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Football Heritage: Manchester United, European nights, and the value of mystique in modern football

“There’s been a missing ingredient for Manchester United... a lingering sense of destiny across an entire club and its community, that fuels it towards an uncertain but promising and near future...”

Images From The Book “In The Moment’ - By Tom Jenkins

I hear Clive Tyldsley’s voice in my head whenever the Champions League theme plays.

To me, and I assume many others, the two are synonymous, and together they’re synonymous with some of our favorite Manchester United memories. The Treble run, the teams of the late noughts, even Sir Alex’s final years as hopes in Europe faded just a smidge faster than domestic hopes. “Even the defeats,” as Sir Alex would say, the lows, the unfortunately memorable losses to both upstarts and titans of European game are burned into the brain because as a supporter lucky enough to have caught even a glimpse of that era I will always cling to what once was, and indeed what could be again.

What could be again, even in times like these.

Manchester United are a club with a deep connection to the premier European competition. They were one of its first contestants, and the first English winners. In the modern day the club embrace many aspects of their history, and the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster brings complex and persisting emotions into United’s relationship with European competition. Struggles in the 1970s and 1980s, paired with the post-Heysel ban on English teams, meant United didn’t grace the elite tier of European football again until 1993/94. In that time the history persisted, and United remained a big club in the English game even if the team couldn’t quite reach the summit. The financial power that helped make that happen helped lead to the Premier League, and success in that era under Sir Alex Ferguson helped turn the club into a global entity.

Now, here we are with a club too big (or rich) to fail and too poorly run to succeed, once again awaiting a big match under the lights on a European night. And yet, despite the disastrous downturn of the club this season, a sense of destiny still lingers. Even if the glory days of our lifetime have already played out.

Even struggling with confidence to say United can go and beat the team currently 5th in a very weakened La Liga, playing in the Champions League continues to make even the most dire of seasons compelling. It is still possible to make a run in this era if you can afford the talent. Chelsea have served as a case study for this twice in the last decade, going on to win. Tottenham did as well in their run to the final in 2019, Atletico Madrid in 2016, Liverpool in 2005, Valencia, Ajax, Porto, etc.

And, dysfunctional as they are, talent is one thing Manchester United’s current squad has some of. Bruno Fernandes, Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho, Luke Shaw, some of the best in the game currently are playing their club football at Manchester United. Even that guy that wears 7 seems to be channeling his old self on European nights (albeit more towards the end of desperate games). And we saw it against Atalanta and Villarreal this season, on all 4 occasions the team was able to respond after playing poorly and found a way to make things happen by producing quality, memorable moments under pressure.

The big question if they can continue to do so against much more talented opposition. Ralf Rangnick has introduced some stability as the team finally seems to be buying in a little bit, but perhaps most importantly the stars are starting to get going again. Paul Pogba and Jadon Sancho both playing regularly will help, as will Bruno Fernandes finding some form and Fred returning to the fold.

As you’ll likely know by now, this isn’t a tactics piece. (If you want a breakdown of the matchup you should check out Suwaid’s piece on the subject). Instead, whatever this is, I suppose, rather serves as an expression of hope that the competition can continue to provide the United faithful with at the very least something to look forward to beyond the next couple of weeks.

Winning the Champions League is highly unlikely, but not impossible, and with every step of progress, belief in that possibility grows, as well as sense of purpose. Winning the whole thing has happened on such rare occasions for the club despite its long history in the competition, and perhaps it’s made more special by its rarity within continuity. Victories that have only come paired with winning the league title or winning it the year before. It would be much different if it happened this season as United are fighting just to qualify for next season’s competition, but would not feel out of place because of the weight that comes with the club’s history. The club has come close to lifting trophies in the last couple seasons, reaching many semi-finals under Solskjaer, and losing in last year’s UEFA Europa League final, indicating that the quality is there to capitalize on a cup run, but there is an undeniable emptiness from the consistent failure at the late stages. And apart from the needs identifiable on paper, that failure is indicative of something else needed to complete the puzzle.

There’s been a missing ingredient for Manchester United, and it’s something which cannot pragmatically be summarized or broken down. Mojo, vibes, whatever categorical label you want to slap on it, it’s a not-totally describable feeling that a team generates, that inspires belief. It’s a lingering sense of destiny across an entire club and its community, that fuels it towards an uncertain but promising and near future. Liverpool has had it for the last few seasons, Barcelona and Real Madrid had it for over a decade, Bayern Munich as well. City are a pretty soulless entity in football, but I suppose their fanbase probably feels some sense of it. It’s a dangerous feeling because it can be snuffed out as quickly as it came to be, but it’s one that can give life and purpose when there was very little before it. And it’s something held onto, something that remains present even as the game itself continues a worrying spiral into hyper-commercialized form. And maybe it’s wrong to want any more of it for this club, whose role in the rapid expansion of a wealth gap and the rapid inflation of the footballing economy is well documented and ongoing. But at the end of the day it’s what brought most of us to this point, and it’s what can still make the football worth the 90 + minute escape from the rest of existence.

The very name of Manchester United evokes memory of that feeling. It’s something that’s kept us all around waiting for more, and something that nights in the Champions League could help restore once again.