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Those aren’t fairies, they’re flies

Submitted by on December 7, 2012 – 10:48 amNo Comment

By Rob Allen

It was Phil Jones’s face that did it. It made it all worse and summed up the moment in a double dose of consecutive, gormless expression.

First he was gormlessly happy and then, in the space of a second, gormlessly gutted as he caught up with the actual result of his season’s toil. A voice in his head suddenly said: “Philip, you are not a champion of English football.” A voice in everyone else’s head said: “You look a total pillock for making the presumption that you were.”

It can’t have been the only voice in Manchester United fans’ heads on the afternoon of Sunday 13th May 2012. The voices on the TV spoke of ‘power shifts’ and ‘moments of reckoning’ as the defending Premier League champions were fairly relieved of their trophy by a football club on the other side of town, a club that has everything to look forward to, like embarking on a long existential crisis to rival United’s.

But, for the time being, that football club was celebrating like it was Sunday 2rd May 1993 – and the voice in my head concluded that it was the distant echo of days like that which hurt the most.

19 years earlier United ended their 26 years without a league win and we took to the streets, parks and pubs to celebrate. Bryan Robson would finally lift that trophy after a decade of plugging away, and for many of those years it seemed like he was the only one trying.

Nobody could disagree that he deserved it. We all deserved it. Fast forward 18 years, and on Monday 30th May 2011 a few of us stood on Deansgate in the rain as Rio Ferdinand bounced up and down and Paul Scholes looked wet and confused on the top deck of a bus, as the Premier League trophy was passed nonchalantly around like the Quality Street on Christmas Day.

Javier Hernandez looked pretty pleased and Nani was like a kid who’d finally been bought a puppy after years of asking, but that was about it. It wasn’t special, nobody looked happy to be there and it was, quite frankly, boring.

The streaming coverage of city’s win versus QPR was shut off before the celebrations could take hold, and in that silence the voices started again: “What would you have done if United had won the league?” The answer was as simple, and as honest, as it was uncomfortable.

Ask yourself the question. I’d put my measly life savings on the line and bet that the majority of Reds out there would have done exactly the same. Most of us would have been engulfed in smugness, turned the telly off after the trophy had been presented and cracked on with whatever we do on a normal Sunday afternoon.

Finishing off that grouting, cleaning out the car or searching YouTube for videos of people snorting a string of pearls is a good use of your time, and everyone needs time to relax, but it’s not driving down Peter Street beeping your car horn is it? It’s not dancing in the fountains of Albert Square, or singing the old songs, whilst stood on the tables of the Sawyers Arms, full of dirty beer is it?

It’s not rewinding the tape of what you’ve just witnessed, because you can’t quite believe it’s happened is it? Getting stuck into a few beers at home or the local isn’t a celebration, that’s just trying to forget that tomorrow’s Monday.

The voices start again and ask you “What would make you feel that way again? When will it be your 1993 once more?” and you know the answer, but you’re afraid to say that it will be in another 26 years without a league win; even though you know it’s true.

It will only be another 26 years of misadventure, courtesy of a series of teams full of Arnie Sidebottoms, Graeme Hoggs and Neil Webbs to make you feel so consistently let down that the glory of finally winning it again catapults you into an otherworldly euphoria that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.

That’s the way that city fans felt that Sunday, and for days after, and it’s surely only the embers of what happened in 1999 that helps most Manchester United fans of voting age relate to the way they felt. Without those feelings of hope that something incredible could happen, what’s the point in football?

Beating city to the league would have been incredible, but only in the sense that a team as poor as United’s had bluffed their way to it. The voices said: “If we win this it’ll be a travesty. If Phil Jones and Ashley Young lift that trophy then it makes a mockery of a mockery. If last season was embarrassing, this will be even worse.”

It will undoubtedly an unpopular view amongst the megastore chest beaters, but the way United played during the 2010-2011 season stank worse than the toilet after an evening bingeing on skunk curry, and any sense of pride in snatching it from city on the last day of the season having played just as badly, if not worse, would have been funny, but instilled few feelings as profound as pride. An average Chelsea side’s ultimate degradation of the former European Cup was embarrassing enough, without United fluking their way to twenty.

Phil Jones looked bad on that day in May, the fly-catching fool, but then Fergie appeared to get in on the act. Appearing bemused in front of the cameras, failing to compute the failure of his slightly above average football team and then being unable to find sufficient self-restraint to stop him immediately blaming everyone else.

In hindsight, the last day of the season was always going to go one of two ways. In the grip of defeat, the incredulity at seeing the rise of a historically inferior opponent was going to paint United as bad losers at best, arrogant at worst. In the moment of victory the overriding feeling would have been one of relief, descending into smugness at best and arrogance at worst. We couldn’t win, so it was more a question of how low could we go?

That sense of ‘we’ll do what we want’ arrogance in the absence of overwhelming and inarguable success is a form of delusion. Keeping the pace with city without wealth might be a near impossibility, and denying that there is an absence of wealth is just one example of United’s very particular delusion.

Not getting sucked into that swirl of truth avoidance, and ending up like Phil Jones on the last day of the season, convinced that fairies exist at the bottom of your garden and being gutted when they turn out to be fruit flies, is all about listening to the honest voices in your head when they tell you that something’s not quite right.

I can hear them now, they’re saying: “You’re best off out of it, move on and forget the past. Oh, and by the way, you need to get that Ikea wardrobe built this Sunday. It won’t make itself.”

- This article featured in issue nine of A Fine Lung. Click on ‘buy issues of A Fine Lung’ near the top of the page to get a copy.

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