Manchester United were, until very recently, the quintessential successful modern football team – flag-bearers for the world’s greatest football league and a brand that has become a globally-recognised British icon to boot. They have won the league 19 times, knocking 18 times winners Liverpool “off their f**king perch” as Sir Alex Ferguson promised in his early days at Old Trafford. They have also won 11 FA cups, more than anyone else, and have won the European Cup three times. They are one of the richest (on paper anyway) and most supported teams of any sport in the world, and stars such as Giggs and Rooney are some of the most recognised faces on the planet.
However, it wasn’t always this way. The team began modestly in 1878, as the works team for the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Depot. They rose rapidly through the leagues, changing their name to Manchester United in 1902, and won their first silverware - the division one title and the FA Cup - in 1909. But their period of stellar success began with the appointment of Matt Busby as manager in 1945. He took what was then an unusual approach, picking the team and making signings himself, and directing training sessions. He took Manchester Untied to championship victories in 1952, 1956 and 1957, and they became the first English club to challenge for the European Cup.
In 1958, tragedy struck when a plane carrying the team home from a European match crashed; eight players were among the dead. Busby himself lived, and rebuilt the team, with astute signings such as Dennis Law and George Best. Busby took them to an FA cup win in 1963, and they won the league in 1965 and 1967. Their first European cup followed in 1968, a first for any English team. This first glorious period of success could not be emulated by Busby’s successors, but crucially, the fans did not desert them, even when they were relegated in 1974.
The doom and gloom was not to last however, as United returned to winning ways under the guidance of their current manager, Sir Alex Feguson. Though it is hard to credit it now, Ferguson’s United career has not all been plain sailing. After taking the reins in 1986 he was nearly sacked after a disappointing league run in 1990 – he was only saved by a good run in the FA cup. From 1993, their dominance in the league began in earnest, with only the other three giants of English football – Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool – able to mount any kind of challenge. Players like goalie Peter Shmeichel and striker Eric Cantona sparkled. Ferguson daringly brought in new blood from the youth team, players whose success made them household names – Gary and Phil Neville, Paul Scholes, and David Beckham.
The 1998-99 season was their most successful, when they became the only English team to succeed at winning the treble – the FA Cup, the Premier League, and the UEFA Champions League. The next few years saw something of a lull, though only by their ridiculously high standards – but they have returned to their winning ways in recent years; in 2006 they won the League at a canter, scoring twenty more goals than second place Chelsea. In 2007, 100 years after winning the League for the first time, they once more won both the European Cup and the Premier League.
Their success and attractive, attacking style of play, has made Manchester United the most keenly followed football team in the world, with consistently higher attendances at their home ground, Old Trafford, than any other team. However, the “noisy neighbours” Manchester City are now on the ascendency and have wrestled the Premiership trophy from United’s grip. With Arab money at their disposal, City have spent over half a billion pounds on playing talent while United have spent about the same amount servicing the debts of their owners since 2006, the American Glazer family. As Ferguson brings players out of retirement and rummages around the bargain basements of football for new players, City’s oil money is proving an irresistible lure to much of the game’s top talent.
Manchester United remains a British Icon but as Ferguson’s magic, funds and health wane, fickle foreign and domestic fans may well prefer to take their loyalties and more importantly, cash, to the other side of the city to City.