Moments before Sir Alex Ferguson left Old Trafford for the final time as coach, he issued a defiant message to the Manchester United fans who were so used to hanging on his every word.
“I’d like to remind you that when we had bad times here the club stood by me. All my staff stood by me. The players stood by me. Your job now is to stand by our new manager,” Ferguson said as he stood inside the center circle, getting lightly coated with raindrops.
That was eight months ago. United had just beaten Swansea City 2-1 with a late winner by Rio Ferdinand in so-called “Fergie Time” and the team had already romped to a 20th league title, enhancing Ferguson’s status as the greatest British manager of all time after more than 26 trophy-laden years at United.
How ironic, then, that Swansea were back at Old Trafford on Sunday, administering a fourth loss in United’s past six home matches to usher the creaking hosts further into decline under Ferguson’s successor, David Moyes.
Swansea won 2-1, their winning goal coming in the final minute, by which time Ferdinand had hobbled off injured. The contrast to that day in May when United lifted the Premier League trophy on Ferguson’s Old Trafford farewell was acute.
The natives are getting restless. The atmosphere at Old Trafford is soporific. The smattering of boos greeting the final whistle of each home defeat — there have been five already this season in all competitions — is small, but growing in number.
United fans are undoubtedly prepared to give Moyes time. They are a knowledgeable bunch, clearly understanding that replacing Ferguson is nigh impossible, but they expect better than what they are getting at present.
For the first time, local and national press are calling it a crisis, an empire in decline. United are seventh in the Premier League, 11 points behind leader Arsenal and five points adrift of the fourth and final UEFA Champions League place that just so happens to be occupied by Liverpool — United’s biggest rivals.
Sunday’s defeat to Swansea came in the third round of the FA Cup, only United’s second exit at that early stage — the first hurdle for top-flight clubs — since 1984-1985.
“It has been a tough start, a tough opening period,” Moyes said when asked to sum up his first six months in the job. “I am disappointed we have not won more games or played better, but I am sure it will change, I have no doubt about that.”
Moyes’ first half year in charge of England’s biggest club has been turbulent, but interesting. He was accused of lacking European experience from his 11 years at Everton, but qualified United from a tough Champions League group with a game to spare. With a round-of-16 match against Olympiakos to come, he will be confident of at least reaching the quarter-finals.
He has guided United through to the League Cup semi-finals and has got the best out of England striker Wayne Rooney, whose relationship with Ferguson had broken down by the end of last season. The blossoming of Adnan Januzaj, a young winger with superb balance and movement, is also a major plus.
However, the negatives outweigh the positives.
Failing to qualify for next season’s Champions League, which is a real possibility, would be a disaster, not just because of the loss of finances, but because United’s pulling power would be seriously hit.