The Week at United: From Emlyn Hughes to Seba to Jose

When I was a kid I had a computer game called Emlyn Hughes’ International Soccer for my Commodore 64. I thought it was great and would lose hours playing convoluted league campaigns, even when I got so good that I rarely conceded a goal, let alone lost a match. The game had eight editable teams in it. Originally they were countries with made up player names, but I’d change them to clubs and enter in real players. I had one save which was supposed to be the top eight English teams. However, at that time United weren’t in the top eight in the First Division so I’d sacrifice someone like Coventry City or Crystal Palace to leave the traditionally bigger sides. Just as football fans of a certain generation will always see the clubs that were in the top flight and challenging for titles as big teams, even if they are now languishing in League One, my formative experience of United was of a big club with a storied past, but one who were not competitive in their own country, let alone Europe. I had to artificially lever them into a ‘Top 8’ on a computer game for goodness sakes. The idea that they might sign a world star seemed ludicrous.

I remember showing Xavier, the French exchange student who stayed with me for ten days, the league table in Shoot magazine and he was puzzled as to why I was so proud of a club bouncing around the bottom half of the First Division, several places below Oldham Athletic. The United I grew up with just weren’t, y’know, very good and the English club ban from European football added to the feeling of being far removed from the continent’s best.

Whilst, as the years have passed, I’ve seen United rise to be kings of the castle, first domestically and then Europe-wide, these wonderful feats were mostly achieved by buying and/or developing young talent or, in the pre-social media age, what appeared to be obscure foreign players. They were a product of managerial and scouting genius rather than competing financially with the richest clubs from Spain, Germany and Italy. They had money, we had Fergie.

And then, in 2001, United spent £28.1m on Juan Sebastian Veron, the Argentine genius I’d seen starring in Serie A on Channel Four for Parma and Lazio. This was a genuine world star, and despite all the trophies and glory I’d witnessed my club achieve to that point, even after the Champions League win in 1999, I had a feeling of genuine astonishment and euphoria. How could my club, who I used to have to artificially insert into a First Division top 8, have signed one of the world’s best? It genuinely felt like winning a trophy and to see him play at Old Trafford for the first time propelled me back to my youth when just walking up the steps into a football ground, any football ground, and seeing the pitch, the stands and the fans sent shivers down my spine. By 2001 United had grown into a commercial behemoth with a turnover greater than any of the Italian sides and the equal of Real and Barcelona, but that had not always translated itself into comparative spending and wages. The Veron signing was, in a positive sense, totally at odds with the club I grew up with.

I’ve had the euphoric feeling that accompanied the Veron signing very rarely. The next occasion was not until 2012, when United signed Robin Van Persie from Arsenal. There was me, a middle-aged man with two children, lying awake, refreshing Twitter every thirty seconds until about 2am just to catch the moment the transfer was completed. Despite it being a domestic signing, taking the best player from one of your biggest rivals at his peak takes some beating. It just doesn’t happen in England as it does in Italy, where Inter, AC Milan, Juve, Roma, Lazio and others often trade high level players like Pirlo, Ibrahimovic, Vieri or Baggio. Here were my United, or rather the one I grew up with (scruffy, gritty, popular but parochial, in an isolated league), buying the very best once again.

The third time that euphoric disbelief struck was the summer of 2014, as Louis Van Gaal’s United signed Angel Di Maria, man of the match from the Champions League final, from Real Madrid. Cue much Twitter refreshing for a chance to see the Argentine’s left ear in the back of a Chevvy approaching Carrington. Magical.

And then last week we had the fourth such occasion, as Jose Mourinho had a shave, donned an expensive suit and signed on the dotted line to become the next manager of Manchester United. After the mediocrity of Moyes and the bluster and bullsh*t of Van Gaal here was my club employing the greatest manager of his generation, the former coach of Porto, Real Madrid and Inter and the pantomime villain who twice conquered the Premier League in two spells at Chelsea. If football were music new Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola would be Chris Martin. Mourinho would be Iggy f*****g Pop. Mischievous, vindictive, impulsive, crosser of lines and poker of eyes, Jose is box office and has won the lot along the way.

But what makes the Mourinho appointment so special for me is not just his glittering CV chronically a career that has seen him conquer the world’s strongest leagues and, twice, all of Europe, but also the way he speaks and has always spoken about United in such deferential terms. New employees at clubs, whether they be coaches or players, often talk about how they are joining the best or biggest in the world, with the greatest fans. These scripted intros are as transparent as they are nonsensical. Mourinho made a similar statement:

“To become Manchester United manager is a special honour in the game. It is a club known and admired throughout the world. There is a mystique and a romance about it which no other club can match.”

The difference between Mourinho and the conveyor belt of other new players and managers is that we know that he means it. He has been laying the ground work for this job for years, from his overt flirtation when visiting with Real Madrid in the Champions League to his description of United as a ‘super big’ club during his time at Chelsea, a job he was only in because he was overlooked in favour of David Moyes upon Fergie’s retirement in 2013. This is the job he has hankered after his whole career. The greatest manager of his generation, an Iberian Anglophile who has managed Real Madrid and Inter, yet has craved the job at my club. The club I used to have to pretend we’re amongst the eight best in England on Emlyn Hughes’ International Soccer, the also-rans praying for a good run in the FA Cup which no global star would want to play for or coach. For the fourth time I’ve been blown away by a stellar signing. Veron and Di Maria didn’t work out. Van Persie fired United to glory. It’s hard to imagine Mourinho failing now he has the job that he has always craved.

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