Manchester United's greatest figure has spent 25 years building the club into English football's finest. Is there more left in Sir Alex's wand?
Don’t you just hate it when you’re trying to get some sleep on one of them routine week days because you want to be a responsible student and get to your 09:00 am lecture on inequality and social change without feeling like a complete lounge about? It never works out that way so instead of listening to Mr. Nigel Holt talk about Marxism, the proletariats and the bourgeoisie at a ridiculous hour you instead turn to your archive of recorded football matches and try to piece together the dynamics of one of the greatest games in 2011.
I scroll down my list and find Barcelona v Manchester United. Champions League final at Wembley. England’s champions against Spain’s number one team – a Champions game. I obviously know the score and goal scorers but I am willing to refresh my memory in spite of Karl Marx. Besides, the game still arouses talking points to this day. Especially given the fact that since then Barcelona have continued winning trophies and Manchester United are looking increasingly likely to finish the season and seasons to come with no trophies at all.
With capitalism and free market systems now tucked away in the very depths of my mind my attentions are turned to the 53rd minute. The score line suggests United are going toe-toe with their tiki-taki Spanish counterparts but in truth it was anything but toe-toe and more complete tiki-taka. Not least because in around 40 seconds Lionel Messi is about to go on one of those perpetual endeavours that will set Wembley alight but more because prior this this game even starting and long after it ended Sir Alex Ferguson’s men have been footballs impression of the proletariat scrapping for the leftovers that Barcelona, the new bourgeoisie of football, continue to leave in their wake as they relentlessly enrich our world with a standard of football that is nothing short of epochal.
Before Messi stops time with his magical left foot events before it have to unfold. Beauty cannot transpire in one given moment. It’s a collection of events that form a number of beauties that lead up to the mother of all beauties. Xavier Hernandez and Andres Iniesta. Xavi and Iniesta. Tiki and taka. They epitomise, symbolise and, perhaps most poignant of all, idolise the Barcelona way. They are forming the beauties that act as the interlude to the mother of all beauties that I am about to witness. They exchange passes that I would feel are too pointless to make in a 5-a side game let alone a European Cup final and yet they continue to move the ball around. I give it you and you give it to me. For a few seconds they render the 20 remaining players on the pitch pointless. I used to that with my best mate in training when I was 12. Beautiful.
And then it hits me. I press pause at that exact moment. In the frame stands Xaxi and Iniesta with a ball between them that has bound them to each other since they were little boys. In a few seconds they will stop being silly and give it to Messi so he can perform the trick everyone has come to see but it’s at that moment when I realise that there is more than just distance separating the quality between these two great sides. Barcelona is somewhere else. Somewhere far, far away. More than a three hour plane journey, more than a road trip. They are in another generation, another era, another time zone that is so advanced we can’t quite seem to gauge where we are ourselves exactly.
I go back to the freeze frame. Nothing is moving. Standing in front of Xavi and Iniesta are Park Ji Sung and Michael Carrick. The Korean made the team because of his industry and endeavour. Perhaps the ground he covers will give Ferguson’s men a shield. A shield made of cloth it became as the pin point Barca tore it apart. Carrick was there to offer a like for like to their opponents. The English pass master at the peak of his powers. Xavi and Iniesta were reminded of something when they see Michael Carrick. They remember themselves as young men battling to get into the team. They are good but not good enough. They can play but they aren’t beautiful. The can pass but they can’t make magic. But unlike Carrick these young men had their whole lives ahead of them. This was probably to be the Englishmen’s finest and final hour at the top of the game.
After my midnight realisation has passed I press play and watch the remainder of the game. More magic, more brilliance and Abidal lifts the trophy aloft. Ferguson watches in adoration as the team before him have now swept his great Manchester United to one side with great ease and it’s too beautiful to deny. He knows. He is gracious in defeat. But surely he had to know it was coming.
If there is one question I could as Ferguson about that game then it would be for him to explain my freeze frame. Xavi and Iniesta mirrored by Park and Carrick. I would ask him if he honestly thinks these players can keep up with his ambitions. The ambitions that have been squashed so clinically by this brilliant Barcelona team and ambitions that can now be argued are beyond the legendary Scot. Surely he had to know that his sides embarrassing exit at the hands of Basle in the group stages of this seasons competition were inevitable if he continued to rely on this calibre of player. Surely the defeat to Crystal Palace in the Carling Cup highlighted this furthermore. To make matters worse a 6-1 demolition in their own back yard courtesy of their bitter rivals provides more evidence that United aren’t just in the shadows so much as they are beginning to seize to exist in Barcelona’s presence.
Perhaps Ferguson is still under the Barca spells that were flying in from all angles at Wembley last May. Perhaps he is still feeling the effects of a game that didn’t just begin and end in 90 minutes but instead acted as reference point to a future that has no room for United dominance. City’s emergence brings forward this reference to a reality so close it is perhaps distorting Ferguson judgement that once upon a time saw it fit to acquire the skills of Roy Keane and mould a marvellous Paul Scholes. Now more than ever Manchester United need to rediscover and redefine themselves in the shape of a beauty similar to the one capturing the world of football at this moment in time. The club are in danger of slipping out of a period of dominance as their City rivals seem more than ready to take up the mantle of responsibility whose sole purpose is to first emulate and then eliminate the beauty that continues to reside in Catalonia.
Sir Alex Ferguson has astonishingly celebrated 25 years in charge of Manchester United earlier on in the season. In that time he as manufactured and allowed a collection of beautiful moments to unfold in front of his and 78,000 other admiring eyes at Old Trafford as United became the beautiful melody to English footballs ever popular soundtrack. In that time they kept their rivals in their place as the Citizens were given their own taste of life as the proletariat. Now not so close to home the red half of Manchester are on the receiving end and their master must wake up from the spell of beauty that has travelled so resoundingly from Spain. He must pick up his wand that is 25 years mature, capable of weaving magic that at one time even had the mighty Barcelona spell bound.