The word on the street is that Fergie’s Empire is crumbling and the Blue Moon of Manchester City is on the brink of eclipsing their rival’s long-held supremacy. Pundits talk of the dawn of a new era and the end of another. They have questioned for how long United could realistically hold out against the spending power of their cross-city rivals. For the Old Trafford faithful there is an air of a grim inevitability around City’s (almost) guaranteed title triumph this Sunday. Ever since the Sheiks arrived in late-summer of 2008, the Blues have been edging ever closer, creeping up the league season on season. Sir Alex has held back the flood waters for as long as humanely possible, but when the levee’s break on May 13th and the Premier League trophy heads to the Ehtiad, a new period of dominance seems all most assured.
Let’s not speak to soon in banishing Fergie, Wazza and United to the dustbin of football history and look a little closer at these seasons achievements in isolation. With one round of fixtures left to go the two sides are, for all intense and purposes, neck and neck. There results on the pitch have been largely similar, if maybe not their overall style of play. City have a slightly better goal difference and have put United to the sword in both their league fixtures this season. That aside, the Reds have stuck in there, churning out result after result up until their inexplicable end-of-season choke. Given the experience in the side it is hard to believe fathom the collapse at Wigan and Everton that have cost United a 20th crown. From a position of supreme authority a little over a month ago they contrived to blow it with one hand already firmly grasped on the trophy. However, they were not trailing by 30 points and scrapping for Champions League qualification like some other former members of the ‘Big Four.’ This was a title that City, despite all their quality, had no right to win, given the standings after their defeat to Arsenal at the Emirates.
If the unthinkable happens and City do slip up at home to QPR and United win at Sunderland, Ferguson will be hailed as a genius, once again outfoxing the young pretenders. If City do as is expected and win the game, the media will print the reverse. It is most likely that the title will be decided on goal difference with both teams finishing on eighty-nine. This is a point’s tally that would have seen City or United win the league in four out of the last five seasons. Whichever team comes up short it would be harsh to brand either as underachievers or failures in any way, especially for United who have faced much tougher obstacles this season.
I accept that this United is a shadow of some of the great sides that Fergie has produced; the 94’ vintage, the treble side and the 07/08 team that won in Moscow. The majority of the latter are still knocking around, minus Ronaldo, but age and injury has caught up with Scholes, Giggs, Ferdinand and Fletcher. On top of that, Edwin Van der Sar and Gary Neville retired last year and the captain, Nemanja Vidic has spent most of the season on the treatment table. Other experienced heads such as John O’Shea and Wes Brown have been shown the door without ceremony. These players have been replaced by an influx of young and improving players who have shown considerable promise; Jones, Smalling, De Gea, Rafael/Fabio, Cleverly, Wellbeck, Chicharito et al. The likes of Liverpool and Chelsea have attempted or are currently attempting this policy of squad evolution; buying players with potential who can develop within the fabric of the club. Whilst their league form has suffered from this overhaul, United have managed to keep the ship afloat, grinding out victories in big games, still maintaining the same spirit.
Let us not forget that Chelsea arrived on a wave of extravagant spending and won back-to-back titles, indicating a new footballing dynasty had arrived. We all know that things did not quite work out the way Abramovich planned. As Mourinho made off with the silverware, Fergie rebuilt, allowing the likes of Beckham, Van Nistelrooy and Keane to leave in favour of the Rooney and Ronaldo. This policy took time but United remained competitive whilst still steadily progressing. Chelsea persisted with a policy of short-termism that saw fluctuating levels of performance as United returned to the top of the tree. Ferguson has proven that he can cope with periods of transition and come back stronger. To sustain a championship challenge with a squad made up largely of exciting prospects and rickety old campaigners (and one world class player in Rooney) is an incredible achievement. He has pushed City all the way and arguably should already be champions with one game to go.
The great fear for all United fans is hovering spectre of Old Father Time. The Scot cannot go on forever and when he finally shuffles off to become Club President in a few years the spirit that sustains the club and the team may well die out. With Ferguson at the helm, Manchester United will continue to evolve and challenge for honors. City can spend another 100 million in the summer and I still expect it to be close next season. By rights, a squad with the quality, class and experience of the Citizens should dominate the Premier League for the next decade but football is about more than names on a team sheet. It is about guts, self-belief and a ferocious appetite for success, something Fergie and United still have in spades.