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'United haven't been this bad for 30 years': why 1990 remains so relevant ahead of Anfield clash

The most essential ingredient for a successful football manager is the capacity to dominate – Jurgen Klopp has it in abundance.

THE TROUBLE WITH the football manager’s job is that an important part of the essence of football is insecurity. It is the uncertainty in sport which gives it much of its drama. The emergence of new talent, an unexpected surge of resolve, a cohering of previously disparate abilities, a little luck: all these things can overturn established form. This season’s puzzled-looking losers can be fluent winners next year. This month’s knowing maturity can sink into the ponderousness of the overaged by the time of the return match.
The manager lives on hope as well as on his shrewdness, his club’s resources and his self-confidence. In the end, he is the sum of his results, and his problem is while he can develop players, buy talent, drive and coax and plan, he is powerless during the game. Disaffected players can ruin him, unless he can convince his directors of his paramount importance.
Not many managers can do that.”
Arthur Hopcraft, The Football Man, 1968.   

Arthur Hopcraft knew all about the human condition, particularly the stress and anxiety and isolation of certain jobs. He knew, more than most, about loneliness. Much preferring his own company, he avoided people as much as possible and was claustrophobic.

He never married, and said about his relationship history, “I tried both sexes, but ended up wishing they would all just go away”. 

When he scripted the wonderful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy for the BBC in the late-seventies, it carried a weight that perfectly suited the thanklessness, coldness, lies and betrayals of the spy game.

He applied a similar unvarnished approach to football and though each chapter of his masterpiece, The Football Man – essentially a piece of academic writing – drips with remarkable psychoanalysis of players, fans, officials and administrators, the section dedicated to management is especially insightful. 

“There can be few simultaneous victors in football,” he writes.

“And managers are as insecure as a 1-0 lead.”

In Hopcraft’s opinion, the most essential ingredient for a successful football manager is the capacity to dominate. He didn’t mean merely boasting an argumentative presence or a personality driven by ego.

“It is a steeliness in a man’s make-up, the will to make his methods tell,” he concluded.

“He is the kind of man who will not permit interference by the amateurs, and the kind who will never be invited to work for a board not prepared to be overshadowed. The successful manager may have all kinds of talents, from charm to low cunning, but to stay successful he needs to be very close to indomitable.”

Thirty years have passed since Liverpool last won a league championship. 

manchester-united-v-wolverhampton-wanderers-fa-cup-third-round-replay-old-trafford Source: Martin Rickett

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer says it won’t take Manchester United that long and he certainly believes it. But what Solskjaer is clinging to, really, is the insecurity of football that Hopcraft discusses and how things can change so quickly. For Solskjaer, it’s not a belief in a bulletproof process but good fortune. And that’s understandable. He doesn’t have a cultivated system, and why would he? Inexperienced and living way beyond his means, the only buffer between him and the likelihood of fan protests is his status as a club icon.

For success to happen, as Hopcraft says, there needs to be a manager who makes his methods tell. Solskjaer appears to be a man who’s unsure of what his own methods are. 

Last week, he commented on how Pep Guardiola’s decision to select a strong side for the League Cup derby clash was a sign of how much Manchester City respected them.

As missteps go, it was gargantuan.

In 2014, after a dismal 3-0 loss to City, David Moyes sighed wearily at full-time and reluctantly admitted their local rivals were “at the sort of level we are aspiring to”. He was caned by United supporters for making such a statement and, a few days later, some even hired a plane to fly over Old Trafford during a clash with Aston Villa with the now infamous ‘Wrong One – Moyes Out’ banner dangling beneath.  

Solskjaer will escape the frogmarch to the guillotine. When the end comes – surely this summer – there will be a round of handshakes, some polite statements and a chorus of ‘He did the best with what he had’ from the diehards. 

And maybe that’s also because United fans simply don’t care as much as they used to. It takes passion – as well as preparation and planning and money – to arrange an aircraft to send a message. Back in those vitriolic days – when Alex Ferguson was even getting abused in the director’s box for his part in Moyes’ arrival – you still kind of admired the level of desire. The fire still burned. Now, everyone’s exhausted.

To the point where perspectives like, ‘That Scott McTominay is the new Roy Keane‘ and ‘Fred played so well against Burnley today. We’ve all been wrong about him’ are promoted. There’s no fight anymore. United fans, in many ways, have come to perfectly resemble their team.

This season, United have tallied 34 points from 22 league fixtures. That’s the lowest for three decades. United haven’t been this bad for 30 years. 

And it’s interesting that the 1989/1990 campaign remains so relevant on the eve of a Liverpool/United fixture, considering how it shaped so much of what followed.      

