With nowhere else to turn, the Manchester United content-production machine at Old Trafford has now gone full self-satire.
It had to end up this way. For years, Manchester United have been a football club fuelled almost exclusively by its ability to produce content, by its almost unmatched ability to engage its enormous fanbase, with signings and stories, controversy and chaos. And there was always going to come a time when this would no longer suffice. When either the reserves of narrative or the reserves of interest would dry up. When that point came, there was only ever one logical next step.
Oh my, that point has been reached. Just about every football podcast in living memory (14 months, approximately) has had at least one small sub-section dedicated to the exhalation of air that accompanies discussion of United; the flappy cheeks and pregnant pauses between words that translates as “I literally have no clue who, what or why this is anymore”. In recent weeks, this has only intensified. Some of the footballing cognoscenti are now even flatly refusing to be drawn on the subject, and those who will still talk about United seem more interested in the moral implications of wanting your mate to get sacked. Meta-content – content about content – some have called it. Anti-content seems more appropriate. (And yes, I am aware of the irony).
This is obviously bad news for United. The fuel upon which they rely is disappearing, with only the dregs remaining. They have had to change tack. And so, like Ian Hislop joking about the litigation he faces for saying stuff rather than actually saying stuff, Manchester United have now gone full self-satire. They have become a parody of everything they are accused of being.
It has not been instantaneous; we can trace its roots back to the summer. Like most of the ridiculousness surrounding the club, this began with the boss. Despite the general consensus after last season that they were a pretty good football team, in spite of having a pretty rubbish manager, United went and extended Solskjaer’s contract, apparently just for a laugh.
And they have built on it since. Responding to the accusation that their dealings in the transfer market were slapdash, they went and spunked gazillions of pounds on players, at least one-and-a-half of whom they have absolutely no idea how to use. Responding to the contention that they are a profoundly unserious football club, bothered only about content and revenue – eyeballs, not footballs – they went and spunked gazillions of pounds on players, one of whom is followed on Instagram by 315 million people. Haha. Would you look at us. What are we like, eh?
But it is in the past month that things have really accelerated. With even Rio now saying that OGS has to go, the club have doubled down on their support for his heritage project, hilariously suggesting that he is the right man for the job. All the while, Solskjaer himself has become an even more exaggerated caricature of everything he is said to be: his media persona has become so understatedly pleasant that he simply has to be taking the piss, and the manner in which he now proclaims that ‘We Are Manchester United’ has reached Ed Miliband levels of no-but-actually-this-is-very-serious performative gravity. It is like there’s a wager on how blatantly he can shoehorn it into conversation, like that time that Alan Shearer was so damned funny that he belly-laughed at his own ability to name a song title.
You can almost imagine Solskjaer at the training ground last Monday, having a right old giggle with Juan Mata at the fact that the journalistic pig-dogs can’t even see the satire, don’t even recognise that he is calling into question the very validity of their profession. Except you can’t imagine that. Because nobody was there.
And this is where we really reach peak Bantchester United. Faced with the unanimous verdict that his side are a barely coached rabble who are utterly clueless about how to play football together, Solskjaer decided to give the backroom staff and 16 first-team players not selected for international duty – because they have been so woeful – the week off. Lol. There is no universe in which this is actually productive. You don’t fix technical problems by just not looking at them for a week. But they aren’t trying to fix problems; they are satirising them. The likes and laughing emojis generated by yet another self-reflexive meme is enough to cement themselves in the news cycle for another week.
And their captain? He who is crap for United and brilliant for England, and whose mirror-laden tirade after the Liverpool debacle seemed to suggest that he might not be the greatest orator? Well, try a clean sheet and a goal against the mighty Albania for size. And a cupping-ears celebration. And then an explanation that it was aimed at nobody. As if he just had bad hearing or something. Jesus Christ.
It is hard to know where they go from here, with this being such a logical end in itself. Perhaps they’ll just stop, kind of fizzle out of the public consciousness and settle in mid-table obscurity. Like Arsenal. Maybe they’ll go all 2021 on us and actually develop a plan. Who knows? For the time being, they seem to just be having a bit of a laugh, mate.
Ed Capstick – follow him on Twitter