Manchester United, a club that was once hated by fans for its dominance is now seen with indifference and ambivalence under the mediocre reign of Jose Mourinho
In 1993, with Manchester United closing in on their first title for 26 years, a lot of neutral English football fans openly said they’d “like United to win it.”
Then they did and everyone suddenly realised why this wasn’t actually a great idea after all.
For the next decade the concept of neutrality was redundant when it came to United. They polarised opinion like no team before ever has and like no team is ever likely to in the foreseeable future, yet by the time Jose Mourinho was sacked on on Tuesday, this hatred had degenerated into indifference.
To understand why United were so despised we need to head back to the early 90s, when a sea change occurred in the attitudes of English football fans. When United won the European Cup Winners Cup in 1991, most neutrals wanted them to win.
Eight years later, when United beat Bayern Munich to win the Champions League it was a night of almost apocalyptic doom for non-United fans, particularly those on Merseyside.
What happened in the intervening eight years?
There were multiple reasons why United became about as popular as a Vladimir Putin tribute act in Salisbury Cathedral (too soon?), so in the interests of brevity we’ll limit them to ten:
10) Alex Ferguson’s chewing gum.
9) Roy Keane’s casual maiming of opponents.
8) Paul Ince’s perma-rage.
7) The “Come On You Reds” song they recorded with Status Quo, which was every bit as gruesome as it sounds, the product of…
6) … A merchandising department only marginally less cynical than the average arms dealer.
5) Gary Neville.
4) The way they pursued referees like a pack of dogs set on ripping apart a fox.
3) The “Argentina” song after the 1998 World Cup. This was frequently explained as “humour” by fans who’d start foaming at the mouth if the name of their club was ever the subject of jovial blasphemy.
2) The excuses (this entry deserves an entire sub-section but the Southampton kit fiasco probably crowns it)
And above all it was …
1) Their fans. Even during Liverpool’s era of dominance, when they were followed by fifty percent of football fans in places like Suffolk and Cornwall, United were still the second most popular team. After 1993 United fans emerged with the subtlety of the tripod war machines buried deep below the earth’s surface in HG Wells’ “War of the Worlds” and with a similarly malevolent intent to take over the world.
Their reign of hate lasted unchallenged until Roman Abramovich’s take over of Chelsea in 2003, when the game changed, probably forever. Embittered rival fans can always dismiss Chelsea and Manchester City’s achievements as the product of what Arsene Wenger called “financial doping.” They don’t inspire the same level of loathing, even if, by poaching United’s uber-unctuous chief executive Peter Kenyon, Chelsea did at least give it a go for a while. The Glazers might be genuinely detestable, but United fans hate them even more than their rivals.
If there was one man who could make England hate Manchester United again, it was Jose Mourinho, a man with a PhD on the art of starting fights in empty rooms, but to do it he needed to start winning titles or European Cups and preferably both. His dismissal on Tuesday was a mark of individual and collective failure.
United had effectively reverted to being the cup team they were during the pre-Ferguson era, a shadow of a Manchester City side who no one has the energy or inclination to loathe. Be honest, do you actually miss the days when the sight of a United fan wandering round a provincial town 200 miles from Manchester could inspire a genuine rage? No, neither do I.