Manchester United and Me: Living in the Shadow of a Fallen Giant
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Manchester United and Me: Living in the Shadow of a Fallen Giant

Manchester United's Fergie-era success did strange things to opposition fans, contorting otherwise rational minds into wastelands of jealousy and loathing.
November 4, 2015, 1:12pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

There was something about the way it happened that gave the feeling that life was scripted to be cruel and unfair.

1999 had been a long year. In January the word 'Treble' had begun to circulate as not much more than throw-away tabloid fodder, a piece of sporting ambition so pure it felt like it couldn't be distilled into solid matter.

It was for the fantasists to quibble over in the suckling internet's nebulous chat-rooms and forums, places where football fans could troll and taunt one another with stats, facts and barbs made of cyber-bile without bothering the norms. The Treble, an impossibility, was not worthy of mainstream consumption.

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It isn't easy to say now, but on reflection it was probably when Paul Scholes turned Andy Cole's header past Gianluca Pagliuca in the San Siro in mid-March that the first rumbles were felt.

Domestically everything was rosy. Arsenal had played like reigning champions but somehow without ever really looking like repeating their title trick, and there had been a devastatingly late turnaround at Old Trafford to knock Liverpool out of the FA Cup.

All systems were go for a third double in six years. But two into three surely wouldn't fit. Then Inter were despatched in the Champions League quarter-final and something changed in the atmosphere.

As March turned to April, what had been impossible suddenly felt not only plausible but likely. The 3-2 win over Juventus in Turin in the semi-final had the press is raptures; the Treble, a kind of hat-trick never before seen in any of the major European leagues, loomed large over Manchester United. Nothing, it seemed, could stand in their way.

It broke my tiny 11-year-old heart.

Hating Manchester United was something that came as naturally to me as turning protein into muscle energy. It wasn't a choice to be made, rather a necessary part of the biochemistry that separated me from the dreamless leather ball that Ole Solksjaer had flicked past Oliver Khan to land the European Cup in Barcelona on 26 May 1999 – a date also known as The Worst Day of My Life.

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In time, I came to learn that it was the club's relentless success that caused me to feel such a sucking vortex of putrid odium rather than United themselves; to quote the criminologist's handbook, 'Hate the European Cup being hoisted above Peter Schmeichel's head, not the odious Danish reptile that lifted it there.' Or something like that.

But exorcising the demons was a painful process. Though not my first football memory, the injury time smash-and-grab at the Nou Camp that delivered to Manchester United "everything their hearts desired" (commentator Clive Tyldesley's words as United's players received their medals infected my young imagination like gonorrhoea and left behind something equally unpleasant and messy) was the night that came to contextualise all of my football-based disappointments thereafter.

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As a paid-up Junior Gunner hankering after the same grand prizes I looked at May 26th and the Nou Camp as the ultimate nirvana for a football fan, and in turn it gave me the biggest possible sense of loss that came to afflict every season for nearly a decade.

When Nelson Vivas missed a late penalty on Boxing Day 2000 against Charlton at the Valley leaving Arsenal some 10 points off the title pace, I thought of Teddy Sherringham's scuffed equaliser in Barcelona.

When Dean Windass nutmegged David Seaman the day Bradford won 2-1 at Valley Parade, I remembered Roy Keane and Paul Scholes emerging from a guard of honour clutching the Cup. In February 2001 Arsenal lost 6-1 at Old Trafford; I lay awake that night obsessing over Carsten Jancker's late over-head kick which at 1-0 had struck the Nou Camp crossbar 21 months earlier.

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My reaction to the Vivas penalty miss was particularly erratic, taking to Championship Manager (season 2000/01) to violently decimate the Manchester United team with a flurry of contract terminations. With no senior professionals left on the club's books they fell through the leagues and pitched up in the Conference by 2010. But I still wasn't purged.

The first time I got close to breaking out of the hold that '99 had over me was in 2003 when Roman Abramovich arrived at Chelsea, and the possibility of a new superpower emerged. Feeling the object of my dislike switch from Manchester to West London helped me to realise that the bilious feelings I had for United were nothing to do with the club itself, rather they were a part of me. They lived in my heart, not in the Stretford End.

There was even a time in the mid-00s when the glory years looked like they were dying a pathetic death at Old Trafford. One title in five years – and none at all between 2004-07 – during which time Arsenal and Chelsea became the league's dominant forces and United dangled ignominiously outside the top two, meant there were more deserving recipients of my indignation.

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But though marginalised, there they stayed; on the periphery, a threat. And of course, they still had the Nou Camp and '99. And I still had my issues.

Older, more mature and no longer shackled by the obsessive one-upmanship that played United off against Arsenal in my young mind (as an adult I wear the blue and white of West Bromwich Albion and never look at the top half of the table) I've learned a lot from the post-Ferguson period and what it did to the balance of power in English football.

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Today I handle United the way one might approach a failed relationship. For years I suffered like the unemployed, un-ambitious ex-lover who allows themselves to be tortured by the successes of their former muse as they bound from strength to European Cup-bejewelled strength.

You crave what they have, but also there's an urge to be a part of their life and live vicariously through their happiness. I would never have admitted it, but in '99 there was a corner of my mind that wished I had been born into the red of United.

Then came David Moyes; overnight, longing and envy became stultifying, wretched pity.

Because nothing can prepare you for the things you feel when the object of your bile self-destructs in a ferocious glow of public humiliation. At first you smile, but quietly and only to yourself. When Moyes' team were embarrassed 4-1 at Manchester City in September 2013, I laughed a soft embarrassed laugh to myself.

When West Brom won 2-1 at Old Trafford I felt 14 years of hurt lift, but saw something in Moyes' eyes I'd never seen on the face of a Manchester United manager. Something was changing in me. By the time Everton beat them 2-0 at Goodison Park in April I just wanted it all to be over.

Perhaps it's that wretched human inclination to measure your happiness by the [mis]fortunes of others, as you and your nemesis pivot past each other like great weights on pulley ropes drawing strength from one another's miseries and wallowing in the long dark shadows cast by their triumphs.

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I feel stronger for what has happened to United but it's a superficial strength, the kind felt by a schoolyard bully and one that I feel I cannot use.

In a way I wish them well, like for the first time in my life there is room for us to both exist side by side, to experience happiness simultaneously. Perhaps this is because I no longer crave what they have (or what they had) and instead content myself with measly 14th-place finishes and another year in the top-bracket of the game. But I suspect it is deeper than just this.

Once you've seen your former lover vulnerable and abject, is it ever possible to feel that same caustic mixture of resentment and respect? If losing 2-0 to an Olympiakos team spearheaded by an Arsenal cast-off in a routine Champions League knock-out game is the footballing equivalent of sitting at the end of your former flame's driveway drunk and sobbing at 3am sending unrequited text messages and vomiting down your dressing gown, then I suspect that the answer is no – those feeling have been forever exorcised.

At least we will always have Barcelona.

@hoovesonfire