Carrington, December 31, 2009. Alex Ferguson is spending his birthday, again, looking out at the training pitches.
United have just thrashed Wigan Athletic 5-0 to move to within two points of leaders Chelsea. They won't win the league this season. But they did the last. And they will the next.
Ferguson has no idea what will come in the next decade. Failure for United is second place, not three years without a trophy. The idea of three seasons out of the Champions League is preposterous. Finishing seventh is unimaginable. It's Manchester United, for goodness' sake.
There is no way they could get to that point. Someone would notice. Someone would do something.
251 - Only Manchester United (255 in the 2000s) have won more top-flight league matches in England within a single decade than Manchester City did in the 2010s (251). Imperious. #Opta2010s pic.twitter.com/Luh2Z1T5RR— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) 30 December 2019
FERGIE TIME RUNS OUT
The years between 2009 and 2020 will forever mark United's crashing fall from their perch, unable to extricate themselves from a cesspool of anti-Glazer protests, mismanaged managers, dividends and transfer misfires.
The signs were there for Ferguson, even as he lifted the Premier League for the 13th time in 2013. Manchester City had been spending hitherto unseen sums to revolutionise what it meant to run a football club, while only four United signings between January 2010 and that day in May - Robin van Persie, David de Gea, Ashley Young and Javier Hernandez - can be considered entirely successful.
United underestimated City, as they underestimated Ferguson's power to turn average teams into winners and the damage of losing CEO David Gill at the same time as the manager. Any fear about David Moyes and the longer-term future was dismissed as idle scaremongering, an inconvenient truth to be squashed under silverware.
The result is there are matchgoing United fans born this decade who have never seen them get close to winning the league. Hearing grown-ups talk of Moscow, Barcelona, trebles, double-doubles and '20 times, Man United' must sound like a Netflix fantasy series. It's not hard to imagine a seven-year-old gazing up at the Alex Ferguson statue, outside the Alex Ferguson stand, and turning to her parents to shake her head in defiant incredulity, much like a future child staring at the world's last surviving polar bear at the zoo might exclaim: "But, mummy, the arctic was never REALLY frozen over, was it?"
13 - Sir Alex Ferguson won 13 top-flight English league titles as a manager - more than twice as many as any other manager in the history of the league and seven more than his nearest rivals; George Ramsay and Bob Paisley. Legendary. (3/10) pic.twitter.com/bmDpIaZ0Fd— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 31, 2019
Carrington, December 31, 2019. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer looks out at the training pitches.
Marcus Rashford and team-mates have been hard at work, buoyed by a battling win at Burnley but thinking of Arsenal on New Year's Day. The mood is positive, but trepidation lurks in their minds. They are fifth in the Premier League and were never even in the title race. The next setback never feels far away.
Solskjaer sighs, pensively. It wasn't always like this.
'WE WILL LOOK BACK ON IT AS A GIGANTIC FALSE ALARM'
Solskjaer the United manager is the product of three failures.
First came The Chosen One in 2013. David Moyes was Ferguson's preference, had worked wonders at Everton and earned a chance on a grander stage.
Moyes later said he was promised Gareth Bale, Toni Kroos and Cesc Fabregas for his first season by new executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, while Cristiano Ronaldo had also been a target. It was a bold statement from one new man to another, a chest-out assurance United would swat away the competition. What Moyes got was deadline-day Marouane Fellaini, an elbow-flailing augur of doom.
Moyes bemoaned a lack of world-class players as United suffered their worst start to a league season for 24 years. By Christmas, fans were disquieted. By March, home humiliations against Liverpool and City had them angry. After plane banner protests and a 2-0 loss to Everton, Moyes was gone, nine months into a six-year contract.
United's aura had splintered like an ice shelf. They needed a real expert, a man of facts, figures and a matchday folder.
In came Louis van Gaal on a wave of positivity after taking Netherlands to third place at the World Cup. Woodward, having almost failed to sign anybody the year before, tried to sign everybody. In came British record signing Angel Di Maria and pricey loanee Radamel Falcao in a huge squad upheaval. The 'Gaalacticos' had assembled. United fans found their belief. Then, Van Gaal lost his.
A 5-3 defeat to Leicester City, noteworthy for a sublime Di Maria goal and the beginning of the end of Tyler Blackett's Premier League career, seemed to shake the manager's faith in how to play matches. Over the next 18 months, his team would shrink from 'attack, attack, attack' like a melting glacier, the players terrified of trying anything that might prompt one of those telling-off emails from Van Gaal. It seemed amazing Van Gaal's team could be so predictable, so boring when the man himself was a source of constant entertainment, decrying "sex-masochism" on live television, diving on the touchline against Arsenal and presenting the press with mulled wine, mince pies and "Mr Mike Smalling".
A single, short Champions League campaign and an FA Cup triumph were not enough. Leicester (Leicester!) had won the league and Pep Guardiola was going to City. This was a full-blown crisis. United put up the flood defences.
6 - Manchester United's Champions League group stage performance under Van Gaal and Moyes. Comparison. pic.twitter.com/0ngp4Wqx6U— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 10, 2015
TO THE TIPPING POINT
"I want everything: I want to win matches; I want to play well," Jose Mourinho vowed in 2016. United spent big again on Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the best players in Italy, France and Germany the previous season. In 2016-17, they won the EFL Cup and Europa League but only finished sixth in the league, and Mourinho was not wholly content. United still had obvious concerns; they denied them.
United were second in 2017-18, their highest league position since their last title, as champions City obliterated the record books. Mourinho waspishly claimed it was his greatest achievement. He had begun warring with Woodward over transfers, sniping Pogba and Anthony Martial in training, and sulking through news conferences in which he said as little as possible when he wasn't reminding the room how good he used to be.
4 - Jose Mourinho has won the league title in every country in which he has managed: Portugal, England, Italy and Spain. Respect. pic.twitter.com/WAGEmtnkdK— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 20, 2019
Mourinho's verbal microplastics had seeped into Old Trafford and turned it toxic. A 3-1 loss at Anfield was the last straw. Desperate, United put the battle for their very future in the hands of a bright-eyed, baby-faced Scandinavian and an emboldened band of youngsters up for the fight.
"There have been ups and downs," was Solskjaer's assessment last week, with stunning early form and a famous win in Paris undermined by 2019 defeats to Everton, Bournemouth, Watford, Newcastle United, Crystal Palace and Cardiff City. But with six wins in eight, victories over City, Chelsea (twice) and Tottenham and the chance of trophies in early 2020, maybe, at last, United have taken decisive action.
"I think we're on the right track," he added. " We will come strong this decade, definitely. That's just in the nature of this club."
Nature can be fickle, though.
"I've got the dream job and I'm enjoying each day, even more so because you're moulding the group to where you want it.— Manchester United (@ManUtd) 19 December 2019
"We've had decisions to make but I believe these boys will develop. It's great for the club's future."
Today marks Ole's first year in charge 🔴 #MUFC pic.twitter.com/82TIw4yNl2
Carrington, December 31, 2029. The Manchester United manager looks out at the training pitches.
Led by captain Marcus Rashford, player spirits are high. They're the champions of Europe and top of the league. It's been a good 10 years.
The manager sighs. It wasn't always like this. Manchester used to be cold in December.