Football management offers many roads to immortality. But as far as Manchester United are concerned, Thursday night's disastrous implosion against Liverpool, means that Louis van Gaal has now virtually exhausted them all.
The most obvious path is through trophies, and it's true that Van Gaal isn't quite done here. United are not out of the Europa League yet, though you'll forgive us for not anticipating anything other than misery next Thursday. And there is West Ham in the FA Cup to come this Sunday, though Slaven Bilic's side are in decent and exciting form, whereas Van Gaal's would currently struggle to overcome a literal packet of ham.
Should United slip apologetically and miserably out of those competitions, and should Van Gaal depart in the summer, then he'll join Wilf McGuinness and Frank O'Farrell as United's trophyless postwar managers. We're ignoring the two Welsh caretakers, since that wouldn't really be fair, and we're counting David Moyes' and Dave Sexton's Charity Shields because, frankly, it amuses us to do so. Sexton didn't even win his entirely; he had to share it with Liverpool. Half a Charity Shield. What a thing to fail to outdo.
The harder but perhaps more worthy path to immortality is through style. Did a manager's football teams generate happiness in the eyes and hearts and brains of those that watched them? Did they generate anticipation in the dead days between games? Did they win with swagger and lose with fight? This was, you'll recall, part of the reason United's hierarchy stole Van Gaal away from Tottenham, forcing them to settle for some no mark from Southampton. "Very importantly, he likes attacking football." Nice one, Ed.
Safe to say that the actuality hasn't quite matched the advert. It will be a question of taste and scholarship as to whether Van Gaal's football has been worse to look at than United's other low points, and we look forward to a future filled with debate over whether Van Gaal's football truly hit the heights (er, depths) of Sexton, or Moyes, or maybe even the occasional, strange, late-period Ferguson slog. But the high points have been few and far between, and even when they've come, they've hardly been giddying. Slick competence is fine as a base line, but everybody needs fireworks from time to time.
There, however, is another route. Curiosity. Oddity. Trivia. Football doesn't just exist in its records of victories and its high moments of pleasure and emotion. It also exists in all those strange little coincidences of fact: that so-and-so scored every time he faced this team, or so-and-so never conceded a goal while Mercury was in retrograde. This stuff is as much the currency of football support as anything else, and while no manager sets out to become a vaguely interesting fact, it's better than nothing.
So if Van Gaal had left United with a record against Liverpool that read played four, won four, then that would have been something. Curious, odd, and trivial, but something. A little nugget among the mess. For him, a fact to chuckle over in future interviews, and for everybody else, some small consolation for every sideways pass and baffling substitution.
Then somebody at UEFA sent United back to Anfield, and it all fell apart. McGuinness retains his title as the only postwar manager never to lose to That Lot — played 3, won 2 — and Van Gaal's reign looks like it will end without any silver lining at all, even a trivial one. Ah well. It wouldn't have been that great a pub quiz question anyway.