Retrospective #10: The week that destroyed a season
When the bards sing of deeds gone by or poets write in remembrance, memory is always airbrushed. As an eager, fresh-faced boy desperate to fill my mind’s expanse of blankness, I noticed, interested, the holes in Manchester United’s rich history. The period for instance that some call the 1970s, is one afforded only a cursory sentence or two in all the unofficial accounts I read, seemingly, football hadn’t happened between around the time George Best lifted the European Cup and the day Ron Atkinson cleaned out his office.
What with decades disappearing, to misplace a week might seem a trifling matter, but here I seek to preserve one of the worst. Observed through the lens of glories since, the first seven days of April 2010 lose poignancy – victory’s narcotic effect blurring our understanding of what it means to lose. Pain, all too happily sedated.
The weather was nice, early Spring temperatures in Germany complementing early spring moods in Manchester – moods dictated by a script long since memorized.
Adjustment had been an overarching theme that year. The departures of Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez kicked off a period of change. In came Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen, as a goalscoring burden of titanic proportions shifted onto the shoulders of Wayne Rooney.
With Roman wounds still being licked, United started the season in dismal fashion, taking only two games to fall at the hands of inferior opposition. Memories of Robbie Blake’s powerful volley faded quickly though, as Ferguson’s men, and in particular Rooney, picked up a head of steam.
Come Christmas, United were embroiled in a battle for supremacy; Arsenal taking their normal place as hopefuls looking to avoid inexorable doom, and Chelsea as cold hard assassins, destroying opponents with their stare alone.
At the heart of United’s title charge was Rooney and his goals. Any murmurings of discontent though at an apparent over reliance on one so brilliant yet temperamental were kept at a whisper – such is football fans’ ludicrous dogma: to doubt is to betray.
Back then to that lovely Spring week. At the Allianz Arena the atmosphere was cheery; beer mixing with optimism, nostalgia with excitement – a group of English fans, refusing to let the small matter of season prevent an impromptu Oktoberfest.
When just minutes into the tie Rooney broke the deadlock with the last of the thirty-four goals he scored that season, an alcohol stained hubris took over, one as pervasive as it was worrying.
Even after Franck Ribery’s second half equaliser, spirits were high and predictions bullish – after all, United had a Champions League Quarter Final away goal to go with a place atop the Premier League standings. And then, with the first leg drifting towards conclusion, Mario Gomez crushed dreams.
To the cynics among us, the stamp will always have been deliberate, and the subsequent jump and twist pre-meditated results of an insidious plot. The truth however, lies in a force impossible to manipulate, one which that night turned a deaf ear to United prayers and continued to do so for the next six days. As Rooney hopped, ankle damaged, and Olic scored, even the bluntest revelers were moved – luck it seemed had deserted.
While a long-term prognosis would have to wait, the short-term news had supporters fearing the worst. The talisman was broken, and the date of repair set indefinitely for some time after that weekend’s clash with Chelsea.
In the days quickly following, calls for Dimitar Berbatov to revive his Manchester United career numbered many, but most were pessimistic. “As if losing their best player at such a critical point in the season was not disadvantage enough, the man likely to be his replacement is clearly not in the same league.” wrote Jim White in The Telegraph – sentiments echoed across Fleet Street and beyond.
Inside thirty seconds of Berbatov’s rebuttle though, the canny men in the press box were left scratching their heads. With a Saturday lunchtime, top of the table clash to contend with, the Bulgarian immediately released his inner razzle-dazzle, dancing past blue shirts with consummate ease, before seeing a promising attack peter out. As fate would have it though, for all its seemingly auspicious significance, Berbatov’s dribble was merely a misleading preface to an alarming narrative.
One Joe Cole backheel and Drogba blast later, United were chasing the game. While Federico Macheda’s handball from close range briefly kindled hope, a deserved defeat was met on home soil, and title dreams sliced to ribbons. Blue ribbons.
To dwell on misery would not have been in the Ferguson spirit. Just days after surrendering top spot, the inevitable passing of the Premier League baton was forgotten in light of Fergie’s perpetual pursuit. With a fourth European crown an eventual goal, Old Trafford lent its hospitality to the destroyers of several nights previous – Mario Gomez and all. There to welcome them though was the iron man, Rooney – miraculously fit after completing several difficult training sessions post-Chelsea.
Once again, it was the English side that started the better. A Gibson slash gave United the lead within five minutes, before two classy Nani finishes totted the score up to three. Surfing, cruising, that pestilential hubris returned, turning the usually organized rearguard into a careless mess. Having taken advantage of a Michael Carrick error, Ivicia Olic pounced just minutes before half time to steal an away goal. Now within only one concession of elimination, calm needed to prevail. It didn’t. Rafael Da Silva’s blatant youth came to the fore, a second loss of concentration resulting in a deserved second yellow card.
Against ten men, the Germans clicked into typically efficient gear. Latching onto a looped Franck Ribery corner, Dutch winger Arjen Robben knifed a volley across Van Der Sar for 3-2. Lost in awe of his brilliance, a dumbfounded home crowd waited for United to exercise their secret prerogative; to find the late goal so intrinsically linked with European matches against Bayern Munich.
Another fifteen minutes of toil though, caused little in the way of trouble. Rooney’s somber limp off the field early in the second half marked the removal of United’s most dangerous creator and, as it had the previous Saturday, the end of championship aspirations. Rooney-less and impotent, not much more could realistically have been expected.
With green and gold regalia draped over the mantle, and season review money safely invested elsewhere, supporters settled down for the campaign’s conclusion. They watched as Inter defended, Chelsea scored and Rooney flopped. Bereft of Queen on final day, the ghosts of titles past haunted Old Trafford. A 4-0 annihilation of Stoke, punctuated constantly by choruses of Viva Ronaldo, was hardly noticed in the midst of vigorous celebrations at Stamford Bridge.
The malaise started by one innocuous stamp continued to fester over the summer. A World Cup defined by Spain’s brilliance and Holland’s bravery was not one enjoyed by Manchester’s red and black contingent. Nani and Ferdinand suffered on the sidelines, while Rooney and Vidic both struggled to inspire their respective nations.
More than a year on, that week and the failure it heralded had been more or less forgotten. The all-consuming nature of United’s nineteenth title celebrations allowed no space for morbid recollection. In the face of victory, we forgot defeat.
And in that statement is the essence of this club’s greatest flaw. The cyclone of matches that makes up football at the highest level has a tendency to let the past disappear unless carefully preserved. Through the halls of overpriced museums or fan forum gloats, the best aspects of United’s history will always thrive. Neglected though, our darkest moments and despairing nadirs waste away.
Under Ferguson’s reign, the collection of trophies has become an under appreciated habit – one tarnished by expectation and a feeling of entitlement. Defeat reminds us of what it means to lose. It helps us cherish the moments that we enjoy now, inculcating an appreciation that some have lost. To be perennial winners is a fleeting privilege. We must enjoy it while it lasts.