Hate is a strong word to use about sport, and though there was nothing particularly remarkable about Phil Jones's recent assertion that Manchester United are spurred on by the number of people willing them to fail, it is worth considering how many other sports "hate" their most successful institutions.

You wouldn't get it in cricket, naturally, because that wouldn't be cricket. Rugby union is altogether too chummy a world for its adherents to go around hating each other, and while it is true that Wigan rugby league club made itself quite unpopular about 20 years ago by hoovering up all the available talent and winning everything in sight season after season, in that instance the very survival of the sport was being threatened.

Even then it was quite difficult to hate Wigan for having Martin Offiah on one wing and Jason Robinson on the other, with Shaun Edwards or Henry Paul somewhere inbetween. There was far more to admire than dislike, though the admiration became somewhat grudging when all suspense began to disappear from cup finals and title races.

It is possible to detect a certain amount of antipathy towards regular winners in individual sports – John McEnroe was not everyone's idea of an ideal tennis champion, for instance, and ditto with Michael Schumacher in Formula One or Miguel Indurain in cycling – but once again hate would be far too strong a word.

It is in the nature of spectator sport to feature favourites and therefore anti-favourites. If it is possible to have heroes then it follows there will be anti-heroes. That much is normal. But football does like to push the boundaries of what is tasteful and acceptable.

Plenty people do hate Manchester United, and while most of the most rabid cases will usually turn out to be Liverpool or Manchester City supporters, football should be worried about the more general tendency within the game for young fans to identify their enemies more vehemently than they stick up for their own side.

There is something decidedly odd about football compared with almost any other spectator sport. Nowhere else do you see faces contorted with such anger in random shots of the crowd behind a linesman's flag or a substitution about to be made. You would never guess these people have paid to watch an afternoon's sport, it frequently looks more like they have been herded into a football stadium and told they will have to pay to get out.

Of course this could simply be the passion that makes the English Premier League so distinctive from anywhere else, but if so it is a destructive passion, mostly directed at referees, opponents or underperforming members of the side ostensibly being supported. And the overriding feature of modern football in England, painfully evident from even the most fleeting visit to the blogosphere, is the amount of hatred and bile around for people who see things differently, ie support a different club. The present generation of football fans, some of whom in fairness are finding it much more difficult to attend games than was usually the case in the past, tend to define themselves more by who is disliked than who is appreciated.

Yet one doubts whether Jones was really talking about true hate, or even the increased levels of impatience and intolerance on the terraces. He was simply referring to the ABU (Anyone But United) syndrome that has been discernible since it became clear around the turn of the century that Sir Alex Ferguson had turned his side into a winning machine. "Everyone hates the best clubs, it is as simple as that," the United defender said.

It is probably not quite as simple as all that. Most people affect to dislike Chelsea, for example, but not because they are one of the best clubs. It has more to do with the fact that they were the archetypal football Flash Harrys in the 60s, before a period of penury under Ken Bates that the rest of the game greatly enjoyed. They are resented to a certain extent now because of Roman Abramovich's money and José Mourinho's abrasive style, though most fair-minded football followers – no, I don't know where to look either – would concede Chelsea these days add something to the gaiety of nations that is the Premier League. And so do Arsenal, who only kill you with pure football, and have never been hated in all the time Arsène Wenger has been at the club, not even when going through a whole season undefeated.

What that incredible run did do was put pressure on the other leading clubs to bring it to an end the following season, which Manchester United duly did and everyone outside Islington was happy. Even though that game in October 2004 came to be remembered as the Battle of the Buffet after tensions overspilled at the end, there was no particular hatred for either side, just a high dose of intense sporting rivalry. You do not attract hatred for setting new records at the very top level of sport, you tend to attract admiration. But people will want to see the very top teams taken down a peg, that is in the nature of competitive sport. That is perfectly healthy. Apart from a few thousand Evertonians no one really begrudged Liverpool their success in the 70s and 80s. They deserved it.

They were not hated for it, though it was felt the domination was beginning to chafe and it is a somewhat similar situation with United now. There are undoubtedly people who think they have been at the top for too long and it is time for a change, but the minute United do become an ordinary team again and hopes of a seamless managerial transition are abandoned, the last two decades will be enshrined for all time as one of the glories of English football. A golden era is much easier for the rest of the game to love once it is over. That is what David Moyes is up against.

The majority of football fans in this country do not hate Manchester United, they feel privileged to have witnessed the Ferguson years. But they will only admit that once the period has been wrapped up and sent off to a museum. While Moyes and his players are fighting a lonely battle for continuity, outsiders would not be too upset by a natural break.