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Sugary treats and shiny new toys have failed to make Old Trafford a happy home

Give a child everything they want and they end up not getting what they need, writes Tommy Martin.

Sevilla FC v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League -  Round of 16 - First Leg - Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium Alexis Sanchez looking dejected during Manchester United's goalless draw with Sevilla on Wednesday. Source: John Walton

YOU MIGHT THINK that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is a fantastical tale set in a world of pure imagination, but you’d be wrong. It’s actually a seminal parenting manual, in which Roald Dahl details all the ways children can be turned into horrible little brats.

Dahl’s four deadly sins, as personified by the ill-fated kids who accompany the eponymous hero into Willy Wonka’s factory, are: greed, chewing gum, being spoiled and watching too much TV.

Which pretty much covers it. Seriously, mums and dads, throw out the Gina Ford books and the baby yoga mat. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has got all you need.

As ever with Dahl, it’s the adults who are the real villains of the piece. When poor old Veruca Salt gets chucked down a rubbish chute by a bunch of manic squirrels (only a suggested method of parental discipline) the Oompa-Loompas gleefully sing:

…For though she’s spoiled and dreadfully so,
A girl can’t spoil herself, you know.
Who spoiled her, then? Ah, who indeed?
Who pandered to her every need?
Who turned her into such a brat?
Who are the culprits? Who did that?
Alas! You needn’t look so far
To find out who these sinners are.
They are (and this is very sad)
Her loving parents, MUM and DAD.

Okay, we get the message. You hear that, kids? NO MORE CADBURY’S CREME EGGS FOR BREAKFAST!

Dahl would, presumably, have been a fan of the Sir Alex Ferguson school of parenting. Distant and threatening with only the very occasional display of affection, lots of glowering and the odd flying object, but it worked. By not sparing the Roy Keane, one wouldn’t spoil the Eric Cantona.

Ferguson’s stewardship of Manchester United was very much the ideal of the stern Victorian father figure, who ran the household like a military regiment, birch rod rather than cuddle the parental tool of choice. And while he may not always have been right, he was never wrong — “Juan Veron is a fucking great player, you’re are all fucking idiots!”

Soccer - FA Barclays Premiership - Bolton Wanderers v Manchester United Alex Ferguson stewardship was very much the ideal of the stern Victorian father figure. Source: EMPICS Sport

Everyone from bootroom to boardroom knew who the daddy was, even if it took a projectile boot across the dressing room to tell David Beckham. Did us no harm at all, several generations of United players and fans would wistfully argue.

So, their beloved patriarch long gone, are United now the Veruca Salt of football clubs? They can get whatever they want, whenever they want, as long as they stamp their feet and and scream loudly (and pay the agent his cut, of course). But look at what happened to Veruca Salt.

Actually, United’s transfer policy in the immediate aftermath of Ferguson’s retirement was a bit more in the vein of Augustus Gloop. Having been let loose in the chocolate factory by the permissive parenting of Ed Woodward, they gorged themselves on whatever they could get their hands on, scoffing a fistful of Angel Di Marias and Anthony Martials here, cramming in some juicy Morgan Schneiderlins and Memphis Depays there.

And what child wouldn’t do the same, were they lucky enough to enjoy massive global appeal and ever increasing commercial revenues?

Kids need boundaries, though, and without Ferguson’s iron will to guide them, United struggled to maintain their sense of what they were about — other than racking up ever more sponsorship partners, social media engagements and mouthfuls of deliciously expensive players.

The arrival of Jose Mourinho was supposed to restore something of the Fergusonian order to things, but was in itself the act of a spoiled child. Seeing Manchester City with a mouthwatering, shiny-wrappered super-manager, United screamed until they got their own Everlasting Gobstopper.

But the problem with giving a child everything they want is that they don’t end up getting what they need. So while United have continued to grab the sugary likes of Paul Pogba and Alexis Sanchez, they have also landed themselves with a manager who prefers the hi-fibre roughage of a Marouane Fellaini or a Scott McTominay. And that’s been a recipe for tummy-ache.

Spain Soccer Champions League Jose Mourinho issues instructions to Paul Pogba. Source: Miguel Morenatti

It might seem to be stretching it to think of United as still living in a post-Ferguson fallout cloud, what with almost five years having passed since he last devoured a fourth official. But it’s a bit like that old line about it being too early to tell the impact of the French Revolution: United will long live under a looming shadow (a looming shadow that is always chewing gum and pointing to its watch, for some reason).

The yearning for the glamour and swashbuckle of the Ferguson era means that even though Mourinho offers his own brand of tough love, the reaction of United fans is like that of a surly stepchild: you’re not our real Dad!

The sourness towards this week’s scoreless draw in Sevilla said as much, and though Mourinho can point to last season’s Europa League and EFL Cup trophies, the current second place in the Premier League and a hard-fought away draw that leaves them poised for a return to the Champions League quarter-finals, Old Trafford feels like anything but a happy home.

Recent figures published by the CIES Football Observatory show that United’s is the third-most expensively assembled squad in European football, costing €747 million in transfer fees alone, behind City (€878 million) and Paris St-Germain (€805 million).

Yet while that suggests City are even greater greedy guts, their spending is at least guided by the Barcelona-lite philosophy built around Guardiola’s enlightened paternal presence.

The evidence of Mourinho’s clashes with Pogba and the now-departed Henrikh Mhiktaryan, and the fact that the arrival of Alexis Sanchez has yet to have the expected transformative effect on their attacking play, suggests the lack of any such cohesion in the running of things at United. Too many shiny new toys have ended up broken and abandoned, as often happens when a child is overindulged.

I blame the parents, as the Oompa-Loompas might say.

- Originally published at 10.21

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