Michael Olise’s equalizer was less of a surprise than an uncomfortable dawning realization about Erik ten Hag’s Manchester United.
If you’re feeling a strange pang in your stomach, a shiver down your spine or bile in the back of your throat while watching Manchester United these days, you are not alone. They’re feelings that come upon a realization that is the antithesis of everything you were told by your parents, siblings and school mates, reinforced by holier-than-thou This Is Manchester United nonsense from a club that even when they’ve not been that good you have taken the greatest pleasure in seeing them lose.
Hating Manchester United is about the only thing non-Manchester United-supporting fans can agree on. Their pundits are everywhere, banging on about their decade-old dominance. There’s The Class of ’92, The Treble, United DNA. It really is so easy to hate them.
How unsettling then that Erik ten Hag and this nest of pr*cks threaten to take that simple joyful hatred away from us by – dare we say it – being a likeable Manchester United.
There’s Casemiro, who told his agent “I’ll fix this” as he watched them get spanked by Brentford at the start of the season, joined, and did. There’s Marcus Rashford, who’s taken a break from saving children’s lives to focus on his football. There’s Christian Eriksen, who came back to life and it’s impossible not to love for that reason and more. There’s Lisandro Martinez, who’s a sh*thouse, but a fun one, and Raphael Varane, quiet and assured beside him. And just when you’re clinging to the hope they might sign a striker you hate to replace the thunderc*nt who’s just left, big friendly giant Wout Weghorst bumbles on to the pitch in red. It’s f***ing ridiculous.
The United fans tested our newfound affection for the first ten minutes against Crystal Palace, singing Eric Cantona songs commemorating the last time they played away at Selhurt Park on a cold January evening and the Frenchman kung-fu kicked a supporter. But it would be too much to expect us to take the fans to heart along with the team.
The likability of Manchester United as a whole means we can’t help but warm to those who cause us to most strongly doubt our own hypothesis. Antony and Bruno Fernandes spent a good minute angrily flapping their arms and insisting the other was a lady of the night in Portuguese, but our first thought wasn’t how much of a nightmare it would be to play football and be in a dressing room with them, as it definitely would have been at any point last season.
And in any case, any gloss taken off United by those less savory characters is made up for by the ovewhelming positive character traits of the rest of them. For example, Fernandes scored their goal, which isn’t great in the like stakes, but he was assisted by Eriksen, who was pre-assisted by Rashford, so you end up feeling pretty good about it.
We will still root for the underdog, we’ve not entirely lose out minds, so Olise’s stunning stoppage time free-kick was a welcome twist, but there was perhaps even a tinge of disappointment at United failing to close the gap to Arsenal quite as significantly. Similarly, Casemiro’s yellow card and suspension is a shame rather than cause for celebration.
The clash on Sunday will be as close to an Arsene Wenger vs Sir Alex Ferguson classic as we’ve seen since even before the latter retired. It will be a game in which many of the neutrals who don’t consciously decide to support United for the benefit of a title race may end up subconsciously doing so because they share in this disconcerting liking of a football team they’ve been conditioned to hate. Sure, it’s not a reliable test of United love when the alternative is Arsenal, but still.
If we now like Manchester United what other firmly held football beliefs must we question? Are Arsenal fans in fact not the worst? Does ‘This Means More’ actually mean this means more for Liverpool? Would Chelsea really have won titles without Roman Abramovich?
Ten Hag, Rashford, Casemiro and the rest of them have us questioning the very fabric of English football fandom – the lovely b*stards.