Friday, November 25, 2005

A History of Manchester United

I have been a Manchester United supporter for 13 years, since I was 10 years old (yeah, yeah, do the maths). Which means, of course, that I was one of the "lucky ones" to have had the privilege of supporting a team that was just beginning to peak in the early 90s and starting to establish its supremacy in the English Premier League, culminating in the historic Treble win in 1999 - so much so that each time the team loses I literally feel a sharp stabbing pain in my heart.

Plainly put, we Manchester United fans are used to winning. Used to steamrolling over any team that sets its feet on the hallowed grass of Old Trafford. Used to lifting trophies season after season.

So you can imagine how many times I've had that sharp stabbing pain over the last 2 seasons. But that's another story.

Of course, Manchester United wasn't always all glory and mighty. We had our humble beginnings and our humiliations.

The club was formed in 1878, under the name Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway). It was not a very good team to begin with, as it was formed just for the railway workers to enjoy a simple game of footie. When it joined the Football League in 1892, it was suffering serious financial problems, and in the early 1900s was on the verge of extinction.

However, it was saved by a wealthy brewery owner, John Davies, who decided to invest in the club and in the process, changed its name to Manchester United Football Club. Legend has it that he learned about the club's plight when he picked up a dog that belonged to Harry Stafford, Newton Heath's captain, who told him about the club and its problems. The dog's name was Trafford, and in 1910, when the club moved into its new ground (purchased and built by John Davies), the stadium was named Old Trafford in honour of the dog that helped to preserve it.

In 1945, during the Second World War, Sir Matt Busby was appointed manager of Manchester United. In the 25 years that he managed the club, his name would become synonymous with that of the club itself. He won the FA Cup in his second season, but was unable to challenge for the League trophy, and in 1950 the team that he had painstakingly built up after the war broke up.

Not that it stopped him. He introduced the youngsters whom he had been recruiting and coaching, known as the Busby Babes. They included famous names like Duncan Edwards, Bobby Charlton, Liam Whelan and Roger Bryne. In a mere 7 years, the Busby Babes won 3 Championships and 5 FA Cups.

However, the darkest moment in the club's history came in the Munich air crash in 1958, where the team, en route to play Red Star Belgrade in a European Cup game, was involved in an airline crash. 8 players were killed in the disaster. Sir Matt Busby, however, recovered from his wounds and went straight back into management, bringing the team to second place in the League and the FA Cup final in the same year - all while building a new team, again around the club's youth system.

The 1960s were the glory years of Manchester United, what with players like Denis Law, Bobby Charlton, and George Best, viewed by many as the best ever British player. The team swept League Championships and FA Cups in these 10 years, and in 1969 won the European Cup for the first time. Sir Matt Busby, however, retired at the end of that season.

For the next 20 years, it was a series of ups and downs, as the club could never find a manager able to fill Sir Matt Busby's shoes, and neither could it replicate the domestic or European success of the last decade, despite the strengths of Stuart Pearson (current Manchester City manager) and Lou Macari in the 70s, and "Captain Marvel" Bryan Robson in the 80s. It didn't help either that Liverpool, powered by Ian Rush, was the dominant force of the 70s and 80s.

However, in 1986, the man who would epitomise success at Manchester United arrived - Sir Alex Ferguson. Already a proven winner in the Scottish Premier League with Aberdeen, winning the SPL title several times as well as the European Cup Winners' Cup, it took him 4 years before he won his first trophy with the club - the 1990 FA Cup. A year later the team won the European Cup Winners' Cup.

By 1992, Ferguson had built an unbeatable team with Peter Schmichel, Mark Hughes, Steve Bruce, Roy Keane and, of course, Eric Cantona, who did for the team what George Best did years ago. In that year, they won the Double of the League Championship and FA Cup - the first ever team in England to do so. At the same time, the youth system started by Sir Matt Busby was utilised by Ferguson - Fergie's Fledglings, which included David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and Gary and Phil Neville all made their debuts between 1992 and 1993.

It didn't stop there. In 1999, the team won the unprecedented Treble of the League Championship, FA Cup, and the Holy Grail of club football, the Champions' League. Ryan Giggs scored what has been voted on the club website as Manchester United's best ever goal in the semi-final of the FA Cup against Arsenal, and who can forget Roy Keane's heroics on that night in Turin when he single-handedly dragged the club to a 3-2 win over Juventus, en route to the final against Bayern Munich? And the rest, as we say, is history, as Manchester United fans all over the world erupted in celebration when Sir Alex finally lifted the European Cup for the club, for the first time since 1969.

Currently, the club is still trying to replace the ageing Fledglings. There are promising youngsters in the club - Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Giuseppe Rossi, Phil Bardsley - but, as can be seen how the club took almost 20 years to replace one man - Sir Matt Busby, we shouldn't hold our breath and expect Sir Alex to miraculously pull another bunch of immensely talented youngsters out of the academy anytime soon.

Many people feel the club is in some sort of "crisis", what with the Glazers plunging the club into debt to buy it (and what the heck they want to buy it for, no one knows up till now), the emergence of Chelsea and its roubles, the inability to replace players like the Neville brothers, and murmurings of in-club dissent, with the abrupt departure of our beloved captain Roy Keane, and a lengthy injury list.

But you know what? Somehow, I don't see it as a crisis, but rather a transitional stage. And I wouldn't put it past the wily old fox, Sir Alex, to really pull off a miracle once again.


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