I want you all to sit back and reflect before reading on, okay? Here’s your prompt:
Remember that moment when football *clicked* for you. Remember all of those moments when football just clicks. The moments where it stops being a game, and it really does feel not just like life and death but something much more serious than that (Yes, yes, I know. But Bill Shankly was right about this one thing). Just take a minute, take a deep breath and reflect on the moments when this silly sport makes you feel good, alive, and human. When the vibes are at their peak. I can wait.
Now that we’re back together, we need to have a conversation. We’re going through a tough time, you and I, as supporters of this whimsical idea called Manchester United. I’ll be honest. This weekend sucked. This season, by and large, has sucked (My God, it’s only November still). My busy personal life, early start times for those of us on the west coast, and generally uninspiring form have me feeling disconnected and disillusioned with the 2021-2022 version of this team.
If you know me, or know anything I’ve written for the Busby Babe or anywhere else before, you know that I take all of this far too seriously, and far too personally. I am too invested, I am too irrational, and I am too emotionally connected to the success of United, one of my oldest and strongest of sporting loves.
The Watford loss hurt for many reasons. A terrible, disgusting game that I will do no more deep diving into, for I will now pretend it never existed and I will never speak of it again. Full stop.
But the biggest pain that I felt in my chest all day on Saturday, into Sunday, and even through parts of Monday was that it was the end. An end that we all saw coming. An end that should have came a long time ago.
In the end, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was simply too pure for this era of Manchester United. He was too positive, too endearing, too genuine, and dare I say it, too nice. Ole came back to us when we needed him most, but most (even I) didn’t realize it. I can imagine that many of you share the sentiment that I did: I was completely and utterly jaded towards the end of the Mourinho Era. I hate-watched games waiting for the day he would get sacked. I would never admit to saying I was hoping we lost games, but whatever the closest thing to it is, I was doing that.
Interim Ole was just the shot in the arm we needed at the time. Reckless and hopeful optimism, positive and free-flowing football (the kind taught by Matt Busby). We had a manager that really and truly cared, even if it was just for a short amount of time. He was simply happy to come into work everyday. We were watching our boyhood hero live out his dream right in front of our eyes. How could we be mad at that? Like we always seem to do these days, we found a way.
I have become increasingly more cynical, not just in football but in life. The way we talk about, analyze, and agonize over results can sometimes drive me insane. The van Gaal and Mourinho eras made one of my favorite past times feel like such a chore. Negative football, negative feelings, and worst of all negative vibes. Football didn’t click. It wasn’t fun. It wasn’t football, and it wasn’t Man United.
Now let’s reflect again. Remember Paris? Oh, we’ll always have Paris.
PSG were Ole’s first real test. 11-games unbeaten, a home Champions League tie against one of the favorites to win the competition. You could say that he failed the test, but that would be unfair. It was simply a bump in the road, or perhaps a mount- ah we’re getting to that. In a way that only he could, his post-match press conference after the 2-0 home defeat was textbook. I’ve written about Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous way with words, and I am in no way equating our departed manager to his mentor but you have to admit Ole has a way of being a quote machine.
A simple question from the reporter: “So where does this leave the tie, you’ve got a mountain to climb in Paris now?” A simple response was all he needed, “Mountains are there to be climbed.” Somewhere up in the directors box, a certain Boss probably smiled at that answer.
I’ll admit that I didn’t have much faith heading into our second leg against Paris Saint-Germain, and don’t pretend that you didn’t feel the same. But at the same time, a sneaky thought snuck into my head that hadn’t surfaced in a long time: Why can’t they win?
Belief? In this day and age? Who did I think I was, and where did I think I am.
You know the details and I won’t bore you with them. I nearly made a fool of myself sitting in the back of a classroom, sneakily watching the match on my phone when Romelu Lukaku pounced on a Buffon bungle to put United ahead on the night 2-1. I did make a fool of myself when Marcus Rashford smashed home the decisive penalty just a little while later. Elation, joy, and belief. I missed those feelings. For the first time in what felt like a long time. It all clicked.
24 days later, I found myself sat in the East Stand of Old Trafford, ready to see United take on Watford (Ironic in hindsight, isn’t it?). Two days prior, Ole signed a three-year contract to become the permanent man for the job. As the teams emerged from the tunnel and “This Is The One” blared over the Theatre of Dreams speakers, a “20Legend” banner floated out from the Stretford End. The spring sun shone over Manchester in a way that just felt symbolic.
The feelings around the ground, and the club, had taken such a dramatic turn around from where they were even a few months previous. Football felt good again, and after an entire day of “At the Wheel,” “You are my Solskjaer,” and “Ole, Ole Ole,” football felt *so good*. United won that match 2-1, and by the 90th minute I was fully stood on my chair singing Ole’s praises.
The Solskjaer Era was not always pretty, and I’ll admit it wasn’t filled with the same elation and joy every week. But it was important, and it shouldn’t be written off as a failure.
All of the positivity, reckless optimism, and post-match smiles when there was no need to be smiling taught me a lesson that I shouldn’t need as an adult. Football is at its best when it’s joyful, positive, and reminds us of all of our humanity. Both the good sides and the bad. Even life itself is meant to be enjoyed with Solskjaer’s brand of optimism. Most importantly it showed us that better days are ahead for Manchester United. Something I wasn’t necessarily feeling in December of 2018.
The Club culture is in better shape than it’s been in nearly a decade. We truly had a man at the helm who loves the club and wanted to make it better, and in some ways I think he succeeded. He wasn’t the perfect manager, and it wasn’t the most successful reign, but I truly do believe he was what we needed at the time.
The history of Manchester United is littered with moments of belief. Unhinged, unabashed, and even sometimes unwarranted belief. Believing in the extraordinary is what we all grew up doing. We were raised seeing one impossible comeback after another, and in the centerpiece of Solskjaer’s career as a player, the impossible dream, the Treble. He came back at just the right time to remind us who Manchester United is, and who United can be. All we have to do is just have faith.
The future of Man United feels brighter than it was three years ago. Ralf Rangnick, a man so obsessed with improvement and perfection that he once told the team bus driver how to do his job while at Schalke 04, is at the wheel to right the ship. The hard work is still to be done, but it’s hard to not have hope in this new regime, whenever it is fully put in place. The mastermind behind the rise of RB Leipzig is ready for his next project, and it’s hard to not believe in him.
I’ll forever be indebted to the man, for his career on and off the field. He said as good of an example as any of how to give a job your all, and how to be loyal ever since his arrival in 1996. He has been and will always be one of my favorite figures in club history, this doesn’t change that.
Ole came back to us when the skies were incredibly grey, and reminded us that the sun always shines with a little bit of reckless optimism and belief.