There is obvious cause for concern at Manchester United this season. Rant Cast has taken to summing up United’s long-term prospects as the “Liverpoolisation” of the club. The obvious gist is that United, having enjoyed two decades of supreme dominance over English football, have come to the end of a cycle and that, for the time being at least, the glory days have gone. I’m writing this article as a Liverpool fan that has witnessed the club’s dramatic decline from the top – and whilst in the short-term United have obvious problems, there are completely different circumstances that will prevent the club from going down Liverpool’s path.
The genesis of Liverpool’s decline was incredibly tragic. The Heysel disaster in 1985 – and yes I know where the responsibility for that lies – brought about a five-year European football ban for English clubs. Liverpool, one of Europe’s top clubs at the time, had secured four European Cups between 1977 and 1984 – and Heysel was the venue another European Cup final. This came at a time when a club actually had to win the league to enter the competition, thus strengthening the nature of the competition, meaning that Liverpool more often than not were England’s sole representatives in Europe’s premier club competition. During the ban Liverpool were unable to compete in the European Cup on three occasions, as well as the UEFA and Cup Winners’ Cups. In effect the club had reached a ceiling and, quite literally, couldn’t compete with the continent’s best.
The impact of Hillsborough
Tragedy at home shouldn’t be underestimated either. The effect that Hillsborough had upon the club as a whole was significant. Kenny Dalglish, manager at the time of the disaster, went to many funerals, including four in one day, and kept correspondence from some of the victim’s families in boxes underneath his bed. The psychological stress was one of the contributory factors in Dalglish’s shock resignation in 1991.
Of course, its is easy to lampoon Dalglish after he poorly handled the Patrice Evra-Luis Suarez affair in his second stint in charge, but he also won three league titles and two FA Cups in 1980s. Dalglish remains an iconic figure at the club and the impact of suddenly losing a manager of that stature was enormous.
Two off-the-field tragedies in such a short space of time had a profound impact on the club; United does not have anything of this magnitude hanging over the club during the recent decline.
[blockquote who=”” cite=””]The other significant impact on Liverpool’s decline was, of course, your very own Sir Alex Ferguson – or more to the point the tour de force that was his personality, summed up infamously by his declaration that Liverpool had been “knocked off their perch.”[/blockquote]
Whilst Liverpool were dominating in the late 1980’s, he was building for the future. United fans need no reminder that the Class of ’92 was no accident, but the result of years of scouting and groundwork presided over by Fergie. Once the first success was achieved, by winning the FA Cup in 1990, the trophies arrived on a regular basis. First, the 1991 Cup Winners Cup, then the inaugural Premier League trophy in 1993, just as Liverpool’s success was drying up. Youngsters such as Ryan Giggs and Lee Sharpe, through to the rest of the Class, played a huge part in this success
In fact the treatment of both clubs’ youth prospects had a significant role on the future. United built a large part of the club’s success around youth; Liverpool struggled to replace an aging squad, which had brought so many trophies, with academy graduates that were not on the same level – the exceptions were Robbie Fowler and Steve MacManaman. Key to this was United’s integration of youngsters into the first team squad quicker than at Liverpool. Whilst United’s young players were learning from first team on a daily basis, the Liverpool youngsters trained away from Melwood and the first team.
Player recruitment was also of a higher quality at United. Just three months after Andy Cole signed for United, Liverpool bought Mark Kennedy. The month before Dwight Yorke arrived at Old Trafford, Liverpool signed Sean Dundee. For all the perception of poor signings at United in recent years for the most part the view on Merseyside is they are decent players not used in their correct positions, although Marouane Fellaini could be United’s Salif Diao moment!
Other big positives in United’s favour are the internet and increased revenue streams. The internet was in its infancy in the early 1990s – social media and broadband hadn’t arrived! It was virtually impossible for a Liverpool fan based in Asia, North America or Australia to regularly watch the team play; streaming matches online wasn’t in the realm of possibility. The Premier League is now far more accessible in foreign markets.
And who would an overseas fan rather watch – David James drop another cross or David Beckham place yet another free kick into the top corner? As United won one Premier League after another the club’s image was the one being flashed across the globe by the Premier League marketing department. United’s pre-season tours, playing in front of packed stadia across the globe, is testament to the global fanbase the club has built. Those supporters will continue to buy replica shirts and provide ‘reach’ for sponsors, feeding the club coffers.
The Premier League is probably the best-marketed league in the world and United have played a massive part in its success over the past 20 years. Pre-Sky TV there were just four channels in the UK, now Sky show multiple matches simultaneously. Worldwide the Premier League is shown in an estimated 212 territories to 4.7 billion people. The deal that the Premier League signed with NBC Sports in the USA lasts until 2022 and is worth an estimated £640 million. These are figures unimaginable to Liverpool in the 1990s when the club began its long decline. And whilst United must share that money with other Premier League clubs, the vast salaries on offer at Old Trafford means that top talent will still be attracted even with the team not at its best. For example, the BBC’s Tim Vickery has noted more than once that United’s interest in Neymar is not as silly as it might appear.
Outside of the Premier League the Champions League also offers financial clout – and United will find it a whole lot easier to qualify for Europe’s gravy-train than Liverpool did during the 1990s when a club had to win the league to qualify.
United remains a massive pull for players. The club broke the British transfer record when Angel Di Maria signed in a season when Champions League football wasn’t even on offer. It’s not just players either; football’s worst kept secret is José Mourinho’s desire to manage United even with the club in its current predicament.
This should be reassuring to United fans – the club is not heading in the same direction as Liverpool 20 years ago. It is a smaller world, with greater finances. United will turn around the downward spiral a lot easier than Liverpool could have done all those years ago.
That said, despite two decades of mediocrity, we still managed win ourselves a Champions League trophy to keep!
Chris is a co-host of the Man on the Post podcast, and is regularly featured in In Bed with Maradona, The Football Pink and Balkanist Magazine.