Football was an obsession ingrained into me from birth. My earliest memories are of me as a toddler sat on my Father’s lap watching Manchester United on the old television. I remember being bored stiff and not really understanding what was going on, but content as I cwtched (cuddled) up to my Dad while he cheered and jeered footballers I was yet to recognise. As I got older he began explaining bits to me, telling me which players we liked and which we didn’t. Sadly, my Father passed away when I was six years old and my football education stalled somewhat. My interest did not.
I had a friend called Ben whose family were avid West Ham fans and I would watch games with him and his Dad at their house. It wasn’t the same, not by a long shot, but the sense of welcome and inclusion made them very enjoyable times for a now fatherless boy. One day, after watching the Hammers be destroyed humiliatingly, I ran home excitedly to tell my Mum that I was a West Ham fan and would be forever blowing bubbles: she did not respond well. I could not understand what I had done to upset her, but she was adamant that I would not be supporting the London side. She reminded me that my father was a Manchester United fan, and that I should follow suit. This was one of many incidents in my life where my Mother proudly and affirmatively continued my Father’s legacy, and embraced both parental roles despite being on her own.
At the time, Manchester United were as shite as West Ham, even the second place finish the season before seemed like a fluke, an anomaly. I felt that I was trading one future of misery and inevitable defeat after defeat for decades to come and in the process, was sacrificing the inclusion and sports education my young mind so desperately needed. But, alas, I headed my Mother’s words and followed the club my Father did before me. That season Sir Alex Ferguson led the team to their first top flight title in 26 years. My father had died on the first day of the season.
My relationship with the club grew, and my Mother took me on stadium tours, recorded games and Match of the Day regularly, she even let me stay up to watch big games. She constantly encouraged and nurtured my love of the club and the game with as much enthusiasm as my Dad had done before his death. She may not have had the same level of knowledge, even now she has no understanding of the rules. Discussing offsides, passbacks and substitutions with her was like describing colours to someone born blind. Yet she listened and enjoyed my passion and excitement for 22 men kicking a bag of wind into a net every Saturday afternoon. Her Mother however, was the most well versed woman I have ever met in terms of football. She read the papers religiously every day and unknown to me at the time, only did so in order to be able to talk to me about it all.
My love for the club grew the more I knew about it. The more I read about its equally tragic and glory-laden past, the more I became engrossed in its legacy, its magnificence. Mirroring my own life, the club simply refused to fail. Like a phoenix from the ashes, it rose time and again from tragedy and destruction. Never more so than after the horror of the Munich Air Disaster. My love for the club became more layered and textured, far more than a simple sports club fandom. I read everything I could find about the players and watched the Class of 92’ rise from a humbling defeat to Aston Villa to become the greatest side since the 68’ European cup winning team. It was the attitude of the club that captured me, not just the way they talked in interviews or took photos and signed autographs for me when I was lucky enough to meet one of them. It was not a football club, but rather a family.
Sir Alex Ferguson signed as manager for Manchester United shortly after I was born, and invested in youth much like the late, great Sir Matt Busby had done thirty years previous. He clearly raised these boys, educated them, guided them, disciplined them when necessary. In his columns, interviews, match day programme notes he emitted a fatherly love and guidance not only for the players in his charge, but all the young fans looking up to him and them as heroes, idols. He became, and this has been reiterated to me by other fans of a similar age, a father figure to us all. Players like Beckham, Giggs, the Nevilles, Butt and Scholes were like surrogate big brothers. Each model professionals and each enforced a unity between themselves that was admirable and inspirational.
Since Ferguson retired, a day I will never forget, things at the club have changed. The Glazers, despite being heavily condemned by many fans, have ensured our most successful period and continue to stand by many of the morals and ideals that have made the club bounce back stronger than ever after every slip, fall or tragedy before their arrival. It was David Moyes and Louis Van Gaal who destroyed that sense of family by ridding the club of our legends. Our long-term stars and leaders such as Vidic, Rio and Evra (who I still maintain is the best left back to ever grace a football pitch) were disregarded and let go. Scholes and Ferguson had retired together, Giggs followed suit at the end of Moyes’ disastrous stint and many of the talented youngsters coming through to replace them were mismanaged or loaned out to the wrong clubs. Then Jose comes along, the manager who hates youth players.
I think it is fair to say that nearly every United fan wanted Cristiano Ronaldo to return home and revive our flailing club back to where it belongs. But, this fantasy was nothing more than wishful dreaming: it was never going to happen. The prodigal son we wanted, still remains a Glactico. Jose then did something that has been a constant source of criticism and condemnation: he broke the world transfer record to sign a player Sir Alex had let go for nothing four years earlier: Paul Pogba.
Pogba, has been judged ridiculously all season. Granted, he has not had the best campaign of his career, but it appears pundits and “experts” believe he should be doing the Messi or Ronaldo job: scoring and making a three goals a game. What Pogba has done, and what is worth far more than £90million, is restore that sense of family at the club. After a summer of rumours, delays, negotiations and paralysing doubt, Pogba signed. The news broke when he stopped and took a photo with one of the laundry ladies, one who had missed him while he plied his trade at Juventus. It was a startling and seemingly out of character announcement from a player who garners as much criticism for his social media use as he does his frustrating relationship with the opposition woodwork (he’s hit the bar or post more than any other Premier League player this season).
Still, many believed his return home was motivated by money and prestige. It was Pogba’s close friend Romelu Lukaku, who had spent much of the summer with Pogba in America, that revealed his true purpose for returning to Old Trafford. Lukaku was quoted in saying Pogba simply wished to return home, to the club and city he loved and spent much of his youth in. During interviews since, Pogba has consistently referenced Manchester United as his home and his family, something United fans have not heard enough of from players in the last four years.
Watching Pogba, I fail to accept the criticism of him. No, he is not having the best season of his life, but he is readjusting to a league he barely played in. One that is dramatically different to Serie A, where he had become a star. His energy and enthusiasm clearly have an exhilarating effect on those around him. Where Zlatan scores the goals, and adds the go; Pogba is the engine that takes the club from 2nd gear up to fourth by sheer force of will. The way other players, especially youth academy graduates such as Rashford and Lingard, flock around him is a beautiful sight. He seems to have a secret handshake with every player in the squad creating a sense of unity and love amongst the players. This has been seriously lacking since Fergie Time ended. Paul Pogba may not have been the prodigal son the club and its legions of fans wanted to see return, but has proven to be the prodigal son the club so desperately needed.