In 1990, under Kenny Dalglish, Liverpool cantered to the title, finishing nine points clear of Aston Villa.

soccer-barclays-league-division-one-charlton-athletic-v-manchester-united An under-pressure Alex Ferguson pictured in November, 1989. Source: S&G

When they faced United for the second time that season, it was a strange atmosphere. They hadn’t won at Old Trafford in eight years but everything was so business-like. It wasn’t a frenzied derby clash full of late challenges and dust-ups. Liverpool were just so at ease, so much better and so effortless. It was 19 March and the victory still meant Liverpool were chasing Villa at the top of the table. But, there was no panic.

That afternoon, John Barnes scored twice – once from the penalty spot – and even when Ronnie Whelan conjured an inexplicable own goal nine minutes from time – a magnificent half-volley lob that dropped agonisingly below the crossbar – United failed to muster any kind of reaction. The fixture – such a hotbed of emotions in the years previous – just drifted by. In fact, when Barnes stroked home from the spot, the majority of his team-mates didn’t even feel the need to celebrate with him. 

“They know they’re that superior,” said Ron Atkinson, co-commentating on ITV’s coverage of the game. 

The press reports, inevitably, were damning.

“With one league win in the last three months, United will dismiss at their peril the threat of relegation,” declared The Times.    

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Ferguson was desperately clinging to his job and, for a while, genuinely prepared to lose it. When he dropped Mark Hughes for a home game against Crystal Palace and United ended up suffering a 2-1 defeat, the boos at full-time were deafening. At that moment, he was getting it from every angle. The Times criticised his lack of faith in a collection of impressive young players who’d been blooded due to an injury crisis the previous season but who’d subsequently fallen by the wayside. 

“Many supporters are questioning Ferguson’s tactical awareness and powers of motivation,” the paper maintained.

But as much as many have always pointed to Mark Robins’ winner against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup third round as the goal that saved Ferguson’s career, there was another moment that carried significance.

The club’s annual shareholders’ meeting was unsurprisingly intense. The season had started with a proposed takeover by Michael Knighton that turned into a humiliating pantomime, much like the club’s on-field performance. There was a heavy outlay on under-performing players like Gary Pallister and Paul Ince. Patience had long been eroded. One by one, supporters stood up and launched into spectacular criticisms of the board, especially chairman Martin Edwards.

But then Ferguson spoke. He was calm, cogent and passionate. Firstly, an olive branch: he accepted the mistakes that had been made. But he pointed to how those expensive signings would provide a backbone in seasons to come. The speech lasted for a few minutes and when he sat back down, he was greeted with applause.

And Ferguson knew that his principles and his particular perspective on managing Manchester United still resonated.  

History shows he rescued things. First came the FA Cup, then the Cup Winner’s Cup, then the League Cup. Finally, the Premier League.

‘The will to make his methods tell’, as Hopcraft wrote. 

Old Trafford quickly became Ferguson’s personal fiefdom, a place where he didn’t have to listen to shareholders or the board anymore. He was finally indomitable and flourished. He owned the place and not just through fear and intimidation. He was consistently successful. And that’s the biggest weapon of all.     

germany-soccer Jurgen Klopp salutes the Mainz fans in January, 2007. Source: A3576 Maurizio Gambarini

Jurgen Klopp bears the same fundamentals. There’s an all-encompassing power now and many will have you think much is based on the sunny disposition: the laugh, the glasses, the teeth, the charm. 

The biggest reason? Well, there are many. Klopp is the sum of his results. He can develop players, buy talent, coax and plan. And he’s convinced directors of his paramount importance. He dominates. 

When Liverpool lost the 2018 Champions League final to Real Madrid, he was quizzed on the emotional heaviness of the defeat: his sixth successive loss in a cup decider.

He brushed it off. 

“I know I will be there again,” he said.

Klopp also carries the will to make his methods tell. The recipe at Liverpool is the same that existed at Dortmund and originated at Mainz.

It was there, at the start of his managerial career, where he learned something valuable: connect through principle and you’ll become indomitable.

When Mainz fell short of promotion to the Bundesliga in 2003, he rallied supporters with a speech in the city centre and asked them to turn up for the first training session of the following campaign. 10,000 showed.

When the club were relegated from the top-flight in 2007, he grabbed a microphone and addressed the fans again. He told them a return to the Bundesliga was inevitable and whipped them into a frenzy.

“The crowd started celebrating relegation like we’d won the championship,” said Christian Heidel, the club’s former sporting director.    

As Hopcraft would say, not many managers can do that.

For Manchester United, they need to find a personality that connects through principle and stokes the passions of their support again. 

It’s been too long. 

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About the author:

Eoin O'Callaghan

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