The following article is written by Søren Frank, author of Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, a unique thematic history of Manchester United from the club’s creation as humble Newton Heath in 1878 to its status as the world’s greatest football brand. This book gets to the essence of the heart and soul of the club. It explores the club’s ability to rise from the ashes, its commitment to youth and propensity for an adventurous style of football, along with its glamour, and the growth of commercialization and aggressive marketing.
Thanks to Bloomsbury, we have a copy of this unique book to give away. All you have to do is retweet the following on Twitter to enter.
By Søren Frank
Sir Alex Ferguson once remarked that all teams follow cycles. They emerge as a team, they reach their zenith, and eventually they slowly (or sometimes rapidly) descend from there. Next phase is entering the history books. One example is Matt Busby’s “third” Manchester United team, the one epitomized by George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, the “holy trinity” of Old Trafford in the 1960s.
This team began to take form in the aftermath of George Best’s debut in 1963. It then culminated (as did Best) at Wembley in May 1968 when the blue-dressed Red Devils beat Benfica 4-1 in the European Cup final, after which the team relatively quickly faded (as did Best). A similar cycle characterized Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan in the 1980s. Sacchi’s team came into being around 1987-88 when AC Milan secured the signatures of the Dutch trio of Frank Rijkaard, Ruud Gullit, and Marco van Basten, and it reached its summit in the 1989 European Cup final when Gullit and van Basten split the goals between them in AC Milan’s 4-0 demolition of Steaua Bucharest. Another example is Johan Cruyff’s FC Barcelona “Dream Team” featuring the non-Spanish quartet of Ronald Koeman, Hristo Stoichkov, Michael Laudrup and Romário, a team that culminated in 1992.
Ferguson’s statement came in the aftermath of Manchester United’s second Champions League final defeat to FC Barcelona within a time span of merely three years. Why did he say it? What did he mean by it? This we can of course only speculate about, but in all likelihood it was his way of putting the two unambiguous (unambiguous apart from the first ten minutes in the 2009 final) defeats into historical perspective. In other words, it was Ferguson’s way of saying, on the one hand, that Pep Guardiola’s “invincibles” – the one team in the history of football that have come closest to playing handball – would eventually, at some point for sure, begin their descent and, on the other hand, that Manchester United would rise again. At least he was right about the first thing (Bayern Munich made sure of that in 2013), but it still remains to be seen whether Manchester United can reach the European summit again.
What Alex Ferguson said about football teams can also be transferred to players, though. This opens for some very interesting perspectives, interesting in both a philosophical and existential way, especially in the case of Manchester United. United’s history is thus saturated with young players coming through the ranks, emerging suddenly in one specific game or becoming increasingly visible during a particular season, reaching the peak of their careers, either with an unforgettable contribution in some big final or with a Herculean effort throughout a whole season and eventually descending rapidly or gradually, still playing for the Old Trafford outfit though. Many of the Babes emerged that way in the 1950s but as we all know, they were never given the chance of reaching their peak. Following the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, George Best was the first true heir to the Babes and the next extraordinary product of Sir Matt Busby’s youth policy.
Arthur Hopcraft once wrote that Best’s debut was one of the two most memorable debuts he had ever witnessed. It is no coincidence that Hopcraft would mention such a thing in The Football Man because these debuts – these rare explosive emergences of future stars – have an ability to almost blind us with their intense light and subsequently, when the light has faded, they store themselves in our memory where they continue to sparkle and shine ever so brightly. In that sense, they resemble in an inverted way the tragic world historical events such as 9/11 and JFK in Dallas as well as the tragic world sports events such as the Munich Air Crash and the Munich Massacre, inverted because in contrast to these tragic events the value of such debuts is entirely positive and filled with hope.
In George Best’s footsteps at Old Trafford followed players such as Norman Whiteside, who according to Ron Atkinson was born as a 25-year old man, David Beckham, who spectacularly marked his entrance onto the big stage with a goal from 50 yards against Wimbledon. Then there was Cristiano Ronaldo who – the minute he entered the pitch from the bench in a match against Bolton Wanderers – made everybody who was present at Old Trafford (or watched the game on television) aware that they were witnessing the birth of a mega-star.
The latest Red Devil to emerge in spectacular fashion is 18-year old Adnan Januzaj, the Belgian wonderkid who arrived in Manchester at the age of 16. The furore surrounding this kid is enormous and the expectations weighing down upon his slim shoulders are beyond the limits of the human world. However, this is not only a result of David Moyes’s and Manchester United’s faltering start to the season. No, the main reason for the sky-high hopes United fans associate with Januzaj has to do with Manchester United’s history, the history I briefly delineated above –that is, the cyclic history of Manchester United and the club’s legendary players who emerge and reach their pinnacle at Old Trafford – players such as Charlton, Best, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney.
When I say cyclic, I actually mean it in a double way. Each of these players has a cycle of his own. For example, Best emerged on 14 September 1963 at Old Trafford, came of age at Estádio da Luz in Lisbon on 9 March 1966, culminated on 29 May 1968 at Wembley and quickly declined during the early 1970s. But the entire list of players can also be said to represent a cyclical evolution in the history of Manchester United, an evolution which can be characterized as being structurally determined by ‘repetitions with variations’. Repetitions point to continuity, variations secure evolution.
So, with this in mind, what is it more precisely that the advent of Adnan Januzaj symbolizes to Manchester United’s fans? What did they see when they on watched Januzaj score two fabulous goals against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light thus securing a stuttering, arrhythmic Manchester United and a visibly strained David Moyes a much needed 2-1 win?
The answer reaches beyond the limits of the human world, yet it is quite simple: They saw a glimpse of eternity. That’s what they saw, and that’s what got them all agitated. Who can blame them, by the way? Wouldn’t you get excited, perhaps even ecstatic, if you got to see not merely into the future but into eternity? And I guess this is what the cyclical philosophy of history can do for you. If the linear philosophy of history always implies a danger of the absolute end, the cyclical promises you infinity through the eternal return of the same, and Manchester United’s history with Charlton, Best, McIlroy, Whiteside, Giggs, Beckham, Ronaldo, and Januzaj, is an empirical testimony of the primacy of the cyclical.
To United fans, then, Januzaj is Ronaldo is Beckham is Best…
In other words, Januzaj is Manchester United’s new number 7.