When West Ham beat a hapless Manchester United 2-0 on 22 September, the most remarkable fact about the result was its ordinariness. West Ham were quite good, but they played much better winning the same Premier League fixture 3-1 last year. Manchester United defeats at West Ham once constituted a disturbance in the fabric of a football season. This one was merely further evidence that Manchester United are being led by a fourth successive manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who won’t restore the club to glory.
For two decades, English domestic football lived under the shadow of Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United. I am more than old enough to remember what came before the Ferguson era. But the 1970s and 1980s belong not simply to another club’s dominance but another footballing world. That was a time when the goalmouths were a mudbath by Christmas, when the sport was polluted by hooliganism, and when games kicked off at 3 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and the atmosphere was a primal expression of urban working-class identity.
The Ferguson era was the time when English football was sanitised, and the Premier League and Sky turned it into the hard hierarchy it is today – where only in that one astonishing year Leicester City won the title could the unexpected sustain itself over the course of an entire season. Ferguson’s Manchester United were not quite an invincible force. But their formidableness lay in a capacity to overcome adversity and in time prevail against any conceivable opposition.
As with any club that can no longer dream about that one season where the title will finally be won, West Ham fans know there are still pleasures to be milked from playing the game’s aristocrats. These elations yield their own hierarchy. Beating Ferguson’s Manchester United was very near the top. But the pinnacle was stopping them becoming champions. Twice in four seasons during the 1990s West Ham had that cathartic satisfaction. Two decades later, when West Ham played Manchester United in what was the last ever game at Upton Park, the fans were still singing about it: “You lost the league at West Ham – twice.”
Such resentment at the way of things and such pride in anything other than winning trophies incensed Ferguson. The first Manchester United title fall at West Ham came under the Upton Park lights in April 1992. West Ham turned in their best performance that season to win 1-0. A few days later they offered a shambolic performance at Coventry and were relegated. In one of his autobiographies, Ferguson fulminated against West Ham’s “obscene” efforts that cold April night, which left his team waiting another year for their first championship under his leadership.
Only once, in November 2005, did the two clubs meet as equals. It was the first time Manchester United had played since the death of George Best. Before the game there was a ceremony to honour the Manchester United legend. Some were nervous about how West Ham fans would react. But this commemoration touched the raw beauty in football when the game is graced by a talent like Best’s. Bobby Charlton and Trevor Brooking, two men who exemplify what is most venerable about older English football, led the observance. Afterwards Ferguson lavished praise on West Ham. The applause for Best, he said, “epitomised the sporting love between two great
The last West Ham-Manchester United game under Ferguson finished in a 2-2 draw. West Ham took the lead twice only to be thwarted by an offside goal for the second equaliser. It was late enough in the season that it might have made a difference, but that final Ferguson side, ageing and defensively vulnerable as it was, cantered to the Premier League title with 11 points to spare. The lack of real stakes didn’t stop Ferguson spluttering about a victory lost to an absent red card, as if fortune had not also favoured his team. It could not have ended any other way. Manchester United’s honour under Ferguson warranted nothing less.
The United team that lost to West Ham this season were devoid of identity and unacquainted with swagger. They might have been any mid-table team set up away from home to sit back without any semblance of a visceral will to win when level or behind. Inside the ground, West Ham’s victory excited scarcely more passion than that against newly promoted Norwich City the home game before. West Ham’s first goal scorer, Andriy Yarmolenko, said the ovation when he was substituted made him feel like he had just finished his career at the club. But one 1980s West Ham player, David Cross, asked on Twitter what Yarmolenko would “have felt like if he’d played at Upton Park? I felt like a King when I played there; and I wasn’t all that good either.” (He was.)
After celebrating West Ham’s second goal against United, my neighbour at the London Stadium sat down and said, “it’s sad really”. His ten-year-old son was thoroughly affronted. We tried to explain what we had seen fall. But the boy wasn’t having any grown-up nonsense about a sense of loss and perplexing regret, especially for a side that had once evoked spleen. This is English football the way he knows it, where West Ham don’t have to reckon who they are by Manchester United’s failures.
It is sad though. When that second goal went in there was still six minutes plus “Fergie time” to go. As we ruminated about what Ferguson achieved and represented, not one of us, on either side of the generational divide, experienced that stomach-shredding fear that Manchester United would inevitably come back and score, let alone twice. There cannot be much that Sir Alex would find more obscene.
Helen Thompson is professor of political economy at Cambridge University
This article appears in the 02 Oct 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries