(Photo Credit: Evening Standard)
8th May, 2013. A date which has been etched into the mind of every Manchester United fan.
It was the day that Sir Alex Ferguson announced that his time with the club was coming to an end, and he was going to retire at the end of the football season. The fans of Manchester United mourned all across the world, although they had known that this day would inevitably arrive.
While fans celebrated, opponents rejoiced. After all, with Sir Alex Ferguson gone after 26 years at the helm of the club, how would the Red Devils rally? Would they be able to unite under another manager in the same manner?
For a long time, the answer seemed to be no. There was no replacement to the resplendent leadership of Sir Alex.
David Moyes, the hand-picked replacement came and went within a season, with United at an all-time low – depths they had forgotten existed under Ferguson’s tenure.
Louis Van Gaal was the next one to step up to the challenge, but even the brash and bold manager, known for his confrontational style, could not last. His playing style did not match the philosophy that Manchester United fans had come to expect. With only an FA Cup to show for two years of effort, he too left United.
Next came the manager that United fans hoped would change the fate of the club.
Jose Mourinho aka The Special One. Coming off a typically disastrous third season at Chelsea, it still looked like Mourinho might have all the answers – at least for the first two seasons.
In fact, when he arrived, he delivered. In his first season he helped United win the Europa League – the first European trophy for the club since the last Champions League under Sir Alex.
He even brought in star power. Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Nemanja Matic, Henrik Mkhitaryan, Alexis Sanchez and for one dazzling season, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Each addition, on paper at least, seemed to spell good news and intent for United.
Then came the inevitable crumbling. The locker room morale dissipated under Mourinho. His derisive attitude with the press, while fuelling headlines, spread to his players as well. His disputes with Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial seemingly threw a wrench into the proceedings. Another third season; another disastrous exit with Manchester United having made the worst ever start to a league campaign.
Manchester United fans had no reason to hope anymore. After all, 6 seasons and this is all that they had to show for it? Would they be the next Liverpool – lost in the glory days of their past?
Enter Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
When Solskjaer came into United, morale was at an all-time low. But this was not just another manager – this was a former Manchester United player who had played under Sir Alex. Solskjaer – the hero of Manchester United who scored the last-minute goal in Munich 1999 to secure the Champions League.
A feel good factor, as wide as the smile on his face, dawned on United. Results were immediate.
Each player played as if each minute was the last of the match. The defensive philosophy of the previous managers melted away, and suddenly it was like the past 6 years had never taken place.
The United attack was flowing like it had not for a long time.
On the manager’s two sides were two more parts of the team – Michael Carrick and a returning figure from the Sir Alex era, Mike Phelan.
The change in the team and the players was obvious. Every player suddenly had the opportunity to prove themselves, and they jumped on it. Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, and Jesse Lingard showed exactly what the three of them are capable of, while Paul Pogba suddenly started to look every bit the world class player United had paid for.
When Romelu Lukaku got a chance to get back in the team, the burly Belgian started finding the net too.
The entire philosophy of the team had changed, behind the scenes, and it was showing in the results.
More than the run of victories, Manchester United had started playing with the attacking mentality which the fans had missed so very badly for 6 years. A temerity to not giving up in the face of difficulty.
This very mentality could not have been better represented than by the Champions League draw against PSG.
The first match at home went completely the wrong way. Not only that, Paul Pogba was given a red card, making the away draw so much more difficult – almost impossible on paper.
It was a cold rainy night in Paris when they met again. Coming in at a 2-goal deficit, United had their work cut out for them.
But things have a tendency to change when this Manchester United plays. And that’s exactly what happened at Paris.
A goal by Lukaku was nullified by an excellent goal from PSG. Paris Saint-Germain completely dominated the first half. Even so, Lukaku was able to get another goal in with some smart poacher work, reducing the deficit to one goal. One more goal, and United win by away goals.
However, at 90 minutes, it appeared that United’s European dreams were going to peter out. They had thrown everything and the kitchen sink at PSG, only to be defied again and again. The second half had been breathless, with hardly any pauses in action – until the 92nd minute.
A shot struck the hand of Presnel Kimpembe in the penalty box, VAR notified the referee. He had completely missed it in real time.
But it was ruled a penalty – one that had split the football world right down the middle.
Marcus Rashford, all of 21 years old stepped up and smashed the ball past Gianluigi Buffon.
It was one of the most magical European nights that United had played in since 2008. United were through – and Solskjaer had done it again.
And despite the Arsenal and Wolves defeats that followed back to back, Solskjaer was confirmed as the permanent manager of the club on a three year deal – with a promise of hefty backing in the transfer market.
There is much work ahead yet to return Manchester United to the heights of former glory.
But at least this time, the man leading them is a fan, first and foremost.