Ratcliffe investment: Man United in dire need of Cantona-like spark to lift dark mood

Erik ten Hag's side are going through their worst goal-drought since 1992

Manchester United crashed out of the Champions League this month with a wretched record and too many players are out of form. Getty
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The last time Manchester United went four games without a goal in all competitions was in November 1992. It was as big a surprise then as it is now.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s side had been pipped to the title the previous May and 1992/93 was supposed to be the year United pushed on. Yet after 15 games they were 10th in the table. United had scored only 14 goals while league leaders Norwich City had 27. Crystal Palace, in 21st, had scored more goals than United.

New signing Dion Dublin picked up a serious injury leaving the old faithfuls Mark Hughes and Brian McClair up front. These days, McClair is lauded wherever he goes by United fans – at least by those who recognise him. He’s a fine person, yet in November 1992 he bore the brunt of fan criticism since he was no longer a prolific goalscorer.

Before the game against Oldham Athletic, now a non-league team in England’s fifth tier, I asked fans outside the stadium what they wanted to happen. Most wanted a new striker. Others were against panic buying and called for United’s very promising class of ’92 youth team to be promoted.

But an established striker was seen as a priority. Sheffield Wednesday’s David Hirst was the favourite. Wednesday wouldn’t sell. Brian Deane, Duncan Ferguson and Dalian Atkinson were other names mentioned.

It wasn’t only in the league that United struggled. Ferguson’s team had been knocked out of Europe long before Christmas having failed to beat Torpedo Moscow over two legs in the Uefa Cup. The team went out of the League Cup too, to Aston Villa.

United fans were fuming. Increased ticket prices added to that anger and Old Trafford was struggling to sell out, despite the reduced 32,000 capacity because the Stretford End was being rebuilt.

At an Annual General Meeting where the board had to face shareholders (which included many fans) one fan stood up and said: “Why pay £15 to watch this rubbish at Old Trafford when I can save £4 and watch the same rubbish at Maine Road [then home of Manchester City]?” At least that raised a laugh.

United’s chief accountant really was called Robin Launders while chairman Martin Edwards, when asked why he didn’t consult fan opinion on match day, replied: “Because it’s too dangerous.”

And then United signed Eric Cantona for £1 million from champions Leeds United. There was no transfer window then, no Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules to comply with.

West Ham 2 Manchester United 0: Player ratings

Cantona made his competitive debut in a 2-1 derby win over Manchester City on December 6. “His presence illuminated Old Trafford,” said Ferguson.

United started to win, eight wins and two draws from 10 league games. Tenth on November 9 became first on January 9. Goals came in abundance. In successive matches, United scored three at Hillsborough, five at home to Coventry, four against Tottenham, three against QPR. The league title would be won by 10 points from Aston Villa, a first title in 26 years.

Such a reverse in fortunes seems inconceivable now, although Sunday's announcement that Ineos chief Sir Jim Ratcliffe has acquired a 25 per cent stake in the club for £1.25 billion could change that. As part of the deal, Ineos will invest $300 million into United's infrastructure to redevelop Old Trafford and will oversee football operations.

And a change is what's needed. The competition is much stronger and United are much weaker. There’s FFP and United’s money has been spent, a lot of it badly, for years.

But what should Ineos do? Sack the manager? Should Ferguson have been dismissed having finished 11th in 1989 and 13th in 1990, three and four years into his United tenure. Most fans thought so. Should Sir Matt Busby have been sacked having finished 15th in 1962 or 19th in 1963? Or 11th in 1969 when United were European champions?

History says not in any of these cases, but at the time views were different. And attitudes have changed. The news cycle has sped up, patience is no longer a virtue, at least in football. Glory attracted many converts to United and those converts have struggled to get their heads around a lack of it.

It’s tough right now for Manchester United. This season has been a miserable one. United aren’t playing well and one win from six Champions League games in a group which was far from difficult was shocking.

There’s a whole raft of negative statistics: 13 defeats before Christmas – United's worst numbers since 1930 – the most damning.

It’s true, but United had also played 20 games before that Christmas (against 26 this) and won only two of them en route to relegation. United are nowhere near that bad, but fans have legitimate concerns about the players, the recruitment and the manager.

Eric ten Hag, who did well in his first season, accentuates any positives from games. He remains emotionally balanced in victory or defeat, but while the eyes of the fans who woke up at 4am to travel to West Ham on Saturday were tired and some distance from the pitch, those fans knew what they saw, and it was awful.

United may have had 65 per cent of possession, but have stopped scoring and are boring to watch. There were only three shots on target in 99 minutes at West Ham – and one should have put United ahead.

Ten Hag, like fans, keeps hoping that this season will turn. At some point there will be no time left for it to turn. It will be over just like any European campaign already is, but there’s still a lot of football to be played until then.

There’s been little appetite for another managerial change but is there a way out of this? The biggest negative this season has been the injuries. United have not fielded the same team in 24 consecutive games. There have been 18 different defensive combinations.

Up front, it’s OK to apportion some blame to the forwards, yet a rural rail line gets better service on a holiday. The bench looks shorn of suitable talent because so many players are out.

Injured players will return, several in January. Out-of-form players can’t stay out of form forever, but how this team needs a spark, a Cantona-like talisman to lift the dreadful mood around Old Trafford.

Updated: December 25, 2023, 7:59 AM