ROY Keane can remember the time when the demons were all in his head. This week they invaded the pitch as well. In the swirl of white devils in Madrid, many Manchester United supporters thought they saw hell swallowing their beloved club.
Sir Alex Ferguson has assembled at least two great sides at Old Trafford. His allies think he’s about to commence work on a third.
It’s valium time at Britain’s biggest club - and it’s no good telling United fans that they should try following Leeds, Sunderland, Ipswich or Derby, where it’s a good day if the tea lady hangs on to her job.
No good telling them, either, that Ferguson’s teams have won seven Premiership titles, two Doubles and a League, FA Cup and Champions Cup treble inside 10 years.
A deaf ‘un will also be cocked when you point out that Man United are still making money, have player salaries under control and are revered worldwide.
No, the collapse of United’s self-image on Tuesday expressed the fear that for England’s most consistently successful club the pattern has been to get stuck at the quarter- or semi-final stage of a competition that separates achievement from mere ambition.
It was not United who were on trial in the Bernabeu so much as English football, which is often glorified pinball.
The Premiership’s keywords are speed, aggression, excitement, hype, controversy and mistakes. There are world-class footballers on these islands but little in the general style of play to compare with the sumptuous passing and Velcro touch of Zinedine Zidane and Raul.
United’s record in Europe is hardly up there with Real Madrid but nor is it down there with that of Arsenal.
The trouble is, a punch to the Premiership’s head is felt throughout the body.
United’s worldwide clan were extraordinarily disheartened by what Real did to them in those first 45 minutes, which were pure majesty.
Among the verdicts offered on the slow trudge from the ground were: Keane’s career is almost over, Ryan Giggs has lost his way and should be sold, Beckham is over-rated, Rio Ferdinand’s mind is elsewhere and, most commonly, “not one of our players would have got in their team.”
Wrong. Give me Ruud van Nistelrooy’s all-round skill and industry over Ronaldo’s silly flicks and over-elaboration.
Yesterday, United are up against Newcastle’s terrific home record in the struggle of second versus third.
On Wednesday they travel to Highbury to take on Arsenal, by which time, domestically, there will be only Blackburn, Tottenham, Charlton and Everton left to play. There is no time for self-pity.
No United fan I spoke to in Madrid thought they had a cat’s chance of overcoming the 3-1 deficit against Zidane and co, even though a 2-0 win would launch them through.
To all those who assume Real will score at Old Trafford, it is worth pointing out that United have the Premiership’s best defensive record.
The only thing separating United and Arsenal in the Premiership is goal difference. Big deal. Both have lost five matches. These are rice paper margins.
If United fans want something to worry about, it should be the fact that their side have lost three of their four biggest matches this season.
They throttled Arsenal 2-0 in the Premiership on Dec 7 but then lost at home to them in the FA Cup. They lost the Worthington Cup final to Liverpool and were ruthlessly exposed in Madrid.
They took one point from a possible six off Manchester City – another ominous sign. Ferguson’s deepest anxiety is that some of the old fire has gone out.
In a single week, Giggs went through the magic door into parenthood and Keane, who is still only 31, became a ghost of his old warrior self. The two luminaries most likely to leave are Giggs and Beckham, which is why all the transfer chatter is about wingers – Damien Duff and Harry Kewell, to name two.
To replace Keane properly you really need Patrick Vieira, who thought about joining two years ago but now the chance has passed.
The important thing, surely, is for United’s dispirited entourage to think of this as a summer of blessed opportunity, of regeneration.
If Giggs and/or Beckham go, it has to be remembered that both have given a decade of exemplary service. Life is a moving river, not a pond.
But still it is hard to remember a United campaign being poised so delicately between agony and euphoria. Regain the Premiership title and the traumas of Madrid are swiftly forgotten. Beat Real 2-0 on Wednesday week and it goes straight into folklore.
Win nothing and the number of barren seasons rises to two in a row. In four months, United could have new controlling owners (J P McManus and John Magnier) and a refurbished team.
United supporters, though, should lay off the old Gil Scott Heron line: “Panic is spreading, and lord knows where we’re heading.” Leave that to Sunderland and Leeds. – The Daily Telegraph