The Man United fan who rang 999 after humiliation at the hands of Sunderland is not the only one in despair
Half a lifetime ago, in a nondescript pub on a Monday night, I saw something that made me believe everything didn't have to stay the same. That the promise of success needn't be followed by disappointment. That the good times hadn't ended in the 1960s, with the hippies and the music and the dreamers. Instead, on a screen above me, a pre-lapsarian Ryan Giggs was curling in a 30-yard free kick and Manchester United were, for the first time since the scarcely credible Best-Charlton-Law days, champions. It was possible to be alive, United and win.
Fast forward 20 years, and you can stick the lid back on. With the United empire crumbling, the indignities mount daily. The Swanseas and Sunderlands do not fear to triumph at Old Trafford, and referees like Howard Webb brandish red cards at United players as if they had been doing it all their lives. Suddenly, the fortunes I solipsistically identified with United's own look set to be shanked into oblivion. My back aches. The roof leaks. A Moyes-life crisis is breaking out.
In the two decades in between it's been peachy, our lives following a Cantona-Ronaldo-shaped trajectory of blistering excitement and success: me, you, the Cockney Reds, those United-supporting rickshaw drivers in Kathmandu and restaurant owners in Nairobi. Clearly, the football fan's delusion can't bear close scrutiny. Yet the delusions are powerful. A recent film, Class of 92, reunited the youth team that evolved behind Giggs, with the likes of David Beckham and Paul Scholes taking United to even dizzier heights. The DVD featured, astonishingly, contributions from Tony Blair, a diehard football fan in much the same way Sir Alex Ferguson is a diehard socialist. What was going on in that United youth team was, y'know, very much what was happening in New Labour – up and coming talent, ready to dominate at home and strut on the global stage. Barcelona, Baghdad. Good times.
And while Labour was in power, sowing the seeds of its own destruction (Blair didn't say), regulating the City with a light touch that would lead to financial crisis and obscene bankers' bonuses, Ferguson was acquiescing in the debt-laden takeover of the club by Malcom Glazer's family.
Now both men have handed over to successors who – poisoned chalice or otherwise – turned their victories effortlessly into defeat. And a new order is in place. While the Glazers leech money from United, Middle East petrodollars have thrust Manchester City skywards. United fans must now identify with the new manager, David Moyes, and hope those cruelly captioned photos of him doing the rounds online ("I don't know what I'm doing") are not funny because they are true.
But the fan who rang 999 demanding to speak to Ferguson after seeing United crash out of the Capital One Cup – a trophy that once would have caused few hearts to tremble in those parts – might not be the only one thinking emergency intervention is needed.
On a business level, United's stock is falling too, its share price at new lows and its financial clout today reported to be outside the top rank of European clubs for the first time. With a model built on selling the brand to commercial partners worldwide and TV income, slipping out of the top tier of European competition – as looks likely – threatens to hasten any decline.
As any non-United fan will rush to point out, this has been a club that has often spent its way to success – and now finds itself outspent. Ferguson's departure has been, as the Glazers foresaw in their own stock prospectus, the great commercial risk, the event that exposed the cracks.
That happy night in 1993 also recalls a time when United was barely a plc, a world less dominated by finance in football and beyond – and when being a United fan, even for those outside Manchester, didn't need justification. Pointing to the swelling ranks of other clubs' fans as arriviste gloryhunters may prove some consolation in trophyless years ahead.