Marv Albert Comes Home

Crowded at the NFL Summit

ANDREW YATES/AFP/Getty Images Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez

I’m Sick of Manchester United

The English Premier League's narrative-fatigue problem

I‘m sick of Manchester United. In many ways, this is a compliment to Manchester United. When your emperor is cruel and merciless and rules from his twisted iron throne for like a million consecutive years, your pathetic longing for revolution is just proof that he’s great at oppressing you. If Manchester United weren’t permanently welded to the top or near-top of the Premier League table like the star on a Christmas tree no one throws out till May,1 I wouldn’t have had all this leisure time to accrue malevolent emotions toward their consistency and their stock prices and their players and their stupid face. Great job, Manchester United!

In other ways, however, this is not a compliment to Manchester United, because it is never a compliment when someone would rather see a goat, or Tottenham Hotspur, win the title over you. And the way I feel lately, if you rustled up a Siberian ibex that could score away at Stoke, I would wear its scarf every Saturday and cheer it on at the Theatre of Dreams.2 I would say the same thing about Tottenham Hotspur, but I’m trying to be realistic.

Here are just a few of the things I’m sick of vis-à-vis your former Newton Heath:

Alex Ferguson is a pepper pot with peppery ideas.

Manchester United striker Javier Hernandez

“So, Sir Alex, how do you feel the team performed in your latest routine 3-0 win over Swansea?”

“The referee — he were agin’ us.”

“I’m sorry, but what about the fact that two of your goals came from questionable penalties and that the referee blew for the half after only four seconds of stoppage time as Swansea were threatening to score?”

“Och! Tha’ big broosin’ lad, Nathan Dyer, he were aye clobberin’ oor boys fra’ the word goo, weren’t ‘ee? An’ wi’ nary a whistle i’ th’hoose.”

“Nathan Dyer? Sir Alex, really, he’s about 5 foot, 4 inches tall.”

“He were rampagin’ aboot like a great stone giant! He righ’ near murdered Vidic!”

“I don’t imagine he weighs much more than a hundred and twenty pounds. He’s built like a feather, Sir Alex!”

“Aye, a feather wi’ blood i’its heart!”

“Really, Sir Alex.”

“Feather that’d snap a man’s head off nine ways wi’oo’ blinkin’. I’ll shoo’ ye a feather. Pah!”

“Sir Alex, does this improbable tirade have anything to do with sending a message to the referee in advance of your upcoming clash against Chel — ”

“D’ye speck me to sit ‘oo ‘ere and be gabbered aboo’ wi’ nonsense li’ that? When th’ feet o’ tha’ Dyer stroock the sod, I swear t’ Christ, I could feel th’ reverberations fra’ o’er i’th’ technical area. ‘Twere like a speece shuttle blastin’ righ’ oo’ the coore o’ th’Earth!”

“Well, I — ”

“Lad, if Nathan Dyer were i’ this room righ’ nae, he’d stab ye i’the neck wi’ a penknife. Ye see this penknife? Ye see this frarkin’ penknife? [Takes out penknife.] Picture it i’ yer neck.”

The ongoing centrality of the “Gary Neville could absolutely suit up for this team” problem.

Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson

Look, there’s nothing wrong with having a veteran core of battle-tested leaders who’ve spent their whole careers plugging away for the same club, winning 974 trophies (each, per year) along the way. It’s even objectively admirable. I like Paul Scholes! So I’m sure there will come a day — maybe in 2042, a couple of months after Ryan Giggs finally hangs up his cyberboots for the last time in his cryonic-thermal locker — when I will look back on the Giggs/Scholes epoch3 with nostalgia, even with awe.

That said, though? At the moment, I’m not un-sick of it.

Consistency is the hobgoblin of oh God shut up.


The Premier League has been around since 1992. Of the 20 seasons that have been completed so far, Manchester United has won 35 of them, including 47 since 2002.4 Reached for comment, the abstract rules of mathematics said, “Yeah, screw those guys.”


Manchester United fans

He is Nani.

White-hot torrents of refinancing-loans-at-competitive-interest-rates action.

Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs

Manchester United’s owners are a family of loathsome trolls who live in the dripping tunnels beneath Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. Because they borrowed a fantastic amount of money to buy the club, then foisted the debt back onto the club — essentially forcing the club to buy itself for them — Manchester United is now burdened with gargantuan, hugely complex interest payments that all soccer fans are expected to actually know about and spend actual hours of their real, finite lives worrying about and contemplating, even though the connection between the day you first felt joy at the sight of a Zinedine Zidane pass and a graph displaying the Glazer family’s projected bond-buyback rate is, at minimum, kind of a puzzler.

I am going to die one day, and so are you, and yet the chances are good that we both currently know that United’s latest quarterly earnings conference call confirmed that the club’s PLC dividends grew at 8 percent and also held open the possibility that a two- to three-year debt-restructuring period could see the annual interest bill fall to £20 million, my gosh. Yes, it’s truly impressive that Alex Ferguson has won all those championships with only, like, two-thirds of the revenue of United’s global performance-viscose fourth-kit empire, but HOLY NORMA CHARLTON CAN WE PLEASE JUST GO OUTSIDE?

