There was an interesting programme on BBC Radio 4 this week about the notorious Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish. The man o’ war is of course the alpha of the jellyfish world, the big swinging tentacle of the deep ocean trench, not to mention the only jellyfish most people have heard of besides the ones that appear on English beaches in spring looking sad and dead and reproachful, surrounded by bottle tops and cigarette butts.
Except it turns out the man o’ war isn’t a jellyfish at all. It is instead a kind of co-operative, a fusion of many small lifeforms into one large, successful stinging thing. The overall effect is a high-functioning mini-society of cells and organs and venomous pincers, the marine equivalent of a furiously angry rolling maul in a 1980s rugby union international, all eye-gouges and V-signs and furious Scottish oaths. In the programme the man o’ war was presented as a successful quirk of evolution, the survival of the collective as opposed to the individual, sustained by that shared culture and purpose. And also as a metaphor for modern city life with its many diverse, interlinked, self-sustaining parts.
In fact the man o’ war works just as well as a metaphor for professional football clubs. Or at least for those clubs that like to mythologise themselves, to talk of an enduring club “culture”, some vital collective identity that must be honoured and nourished for the team to prosper – the Barcelona way, the Yeovil Town way. The parts may die and fall away. But the colony, the collective, the indispensable spirit endures.
It is a way of understanding the past that has clung most notably to Manchester United, clouding not just issues of team-building and executive appointments, but the club’s basic sense of its own happiness. The latest summer of rebuild has continued to grind on this week, with something epic in its sense of stasis. This a club that always seems to be trying to get back to something, to find the door it came in through. There is a way of making things work, but it seems to be tied to finding the old patterns, swimming the same way, a culture that must be rebuilt to look the same.
The presence of Ole Gunnar Solskjær as manager is the most obvious current symptom, the kind of appointment you might have expected from a seven-year-old with access to Google, but not necessarily the chief executive of one of the world’s largest football clubs. Darren Fletcher has since been talked up as a possible director of football. Rio Ferdinand is in the mix. Why not Chris Eagles, Lee Martin, Clive Tyldesley or drop-kicked Crystal Palace fan Matthew Simmons?
Meanwhile Solskjær has stuck to the same narrow cultural view that got him the job in the first place, to the extent that he already looks like a kind of novelty appointment, a Britpop version of the real thing, sat in the back of his black cab, Paul Scholes up front tipping his bowler hat, talking with grating certainty about doing things The Manchester United Way, about Manchester United being different, playing up the echoes of Fergie time, the old, dead pointless glories.
It is a delusion that continues to gum the works. This week there was further confusion over a social media video of Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford showing off their messy room on holiday. Imagine Bryan Robson’s reaction to that tangled bed linen. What would 1908 and 1911 title-winning manager Ernest Mangnall say about that bloke pretending to have sex with his pillow? The colony is unravelling. The present continues to betray the past.
Whereas in reality this is all entirely misguided. The idea that some innate winning culture exists, some golden thread within these ever-changing commercial beasts is in itself a myth, and one that United are far from alone in following. Elite level football is shot through with the idea of cultures and “philosophies” and DNA. Frank Lampard’s possible return to Chelsea has led to much frowning speculation over whether the philosophy of Frank Lampard will fit with the philosophy of Chelseafootball club (it, you know, probably will).
Look properly and there are few periods of success in any sport that haven’t involved junking much of what went before. The opposite is closer to the truth: chuck out the chintz, tear apart the colony. Matt Busby’s time at United was built on rejecting the brutal culture he’d found as a player and building something else. Alex Ferguson had to spend five years helping the whole place walk off a mind-bending hangover before he could go forward. Arsène Wenger didn’t recreate The Arsenal Way, he binned it completely.
Still, it isn’t hard to see how this kind of myth-making gains a foothold. Supporters want to believe in the idea of a calling, a culture, something innately right and good. It is intoxicating. It mixes memory and desire. We all want to be told the past was great, that it will rise again, that it will taste just the same.
Meanwhile for the owners of a club like United, intent on nothing else but sweating the asset, success is less important than the maintenance of a brand, retaining that core, deeply wedded support. Let’s face it, United would probably reappoint Ferguson if they could, just for the partner-buzz, the revenue uplift, the social media eyeballs.
There is no sense of any hunger for a proper plan while the business thrums on. In the meantime the past will continue to cloud the future. The clubs leading the way will continue to become more effective machines. And Manchester United will continue to linger in its own timeline, clanking shut the doors on the DeLorean, cramming the furnace with coal, creaking out across the prairie once again in pursuit of the year 1985.
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