NOBODY should be deeply shocked, or even mildly surprised, by the suddenness and the depth of Manchester United’s plummet from the summit towards possibly protracted ignominy.
Budd Schulberg, the peerless American author of What Makes Sammy Run? and On The Waterfront had sound reason to borrow the latter phrase for the title of his novel on corruption in the fight game, based on the experiences of the Italian heavyweight, Primo Carnera.
Standing 6ft 6in at a time when the average height in America was a mere 5ft 7in, it is hardly surprising that Carnera should be considered a giant – or that he should create such spectacular reverberations when he was brought down by the scandalously immoral crowd of ballyhoo merchants who “handled” him.
British football boasts a long list of toppling towers, although not, mercifully, as a consequence of unspeakable behaviour, but of the simple, straightforward cyclical nature of the game.
The first instance of the phenomenon may be identified in Celtic’s experiences in the first half of the 20th century. Having established themselves as the most prolific champions by capturing 17 of the first 36 Scottish Football League titles (to Rangers’ 13) the Parkhead side’s momentum screeched to a halt in 1926, and another ten years would pass before their next triumph.
Astonishingly, they would add only two more between then and the appointment of Jock Stein as manager in 1965 – a barely credible two championships in 30 years. Stein’s arrival, of course, would allow Rangers previously unimaginable membership of the Fallen Giants Club.
When the Ibrox side under Scot Symon lifted the league in 1964 and brought their recent successes to six from the previous nine, nobody could have foretold that they would not celebrate again for another 11 years and that the venerable Symon would be sacked in 1967.
Similarly, the team’s achieving two trebles in three years under Jock Wallace in ’76 and ’78, coupled with Stein’s fragile relationship with an increasingly feckless board of directors (he would be fired in ’78), gave rise to the hope that Rangers were at the dawning of a new age that would match that of their great rivals’.
But anyone who could make an impartial scrutiny of Wallace’s teams would conclude that they were high domestic achievers, but of moderate talents, their limitations exposed by their elimination from the first round in Europe in successive seasons.
Even so, few, if any, of the club’s followers could have anticipated the passage of another nine long, barren years before they would once again be champions.
That infertile period was especially embarrassing, as the team managed only once even to make second place in those eight futile attempts before their eventual triumph under Graeme Souness in 1987.
Otherwise, they were fifth twice, fourth three times and third twice as Aberdeen, Celtic and Dundee United emerged as the most formidable teams in the country.
In England, Manchester United supporters, already wasted with anxiety over their faltering team’s future, are unlikely to be encouraged by the kind of decline which has crippled, in the modern era, two of the biggest clubs around – that is, United themselves and their fiercest rivals, Liverpool.
When the Old Trafford side under Matt Busby took the championship in 1967 and the European Cup a year later, how could anyone even have fantasised the completion of another quarter of a century before they would next be acclaimed domestic champions under Alex Ferguson in 1993?
When Ferguson arrived in Manchester as successor to Ron Atkinson, his inaugural address to the fans included the revelation that his primary objective was “to knock Liverpool off their perch”.
The Govan man himself could hardly have foreseen that, when the mission was accomplished, it would be at least another 24 years (it may yet be more) before the Anfield side would return the title to Merseyside – or, even more improbably, that their record haul of 18 championships, a seemingly unbridgeable ten ahead of United in the all-time list, would be overtaken during the life of Ferguson’s tenure.
If the foregoing dip into the past gives United followers cause for concern, it is because it should; if nothing else, the figures demonstrate that anything is possible.