he was going to be a hard act to follow.
Two managers had been tried in the five years since Sir Matt left, but Wilf McGuinness and Frank O’Farrell had done nothing to stop United’s slide from being title contenders to also rans. Even a brief return of Busby himself had not worked.
Tommy Docherty was brought in and he quickly assessed what needed to happen – the generation who had achieved so much but had now reached their sell-by date needed to be moved on, along with those who had been brought in but were failing to deliver.
Docherty’s philosophy was to trust youth, one that tallied with the club’s long-held belief. But the revolution, however well meant, was soon in trouble. A worrying possibility began to emerge that relegation could happen, but surely Manchester United were too big to go down.
This was a belief that was held almost to the moment they were relegated to the old Second Division. Sound familiar?
This current Manchester United side have made their worst start in Premier League history and sit just two points above the relegation zone. As in 1974, there are reasons for the decline that are beyond the control of the current manager.
Not only has Sir Alex Ferguson, one of the greats of management, not been properly replaced, but it has become clear that his departure has exposed huge issues that are the inevitable consequence of an ownership that is more interested in dividends than winning trophies. Ferguson’s genius had helped to cover up a corporate approach to the transfer market that has subsequently been revealed to be disastrous.
Like Docherty, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has looked to move on those that were viewed inadequate at Old Trafford and replaced them with youth from within the club or elsewhere. But, once again, their seems to be an irreversible slide happening, and since the end of August, United have scored just two Premier League goals.
The club’s serial incompetence now sees them with the biggest wage bill in the Premier League, but with insufficient quality in depth to justify it, let alone cover any temporary injury crisis.
This is a club with the most substantial cash reserves in world football, so even the unpopular Glazers would appreciate the need to buy big in January, if they can tempt anyone to join the sinking ship.
Unless something happens urgently to turn around United and Solskjaer’s fortunes, we might see the unthinkable happen. And for those who insist it can’t, that’s what was said in 1974.