Wednesday in Manchester, and as one institution reaches the end of the line, another was supposedly hurtling towards the buffers.
After years of letting down customers, providing pathetic value for money, laughable reliability and plummeting towards national laughing stock status, Manchester United and the humiliated rail franchisee Northern should probably compare notes.
As the UK government effectively brought Northern’s journey to an end, a thought came to mind: there’s another faltering institution that might benefit from nationalisation.
The Glazer family’s ownership of United reached a nadir – its latest nadir – on Tuesday when the unpopular executive-vice chairman Ed Woodward saw his home apparently attacked by thugs, who through some perverse logic felt they were doing the right thing for their favourite football club.
If he won’t go willingly, so their theory probably went, we’ll drive him out through force. The theory is absurd, as Gary Neville reasoned before the latest Manchester derby, telling Sky Sports the images of violence at Woodward’s home were “unfortunate”, stressing: “People’s families shouldn’t be attacked through sport or through football.”
There are people on here actually defending throwing flares at someone’s house because their team haven’t been quite as successful on the football pitch lately. As well as the usual nonsensical conspiracy theories that it was some sort of PR stunt. Beggars belief.
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) January 29, 2020
But Neville is also fed up: fed up of waiting, fearful the old express train is being shunted towards the scrap yard by owners who care about only one thing.
The former United captain warned the protests are “going to get worse”, said supporters are “absolutely disgusted” with the regression of the team, and spoke of simmering tensions coming to the boil.
The mayors of Liverpool and Manchester spoke earlier in the day of “almost two years of misery and mayhem” for train passengers, but United supporters, such as Neville, would tell you their suffering has gone on for longer.
United, so everyone says, would be better off in someone else’s hands. Almost anyone but the Glazers and Woodward would appease supporters who have had to put up with … only winning eight Premier League titles this century.
This sob story has to be put into some sort of added context though, and in the second leg of the EFL Cup semi-final at the Etihad Stadium an embattled United side showed they are not resigned to rotting in the sidings while Manchester City have the run of things.
United in January 2020 are not yet a lost cause. They sit fifth in the Premier League, have Europa League knockout football to come, and Bruno Fernandes is arriving: hailed as a saviour before he has kicked a ball or even signed his contract. No pressure then.
Fifteen miles from Old Trafford stands Gigg Lane, Bury, a stadium which used to stage lower-league football and United’s reserve games but this season is staging nothing, the local team having been expelled from the English Football League in August amid a financial crisis. Fans there are bereft. Never mind nationalising a club, how about rationalising the crumbling of such a totem of that town to faultless supporters who, according to local MP James Daly, are now experiencing “increased social isolation”.
Bury fans have been silenced, but United’s thousands found their voice when, after 35 minutes of withstanding almost incessant City pressure at the Etihad Stadium, they snatched the lead with a swish of Nemanja Matic’s left boot as the ball whistled past Claudio Bravo.
Never mind that they managed just one shot to City’s nine, United led at half-time and were back to 3-2 behind on aggregate. Waiting on the platform for the late arrival of any sort of footballing gratification, of course those in United’s ranks relished the moment.
Normal service would surely be restored in the second half, yet City wanted to walk it in. Raheem Sterling was ponderous when he should have been punishing, and goodness knows how City failed to score when Harry Maguire gave the ball away on the edge of the six-yard box.
United then lost a key component of their midfield rolling stock, Matic seeing a second yellow and a red for a reckless shove, and yet Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team still pushed for a goal to level the tie.
It was unsurprisingly beyond them, Pep Guardiola’s City earning a ticket to Wembley to face Aston Villa on March 1.
PEP We played a side with incredible physicality. The goal was from a set piece. The first time they shot on target.
In both games we were better. I am so satisfied with the players, and the way they play with the problems in the back four.
— Manchester City (@ManCity) January 29, 2020
Still, the United fans applauded and the players in red returned the compliment.
Solskjaer smiled, and Woodward, the unpopular station master, shook hands and exchanged well wishes with City counterparts in the directors’ box.
Another chance of a trophy slipped by, on one of those nights when you paused to wonder if United might be back on track sooner than we thought.
There have been plenty of those before though, red herrings for Red Devils.
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