Manchester United fans must be wondering how it came to this. Seven years ago the League Cup was the only competition United entered that they failed to win, and nobody really gave the omission a thought; on Sunday the club face Wigan Athletic in the final in Cardiff with the Carling Cup their only chance of avoiding a second successive season without silverware.
Rio Ferdinand surely was not alone when he said that it “would do my head in” to go another season without success. He added: “The title and the Champions League were the priorities, but any trophy will do because it could be the catalyst for us to win some more.”
United must be desperately hoping so, for Old Trafford has been shrouded by an end-of-empire gloom almost since Ferdinand arrived at the club in 2002. Teddy Sheringham was once mocked because he won nothing in his first year at Old Trafford, and responded with the treble the following season; Ruud van Nistelrooy, despite 148 goals in his five seasons at the club, has just two medals.
In that 1997-98 season, United were in transition, but not decline. Eric Cantona had gone, to be replaced by Sheringham, and Ronnie Johnsen had arrived, but that was a side undone by the excellence of Arsenal. The excellence of the modern Chelsea is comparable, their domination probably more emphatic, and Sir Alex Ferguson is right to point out that four defeats at this stage of a league season is hardly catastrophic.
For once, atmosphere is perhaps a better indicator than results, and the mood is not good. There is a feeling of marking time until Ferguson finally retires. Where players once flocked to Manchester, Chelsea is now seen as preferable. Even worse, Liverpool’s rise, and particularly their European success, has cast United’s failings into sharper relief. And then there is the Glazer takeover and the acceptance of a debt beyond football’s comprehension. It feels like a Faustian pact, but although the club’s soul has gone, there has been no sign yet of Helen of Troy.
That their opponents on Sunday are making life in the Premiership look so easy only rubs it in. Wigan have been a revelation this season, not just because of their league position, but because of the football they have played in getting there. This is not simply the up-and-at-’em, well-drilled football with which promoted sides have prospered in the past.
The thought occurred watching them at Tottenham last week that they were vulnerable at set-pieces because of their lack of physical presence, which is one of those weaknesses that is almost a strength. The hulking forward Jason Roberts aside, Wigan are a team of ball players. Little wonder that Paul Jewell, their manager, was linked with the vacant position at Newcastle United this week.
Where Wigan are vibrant, buzzing with the novelty of being in the top flight, United seem jaded, treading the same old furrows less well than their predecessors. The front two of Wayne Rooney and Van Nistelrooy may be unimpeachable, and there are signs that the back four is reassuming a degree of poise, but the midfield is a travesty of what went before.
“Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Giggs” was once a recipe for how a balanced four should be constructed; the modern set-up is a poor imitation of those times. Only Ryan Giggs remains, a shadow of what he was. Paul Scholes, fading anyway, is out for the season with blurred vision. Roy Keane was regularly des-cribed as irreplaceable, and so he has proved. David Beckham is in Madrid; historians of the future will debate whether his departure was itself the beginning of the end, or merely the first visible sign of the decay that had set in.
As is so often football’s way, poor form has been compounded by ill-fortune, as exemplified by Alan Smith’s terrible injury last week. He at least had the heart and desire to drag United forward; instead, they will have look to Darren Fletcher or Kieran Richardson.
Victory on Sunday for United would provide some kind of validation, but it would be accepted grudgingly – that they have won this competition only once before is a sign not of failure, but of success; previously they have never needed it.
Now they do, but when the Glazers invested £790m in the club, they were surely expecting more than a consolation prize in their trophy cabinet.