There were plenty of empty seats visible at Old Trafford for Manchester United’s Premier League match against Crystal Palace on Wednesday night.
And empty seats in Manchester, we’re frequently and famously told, are usually the preserve of Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, so for many this was a stark visualisation of the problems at a club that millions around the world are supposed to dream of one day being able to see play. It’s called ‘The Theatre of Dreams’ isn’t it? That’s what it’s supposed to be.
Forgetting for one moment that the actual fan in the ground is less and less of a concern for the modern superclubs, this was more than a little embarrassing for United, and something that they clearly tried to gloss over entirely. The official club website gave the attendance at 75,277, under 400 down on capacity, whilst Louis van Gaal claimed that he didn’t notice the absences during his post-match press conference.
There were mitigating factors, obviously.
This was a hastily-arranged midweek match, making it difficult for supporters to travel from all over the country and from overseas, whilst United have sold out their allocation for Saturday’s Wembley FA Cup semi-final against Everton. Fans who are going to that game probably didn’t fancy doubling up on the expense. And it is again a ridiculous expense for two clubs from the north-west to have to travel to London for a semi-final.
Whichever way you try to dress it up though, it is impossible to escape without the conclusion that the empty seats were a statement about where United are right now, not so much as a club, but as a team.
Precisely where they are is fifth in the Premier League table, longing for fourth and for their two biggest rivals not to win the European competitions that they have giddily skipped into the semi-finals of.
It is a state of affairs unthinkable for a United faithful not used to being second best, never mind fifth, and it has now reached the point where solace is sought in the FA Cup – a competition United have surprisingly not won for 13 years.
Yet holding up the FA Cup as a shining beacon with which to save your season has become an idea as outdated and clunky as the competition itself.
Since 2000 the only winners who could cherish their victory as the pinnacle of their achievements were Portsmouth and Wigan. Arsenal’s 2014 success was also revelled in given the torment experienced by Arsene Wenger over what had been a nine-year hunt for a trophy, but that success was supposed to herald a bright new future for the Gunners and their veteran boss. They won it again last year, but how is that vision going now?
Fellow semi-finalists Everton, Watford or Crystal Palace would add to the list of ‘outsider’ winners for which winning the cup would mean everything, but such is the depth of feeling around United at the moment it’s possible to imagine their players trudging around Wembley rather than enjoying a victory lap. Van Gaal nodding knowingly as the trophy is passed from side to side and back again.
Winning the cup would be terrific for United’s fans, of course, but they would be the first to suggest that it couldn’t be held up as a sign of progress. They stopped using such positive words about Van Gaal a long time ago.
They need change, just as the FA Cup does.
It is a shame that such terms as those mentioned above are being used about the old and venerable competition, but in a season in which we’ve seen weekly chaos in the Premier League and thrills and spills in Europe, it can’t help but look a little dated.
The current version of Manchester United – living off former glories, devoid of excitement, failing to fill their stadium – can’t help but look a little dated either, so maybe they would be this season’s perfect winners of a competition which has become an afterthought for many given the excitement elsewhere.
Beat a calamitous Everton, muddle through the final, pick up the trophy and take it as your leaving present, Louis.
The fans are voting with their feet, and hoping that the next empty seat they see at Old Trafford is in the dugout.
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