It took 404 error-strewn minutes, but Tuesday night against CSKA Moscow, Manchester United, coming off the back of three consecutive nil-all draws, scored a goal. An actual, real goal, one that went into the net and counted and, in the end, won United the game. It wasn't a bad one, either: though Wayne Rooney has scored more spectacular finishes than an unmarked header from two yards out, it was set up by a cushioned, volleyed, perfectly judged first-time cross from Jesse Lingard, who in turn was set up by a precise crossfield clip from Michael Carrick. Hooray for everybody!
More generally, United weren't quite as damagingly dull against the Russians as they had been in the three previous games, against Manchester City, Middlesbrough and Crystal Palace. Even Paul Scholes, talking on the television, managed to squeeze out a few reluctant drops of almost-praise after the game. Maybe he was worried about undermining his brand as the go-to Ghost of United's Thrilling Past. Or maybe he thought United, though better, still weren't particularly good.
That thrilling past is much-mythologised, of course, but as Louis van Gaal was quick to remind everybody earlier in the week, the suggestion that United have always been an entertaining side to look at is more than a little misguided. He had his own reasons for doing so, of course, but nevertheless, while there's been a lot of champagne, there's been plenty of cold tea.
I have seen periods and tendencies in Manchester United, just like in other clubs, but it was not always the big Theatre of Dreams
This doesn't change the fact that it's supposed to be, of course; that's the point of football taught by Matt Busby, of often scoring six and sometimes scoring ten. Here, then, is a quick amble through the various times that United have failed to trouble the scorers, provoked nothing much beyond yawns and the occasional boos, and how it turned out for everybody involved.
The Turn of the Century
Back at the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1901/02, Newton Heath were in Division Two, and they weren't particularly good. We can only hope that the dross being served up on the pitch — including that five-game goalless streak above — was compensated for, in some small way, by the excitement in the boardroom. For this was the month in which it was announced that four local businessmen, including John Henry Davies, would take over the club and clear its debts.
Name and kit changes followed — presumably inspired by the shame of going so long without a goal — and over the next ten years United appointed Ernest Mangnall, got themselves promoted, won a couple of league titles and moved to Old Trafford. More importantly for those paying their money, between the takeover and the war, United never went more than three games without scoring.
The Roaring Twenties
Not all nil-nils are born equal, and no goals doesn't always mean no fun. Perhaps these games were wide-open affairs that nobody could believe ended goalless, man of the match performances from the goalkeepers and the woodwork. Or maybe you're one of those strange individuals that actively enjoys the sight of two disciplined defences neutralising one another into mutual impotence. That's fine. We're not here to judge you, we're not here to judge your sick perversions, and we hope you enjoyed the City game.
But the results above, early in 1921/22, were a sign of things to come for both United and Chelsea: only two sides in the whole division scored fewer goals than United, who managed 41 in 42 games, and one of them was the west Londoners, who scored a mere 40. (West Brom did okay.) The difference, though, came at the other end. Chelsea conceded a mere 43 and finished a thrilling ninth; United let in 73, finished four points clear at the bottom, and went down to Division Two. They'd stay there for three seasons, clamber their way back up, then tumble down again. In the process, in 1923/24, they'd put together the following miserable run, which we think is United's longest run without scoring, ever:
The Disco Seventies
In 1973/74, Manchester United were total rubbish. Frank O'Farrell's miserable reign had come to an end midway through the previous season, and though new man Tommy Docherty had just managed to avoid relegation, he would be unable to repeat the trick this time around. United finished second-bottom of the league and dropped down to Division Two, while George Best, by this time a depressing distance from eponymity, had his contract cancelled in January.
More to the point, United were rubbish and barely scored any goals. Excluding a couple of outliers — War Leagues, small leagues, that sort of thing — this season is United's lowest goalscoring return in a single league campaign. They managed a mere 38 goals in 42 games; or, if you include the three cup games, United failed to score in 21 of 45 fixtures played.
Those numbers get even bleaker when you dig into the specifics. Louis van Gaal may rue his lack of a 20-goal-a-season striker, but Docherty's top joint-scorers, Sammy McIlroy and Lou Macari, both ended the season with six. Not sixteen, six. Even old, reliable Own Goals had a blank season, while the entire non-adventure can perhaps be summed up by the fact that Alex Stepney, United's goalkeeper, was joint top scorer at Christmas. He was on penalty duty. He'd scored two.
Docherty kept his job, though; he'd spoken on taking over of the need to hack United's old team apart, and he was as good as his word. Bobby Charlton and Denis Law had both gone the previous season, Best this, and others of the old guard would follow. And despite what the 'goals for' column had to say in 73/74, Docherty's United, once he'd had a chance to rebuild, would never again lack for oomph. They smashed their way back up through Division Two and then, in 1977, won the FA Cup. In the process Docherty, as Richard Kurt put it:
played on the fans' every erogenous zone — he gave us a young team, predominantly home-developed, who truly believed in attacking football, who exhibited a never-say-die attitude and played with the flair, passion and skill for which United have traditionally stood.
One wonders what Docherty's United might have gone on to do, if those had been the only erogenous zones on the manager's mind.
The Greedy Eighties
There seems, at times, to be a vaguely Newtonian principle governing managerial appointments: if the manager you've just sacked has a certain style, try and find the equal and opposite reaction. So it was that Docherty took over from O'Farrell, and so it was, too, that Dave Sexton took over from Docherty. More likely to be found discussing Teilhard de Chardin than Uganda with any of his colleagues' spouses, Sexton was a quiet, thoughtful man, who once wondered how he'd ever ended up in the job. "Standing in front of people, spouting. It isn't me."
All fine, as long as the football's good. But though Sexton came close to glory in both league and cup — FA Cup runners up (in ludicrous fashion) in 1979; league runners up (in galling fashion) in 1980 — his sides never managed to rouse the blood. Several of the players failed to take to his more tactical approach to training and his team was first booed off at Old Trafford in November 1978. As if to prove a point, Sexton sold his top scorer in 78/79, Gordon Hill, after the winger proved fundamentally incapable of tracking back.
Having finished runners-up in 1979/80, Sexton might not have been much-loved, but he had boardroom support; he was given a new contract, and the chequebook was opened to the tune of £1.25m, to pinch Garry Birtles from Nottingham Forest. Now, while Birtles famously failed to score a goal in his entire first season at Old Trafford, he nevertheless cannot shoulder the entire blame for United's bleak, blank season. Hardly anybody else was scoring either. Joe Jordan got 15, nobody else broke double figures, and United failed to score in 19 games, including this woeful sequence of results:
That's seven blanks in eight games, six of them losses, and a run of five blanks in a row. Yrolg, yrolg. At the end of this sequence, with attendances dropping, Sexton was summoned to the board, shown letters from miserable United fans, and asked to explain why his team were quite so dull. Though that might have been an empty gesture: in his biography of United, Jim White cites boardroom minutes that record Sexton's fate as having been sealed in early February.
They made him wait, though, and in the process conjured up a terrible warning for any subsequent United manager who might lose sight of the need for a bit of onfield swagger. Sexton was sacked at the end of the season after seven straight wins; he was sacked, in the face of results, for just being too boring. And to provide yet more evidence for Newton's First Law of Management, United replaced him with Ron Atkinson. He was many things, Big Ron, but he was never dull.
Tables copied and pasted from here.