Talk to “football fans” of a certain glory-hunting persuasion, and at some point you’re more than likely to hear “Yeah, mate, but there’s only one United”. Whether the accent of the speaker is Cockney, Irish, Devonian, Midlands or even – may God forgive them – Yorkshire; the pitiful delusion is common to all. They “support” Man U, and they take it as gospel that they and their cosmopolitan breed follow the one and only, divinely anointed United. The reasons for this can largely be laid at the door of our lazy and complacent media, who certainly do love their cosy tags and nicknames. It saves them the bother of thinking, and that makes the job a whole lot easier for those who just want to churn out popular content-free pap. So, as far as the various “sports news” outlets are concerned, “United” means one thing, and one thing only – and the media’s favourite myth is perpetuated.
Part of the problem, of course, is that the full given name of the Trafford outfit is misleading – because they’re not actually based in the City of Manchester – and also difficult for journalists of a certain age to say. If you listen to Five Live for any length of time (I try not to, due to the annoying noise of the lamentable Alan Green), you’ll hear from Jimmy Armfield, bless him, who always tries to give it a go and use the full name – but it comes out as a bit of a corruption: “Manshernitid”. Not too satisfactory, and not all that accurate, but a lot better than the arrogant assumption that one of football’s most popular suffixes can be used to refer to Man U alone. That abbreviation “Man U” is preferable, and even easier to say; but the Man U fans don’t like that for some reason, in fact the Man U fans object to it quite strenuously – so much so that to my mind it forms the single most compelling reason for calling Man U “Man U”. And anyway, it’s a lot less insulting than my usual name for them.
The fact is of course that there are many more Uniteds than just the Pride of Devon. Some have been “United” longer than Man U have – Newcastle were United when Man U were merely Newton Heath. Some of them have more of a right on etymological grounds – “United” after all refers to the unity of a district behind one team. So take a bow Newcastle again, Leeds as well, even Hartlepool and Colchester. Not to mention the club just down the road from so many “Nitid” fans – Torquay United. Let’s face it, Manchester – being mainly Blue – isn’t united behind Man U, any more than Sheffield is behind Sheffield United (due to the prevalence of Wendies). So shame on you both, and get your act together.
Whichever way you look at it, the journos’ and commentators’ use of “United” to refer to Man U is as inaccurate and confusing as it is improper and unjustified. They even do it during live TV games where the opposition is another United – West Ham or Newcastle, for instance – and then you hear them clumsily picking themselves up and correcting the mistake, only to do it again two minutes later. It’s lazy and it’s unprofessional, but regrettably it seems to have seeped into popular culture, much to the delight of the Man U fans who, in their crippling insecurity, seize on anything they feel will back up their delusion that they follow a club which is in any way unique or special and of course “big” – especially now that they don’t have it their own way any longer ON the field. Sigmund Freud would have a field day with most Man U fans, and then the electrodes would have to come out.
There is a certain element too of the media going along with Man U’s own incessant self-promotion and relentless branding. It suits the club to snaffle the term “United” all for themselves; it suits their marketing strategy to feed the mass delusions of their global fan-base. So they peddle the “Only One United” myth just as frantically as they do the “Biggest Club In The World” fiction, and the media obligingly fall into line behind both lies, much to the amusement in the latter case of true giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona. Arsenal and of course Leeds United.
Then again a lot of the media have considerable vested interests in the ongoing success of Man U; more papers and satellite subscriptions are sold in Devon and Milton Keynes for every gratuitous mention of “United”, and let’s face it: the bulk of their “support” have no real interest in the actual location of Old Trafford anyway; they’ve never been there and probably never will, they just wish to be associated with the media phenomenon that has been built up over the years. Next time you watch a live TV match between any two clubs apart from Man U, listen out for a mention of their name; I guarantee you won’t have to wait for long. And that’s a little bit more reassurance for little Tarquin in Paignton or Torquay that he chose the right club to “support” and that Daddy bought him the right shirt.
All of this fits the bill very nicely in terms of commercial gains and the ongoing success of the Premier League leviathan as it thunders on, enriching the rich and crushing the rest – an apt metaphor for society at large. But is it good for the game in the long term? How much more can the media afford to inflate one club above all others? Any football club needs realistic opposition to justify its very existence in a competitive environment; how much more can the media afford to marginalise the competition? It’s about more than the silly hi-jacking of the term “United”, the manifestations of bias and favouritism extend into every corner of the way our game is run, and the statistics make for worrying reading in a game of fine margins. It’s not really a level playing field anymore, and the recent predominance of the media’s chosen “United” is a barometer of this sad fact.
One day, inevitably, the Premier League bubble will burst, as any over-inflated bubble eventually must, and then it will be time to look for where to place the blame. Will Man U by then be part of a European Super League, where they really ARE the only United? That might just be the most likely model for our domestic game going forward, and the way things are now I’d take a deal of persuading that it wouldn’t be an improvement. First though, they’d obviously have to sort out the current refereeing situation on the continent; as things stand Man U don’t have it as easy over there as they do domestically, and that’d never do, would it?
Meanwhile, we can expect the Big Lie to carry on being pushed by a media that doesn’t seem to have a clue what’s good for it in the long term – and how much longer will it be before Man U drop the tiresomely geographical “Manchester” from their badge? After all, they dropped “Football Club” a long time ago, and it’s not as if the bulk of their “support” can identify with the northern city which is home to the current Champions, just over the border from Trafford. If it made commercial sense, they’d do it; bet your life they would.
Watch this space – nothing surprises me where Man U are concerned.