Nostalgia for the 1990s is big business these days. Over the last few years, various bands from the time of Britpop, Furbies and the failed sense of hope that coming from a generation essentially built on bravado inspires have re-emerged, films have been reappraised and, most bafflingly of all, button down collar shirts have become a thing again. This is what comes from having people who grew up 20 years ago in charge of stuff now. Nostalgia for a time you thought was better, but if you’re honest wasn’t really.
A wave of that nostalgia drifted through an open window and tickled the nostrils this week, when it became clear that Jose Mourinho – once they sort out which watches he’s allowed to wear – will be the new Manchester United manager.
Back in the 1990s, there were generally two types of football fans: United supporters, and people who hated United. And boy were they hated, for myriad reasons, including but not limited to Alex Ferguson, an overpowering arrogance, their ‘glory-hunting’ fans, their status as financial bully boys who could basically have what they wanted, a sense of entitlement summed up by their haranguing of Andy D’Urso (which was actually in 2000, but who’s counting?) and the impression that they were lucky because of all those last minute goals they scored.
The very worst thing about United was that, deep down, you knew they were perfectly entitled to be arrogant. They had loads of fans because they won a lot, and they weren’t lucky at all, they were just relentless. And good. Man, they were good.
United were bastards. They were an easy bogeyman for everyone else, and seemed not to care that people thought they were lucky, or entitled, or arrogant. They were almost cartoon villains, an entire club based on the single-minded and pretty accurate impression that they were the best and biggest, and that everyone else were pygmies compared to them. Their fans seemed to revel in that status, not quite ‘No one likes us, we don’t care’, but not far off. Everyone else hated them, and it was brilliant for both sides of the divide.
They haven’t been bastards for a while now. Under David Moyes they were a meek shadow of even Ferguson’s latter, less distinguished teams, a reflection of their manager who at times looked like a little boy who’d lost his mum in a supermarket, scared and with no idea of what to do. Under Louis van Gaal they were just boring, lead by a man who could be intimidating but whose bouts of eccentricity took the edge off significantly. You couldn’t hate them, not really. Not like you used to.
Mourinho, though. That’s a different story. Things will probably start off quite sedately when he gets his feet under the table. The way he’s basically genuflected whenever he gets a sniff of Lou Macari’s chip shop tells you he’s likely to rein it in a bit in the early weeks, concerns about his ‘dignity’ (from a club who were sold after an argument over horse semen) in mind.
But the mask will slip eventually. He can’t help himself. There are too many old wounds to scratch and new fights to pick around the Premier League for him not to turn into, well, Jose Mourinho again before too long. He’ll say something awful about Arsene Wenger. He’ll patronise reigning Premier League champion Claudio Ranieri. He’ll make a crack about Antonio Conte’s suspiciously lustrous hair. He’ll move in next to Pep Guardiola, play loud music and egg his house in the dead of night. He’ll change the password on Juan Mata’s blog. He has the potential to turn United into bastards again.
Somehow the football world feels more balanced with a United that everyone else hates. Before they were the only superclub in the country, a lone behemoth that everyone else took pops at with an airgun and occasionally knocked them off their stride. Now they’re one in a crowd, a really big club in a cluster of really big clubs, with not much to make them stand out other than their name.
They have to be good too, though. There’s no point in Mourinho acting like an industrial strength powertool if they keep losing. If they’re no good, rather than imbuing the entire club with that arrogance again and turning them into figures to dislike and fear, he’ll just look like a sad, fading man shouting at the moon. And this of course is the big question: Has Mourinho lost it, or was last season just a (fairly colossal) blip?
That we don’t yet know. What we do know for sure is that Mourinho has the potential to make Manchester United bastards again. Embrace it.