2020 will go down in history as a year like no other. It will be remembered as a time when the world stood still – pubs closed, schools shut and shops remained empty. Sporting events were cancelled, music tours silenced and no one was allowed out. As the world reeled in the wake of a lethal and unprecedented virus – which only now is beginning to loosen its deadly hold – a creature began to emerge.
Shuffling from its underground cavern after seven long years in hibernation, the creature emerges slowly but surely, sniffing the air and blinking into the sunlight at its new surroundings. This is the moment: a moment of a new life, a great rebirth, the second coming. 2020 was the year that a football club – OUR football club – came alive again. The sleeping giant of Manchester United was finally reawakened.
There had been glimpses: tantalising, hopeful glimpses but nothing like this. Not since the great gladiator had clambered onto horseback and ridden off into the sunset in the distant summer of 2013 had there been any tangible signs of life, a heartbeat or even a pulse. Plenty had tried but all had failed until the great gladiator sent his heir apparent – a man from the land of the fjords, a man who had been here before – only this time he was tasked with the rebuilding and revival of a fallen empire, leading from the front as manager rather than decorated player.
We had seen a similar experience before in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s predecessor but three – hand picked for the top job by royalty, a knight who could do no wrong amongst supporters whom hung on his every word. But the David Moyes experiment was to fail – the champions of Manchester United would not only miss out on the Champions League, but not make Europe full stop. A failed gamble on a successor whose heart was undoubtedly in the right place. He desperately wanted to succeed in a job no one could refuse, but he just wasn’t good enough. In many ways, chapters that looked to have told a similar tale to the Solskjaer story. But where the Moyes plan failed to come to fruition, the green shoots of recovery have started to push through the surface for Solskjaer’s United.
There have been times when lightning has threatened to strike twice – when the Norwegian seemed another with a humble if respectable coaching record promoted above his limits. The wrong choice for the right reasons, but proof that sentiment can only get you so far in a world dominated by the era of the superstar Galactico. Solskjaer occasionally wandered into delusion when clutching to positives, but it least it offered a different narrative from the moaning and moribund manner of Jose Mourinho. Residing over a team incapable of keeping the ball and one with a midfield conspicuous by its absence, there were days when the latest incumbent of the Old Trafford hotseat seemed only one game from a sticky and unsavoury end. He was seen as a one trick pony, the counter-attacking manager with no Plan B. But Solskjaer had been vehement in both his faith in youth and a steadfast belief that better times were coming.
Yet now there are genuine grounds from optimism. United of course have a long way to go to match the metronomic heights of that great gladiator, if they ever get there at all. They may not do, but – whisper it – have we got a shot of the title next season? With a couple of reinforcements, namely a Jadon Sancho or a Jack Grealish and a new centre-back, you can’t count us out. We need better squad depth and the rebuild isn’t there yet, but even the most ardent ABU cannot deny that something special is building. That counter attack in still there, waiting in the wings, but United are far more versatile and adaptive, equally as adept going at full throttle or being patient as they are at sitting back and picking sides off.
The Reds are a side transformed, the nation’s form team on a run of five wins in a row – four of them by three goals or more. Not even the great gladiator ever managed that. Unbeaten in 17 and carried along on a wave of momentum, confidence and belief, this is the best Reds side I’ve had the pleasure of watching since the last great team of the mid 00s. It may be true that five of these wins have come against the lesser lights of Sheffield United, Brighton, Bournemouth and Villa, but this was exactly the type of game in which United had come up short in the past.
That was until the arrival of a talismanic figurehead, a majestic, magnificent, string pulling Portuguese by the name of Bruno Fernandes – a playmaker with the most transformative effect since Eric Cantona. It feels sensationalist to say that Fernandes is our greatest catalyst since Le Roi, but the way he’s going his impact could eclipse that of even Old Trafford’s greatest enigma. Gone is the stifling, strangling, pragmatic raison d’etre of Messrs Louis van Gaal and Mourinho, replaced by Solskjaer’s Fantasy Football – fluid, fast, fierce and fun. 14 behind Leicester after 24 games, United are now only a solitary point off the faltering Foxes and have every chance of a top three finish and two trophies. Not bad for a PE teacher from Norway.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have had their best seasons in Red and Paul Pogba looks happy again. Times are so good that even his compatriot Martial is smiling and – in Mason Greenwood – United have a generational 18 year old talent with the world at his feet and the highest of ceilings. I genuinely think Greenwood could be the best Academy kid we’ve had since Ryan Giggs. I don’t want to hype him up, but it’s hard not to when he’s outperforming Wayne Rooney at this age.
Solskjaer has often spoken of a brighter future for his young Manchester United – and now it’s here.