In hindsight, we probably should have seen it coming. There were clues. Big clues. The first of which flew into Manchester United’s Carrington training ground and delivered Juan Mata to a flailing David Moyes when in actual fact, Juan Mata was far from what Manchester United needed to turn their first season without Sir Alex Ferguson around.
What they needed was a different manager. What they needed was a little humility, a little maturity, a little willingness at the top of the club to accept that they had got Ferguson’s succession horribly wrong, that they had made a terrible mistake but one which, at that point, in January 2014, did not need to become a fatal one.
None of which was Mata’s fault, of course. The Spaniard was deemed surplus to requirements at Chelsea and Jose Mourinho, in a show of the kind of ruthlessness that had characterised his managerial career to that point, offloaded his club’s player of the year for two successive seasons and a firm favourite with fans, all without batting an eyelid.
Mata is, against all the odds, one of few United players that appear to be thriving under Mourinho now the Portuguese has joined him at Old Trafford, though his arrival on a helicopter almost three years ago still looks like exactly what it was: pompous, arrogant, verging on the obscene, and a clear distraction technique on the part of United’s board to appease fans whose anger at the situation playing out before them was threatening to get ugly.
So, instead of making the difficult decision to sack a manager who had been handed a six year contract and who was quite clearly dangerously out of his depth, at a time when there was still the possibility of the season being salvaged, United’s powers-that-be chose to deliver a shiny trinket instead. Mata soon got swallowed in the mire and Moyes’ nightmare continued to the point where he had the haunted look of Macbeth upon seeing Banquo’s ghost at the dinner table.
Whether you view United’s continued malaise since that point as tragedy or comedy depends on your point of view, but what is certain is that the club have learnt nothing from the experience. Or perhaps they have, and this is simply their way of doing things now. Who needs a plan when you can just throw cash at a problem?
Yet United fans are becoming weary with it all. Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao certainly got them excited but that soon unravelled as Di Maria was played out of position (and then not played at all) and Falcao was exposed as an injury-ruined dud. It all stank of desperation at the time, and left you wondering whether Louis van Gaal had identified these players or had them thrust upon him by a board seemingly intent on splashing cash that had been unavailable to them during the financially-barren years of the Glazer’s rule.
As for Van Gaal, in December 2015 the Dutchman was said to have offered his resignation after a miserable run of results that left United staring down the barrel of another wasted season. Yet, as with Moyes two years earlier, the club failed to act, choosing instead to ride it out. Had they allowed the Dutchman to walk away at that time and brought in Mourinho to steady the ship, who knows where we would be now? Perhaps United would still be competing in the Europa League, rather than the Champions League, this term, but at least Mourinho would have an extra six months under his belt at this stage, giving him a chance to impart his ideas on the rabble he inherited.
As it is, Mourinho seems bewildered by the brittleness of his players, though most of the club’s fans could have warned him about the callow nature of the current crop. All of which was swept under the carpet during the summer with yet more glitzy signings and overblown marketing campaigns designed to create the buzz of expectation but that, in the face of a 4-0 hammering at Stamford Bridge on Sunday afternoon, combined with an unconvincing opening two months of the new season, now appear as crass and ill-judged as the chopper that Moyes greeted on that cold, windswept day three years ago.
None of which is to say that Mourinho cannot turn things around. United, somehow, remain only six points off league leaders Manchester City and there have been decent, if not exceptional, performances along the way. Yet the danger is that Mourinho’s bosses choose to tie his hands behind his back by simply throwing a dart at the latest Ballon d’Or list and making the player it lands on their next marquee target, whatever the financial and on-pitch cost.
What United need right now is some sensible decision-making from on high. In Mourinho, they have finally hired a manager who has what it takes to return the club to winning ways. He will rightly get time to sort things out and it is worth remembering that Chelsea’s first season after he returned for a second stint was hardly scintillating but that, the following year, they won the league.
United’s board, headed by the eminently unlikable Ed Woodward, has escaped the criticism it has probably deserved in recent years. Toothless when confronted with crisis, they appear to view the spending of huge sums of cash, itself, as a sign of success. That takes fans’ minds off things for a time but it’s a haphazard, unsustainable strategy that leaves them looking ridiculous time and again when the latest big names fail to hit the ground running.
Fans love a new signing, they love a superstar player, but what they love most of all is winning. To do that takes planning and coherence throughout the club, rather than yet another sprinkling of stardust tantamount to drizzling a bit of polish onto the proverbial you-know-what.