Message-board morality: my favorite kind to yell about.

Dimitar Berbatov

It’s not as though Manchester United have a monopoly on paranoid fans who spend most of their waking hours sniffing the wind for perceivable slights that they can hunt down and feast upon. Soccer is full of fans like that. Hell, sports is full of fans like that. And I also have plenty of Manchester United–fan friends5 who are basically just nice, regular dudes and ladies, not deranged rage-cases who somehow believe that their club is persecuted even though it has won four of the last six Premier League titles and two European Cups since 1999. So take this within its real limits.

However, if you have ever run afoul of the sort of online United police who (mistakenly) believe stuff like “abbreviating the club’s name to Man Utd is a vicious coded insult,” and if you have then had the requisite horrors threatened against your great-aunts, you may be particularly sick of the way the meanest core of Man Utd fans combines aggro-suspicion and deep-seated entitlement. I haven’t even finished writing this piece, and I’m already sick of the stuff they’re going to say to me on Twitter.

What I have, in other words, is a serious case of narrative fatigue. The club-soccer season is long, August to May, with heavy international action and tune-up friendlies in between, not to mention the steady drone of summer transfer gossip. Top-level European club soccer is also the place where parity crawls off to die. The Premier League is even fairly egalitarian compared to some of its neighbors. Fully five teams have won the English top flight since 1992, with Manchester United taking a scant 12 of those championships; in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona have won (far) more titles than every other club combined.

What this means is that when a story takes hold in the upper echelons of European soccer, it tends to stick around for a punishingly long time. Killing a meme in the Premier League is like … well, I’m picturing one of those ’80s-style horror movies in which a weird-looking special-effects creature uncontrollably propagates itself — like gremlins, or the aliens in Aliens, or the CNN politics roundtable. Because the same teams are always at the top,6 and because the season essentially never stops, the same few themes are always front and center. You can blow up “Carlos Tevez is feuding with club management” in the microwave once. Five seconds later it’s back, overrunning your starship or breaking down voter turnout with Wolf Blitzer, and there’s not a damn thing you can do. Doesn’t matter how savvy you are as a media consumer or action star or mixed metaphor.

And because — give or take the odd Sergio Agüero miracle strike — Manchester United is the hot tin roof of soccer clubs that are marketed in English, the set of themes it represents is the most relentlessly omnipresent in the countries where you and I probably live. Meaning that if you follow soccer at least semi-obsessively, odds are good that you have heard about the wily veteranness of Paul Scholes so intolerably often that you’re ready to subject Paul Scholes to one of his own tackles. You get lulled into a false sense of schadenfreude when they lose a few games and look like they’re out of the race (this happens every other year with United), only to see them turn it around and realize that you’re going to have to keep thinking about this club after all. You end up, or anyway I do, deflecting your over-satiation into a state of vague antipathy toward a team that, in a vacuum, you’d actually find pretty interesting.

(And hopefully it goes without saying that Manchester United is only the example that’s most relevant to me right now. Some people do this with Barcelona or Madrid; under the right circumstances, I could probably get media-sick of a talented Siberian ibex. Really? Another story about the mountains? Do we have to hear about his Sherpa girlfriend again?)

Anyway, for the most part, narrative fatigue is simply a collateral reality of all the usual sports-culture-in-2012 suspects. It’s the post-workout burn of globalization and access and the 24/7 news cycle and the Internet (forces without which I would probably think “Manchester United” was an especially grim-sounding neo-prog-rock band). I do wonder, though, whether it will be a problem for the Premier League in the U.S. Not to oversimplify things, but Americans are used to following a bunch of sports in a seasonal-rotation cycle that involves a lot of built-in novelty. That is, if you’re sick of Kevin Durant, you’re, well, an idiot, but you’re also a lucky idiot, because you can fall back on football and baseball and grainy old VHS tapes from back when there used to be something called hockey. Over the last, say, five years, as more and more Americans have gotten into European soccer, I’m guessing that one of the lures of the sport was that it offered another horizon of novelty. Whole new leagues to get acquainted with! Deep-end histories of rosters and rivalries and scandals! Harry $%@# Redknapp!

What happens, though, once new American fans come to terms with the fact that the rhythm of world soccer is mostly based on the idea that this is the only sport people care about? That once you learn their way around the back roads, the scenery is not going to change for years and years and years? Do you perceive this as another wrinkle of boredom in a game that already has a high boredom threshold? Or do you not care, because Robin van Persie just beat three defenders and chipped the keeper, and it was crazy beautiful in a way that makes mere novelty seem insignificant?

I’m on the latter side of that argument almost all the time.7 I love this game, and it would take more than galloping Manchester United exhaustion to change that. Robin van Persie, though — God, am I sick of him.

Filed Under: Manchester United, Movies, Teams, Ted

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ runofplay