As a result of the famous encounter between Man U and Leeds United in the FA Cup 3rd round of 2010, the Pride of Devon famously won yet another honour when a national newspaper awarded their incautious webmaster the “BIGGEST HOISTING BY YOUR OWN PETARD” accolade. When Man U drew Leeds or Kettering in the FA Cup third round, their official website’s headline was: ‘United To Face Cup Minnows’ – a banner that could just possibly have referred to Kettering, who still faced a second round replay at Elland Road. The sly intent of a dig at Leeds United escaped nobody though and, unlikely as it seemed that the United of Elland Road could pull off a shock at the Theatre of Hollow Myths, there must have been one or two wiser heads who were groaning at the sight of such crass bumptiousness – and wondering how anyone could possibly wish to tempt fate so. As we all know, the events of that day resulted in an almighty shock, joy for the fans of the Damned United and the renaming of one end of the Man U ground as “The Beckford End”.
Such unwise overconfidence had been seen before in the name of Britain’s least modest and unassuming club. Back in 1992, one of the many commercial outlets which swarm around the Salford-based franchise like flies around steaming ordure, were guilty of a comparably embarrassing cock up. Tasteful sets of lovingly crafted Man U candles, unsuitably inscribed with the legend “Football League Champions 1992″ were offered for sale at an enticing price with the confident slogan “To commemorate our forthcoming title success”. Sadly for the manufacturers, demand turned out to be low for these attractive souvenirs, due to the fact that Leeds United had the poor taste to win the league by four clear points. There is a warehouse somewhere in a dingy area of a dingy city that houses these unwanted reminders of failure, along with “Champions” t-shirts, flags, banners and other associated Man U tat that was at least twelve months ahead of its time. The overweening desire to win the last proper League Championship was evidently far too strong for mere considerations of caution, humility and wisdom to stand much of a chance, and so it was that Man U chalked up yet another example of chickens being counted before the formality of hatching was complete.
A picture also exists of a humble functionary hastily dismantling a Man U “Champions 2012” banner, which had become abruptly redundant when Sergio Aguero scored in the dying moments of Man City v QPR to clinch the title for City and leave the Devon and Home Counties half of Manchester crying into their prawn butties. The tendency towards the assumption of success before it’s actually been earned appears to be a recurrent problem at The Greatest Football Club In The World™ (Copyright © Most of the Gutter Press Including BSkyB). Most football fans would find this sort of thing humiliating enough to make their teeth curl up and die, but the Man U bunch are curiously insensitive to such feelings, buffered as they are by relentless “Biggest and Best” propaganda to perpetuate their comfy if mythical self-image. The odd cold dash of reality is never quite enough to quell this methane-fuelled flame of hype and self-aggrandisement so, apart from the odd uncomfortable wriggle in armchairs all over the south of England, Man U fans continue quite happily in their own little pink fog of Freudian delusion.
The flip side of this excruciating coin, though, is the fierce, intense joy and satisfaction of a pompous bubble satisfyingly burst for the fans of whichever club is on the other half of the equation. In the examples quoted above, Leeds (twice) and Man City have found the joy of achievement considerably enhanced by the fact that the complacent hordes of glory-hunters had clearly expected victory to come about as of right. This is an exquisite refinement of Schadenfreude – the pleasure of achievement by virtue of bursting a despised rival’s over-inflated balloon is sweet indeed. The fact is as well, it’s not just the fans of this ridiculous club just outside Manchester who assume success will be theirs – the moguls of the media are right in there as well, wanting and expecting. The shattered expressions of Elton Welsby and Denis Law, after Leeds won that title in 1992, told their own story. The cameras lingered mournfully on the shocked faces of Phil Jones and S’ralex Ferguson at the Stadium of Light in 2012. There was a distinct lack of the enthusiasm you might expect of news-hungry hacks, in the wake of the defeat of the champions by a third division club in the FA Cup in 2010. The media have their markets to think of; replica shirts, newspapers and satellite dishes must be sold in Devon and Cornwall, Milton Keynes and Kent.n These not-so-impartial hacks really want Man U to win, and their confusion and misery in the event of a shock is just bloody wonderful to behold.
To be the agents who have brought about misery of this order – for such wholly unattractive and unadmirable institutions – is to know a defiant and glorious joy of virtuous achievement. In the long run, largely due to off-field pressures, Man U will win trophies and the assembled lapdogs in the press will yap their hymns of praise and ram the whole charade down the throats of the rest of us. But every now and then, it all goes wrong for the anointed favourites – and then there are good times for all right-thinking people, the ones who want to see a more level playing field and some even-handed competition as we used to have it. Leeds United drew that era to a close by becoming the Last Real Champions, but there have been the occasional reminders of it even during the Murdoch Man U dynasty, when the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea, City and – yes, Leeds United too, have stood up to be counted and have given the establishment club a bloody nose. It’s times like those that keep the old spirit of the great old game feebly flickering away, that stop it sputtering out altogether. Long may these rays of light continue to shine through the boring gloom and procession of the modern game.
Howard Wilkinson, Sergio Aguero, Jermaine Beckford, Arsene Wenger, Simon Grayson – and all the other heroes – we salute you.