When I was about nine years old, I bought a Santa hat from a Manchester street vendor. Although right now it is, unfortunately, several thousand miles away somewhere in my childhood bedroom cupboard gathering dust, it remains one of my most prized possessions. It cost about a fiver, and if I’m being totally honest, for a product on sale in Cottonopolis it was not exactly of the finest quality. It had one of those irritatingly long labels that scratched the back of my neck, and as I grew up – no sniggering there – I began to worry the seams would split at any moment.
The reason I loved it, however, was because of what was written on the white band at the front: “Santa is a Kanchelskis Fan”. Boy, was Mr Claus enamoured with the Ukrainian; here was a phenomenally fast unknown quantity to bring almost other-worldly symmetry to the Manchester United midfield as Ryan Giggs flew down the other wing. With Paul Ince and Roy Keane in the middle, it was pure and utter hedonism for fans.
Happily indoctrinated by my father into the delights of 4-4-2 ever since I could scorch penalties past him in the garden for a five pence reward, the wide men in my life ripped England to shreds. Dad’s love for the now-archaic formation was not of the dogged Mike Bassett type; it was purely to accommodate his favourite position, the winger. The majestic Dane Jesper Olsen ran a close second in his affections to the greatest number seven of them all, George Best, while his eyes wistfully glaze over at the mention of Gordon McQueen and Steve Coppell.
At my tender age I naturally assumed, therefore, that wingers were a concept morally owned by United. We were the ones who had the fastest, most skillful, most thrilling of all, because it was in our fabric. No-one else demonstrated the you-score-three-we’ll-score-four attitude like us, right?
Look, we all make mistakes. We did have the best wingers back then, but was it by divine right? “We’ve always played with two wingers,” old-timers will say. “It’s the Manchester United Way©” Let’s take a step back a second, and consider this. Like specks of sand on a beach, one football club is a tiny proportion of the entire global footballing community, so mathematically, the chances that at least a handful of other clubs have long since used a position that has always been in existence are probably quite high, right?
A few years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson made a similar point about West Ham in his autobiography, and some half-witted keyboard warrior responded with predictable indignity in that well-respected rag, the Daily Mail. To justify his claim that The West Ham Way© was alive and kicking, he highlighted the signings of Carl Jenkinson, Diafra Sakho and Alex Song among others. I’ll just leave that there for a moment to sink in. The utter tripe he continued to vomit forth included nauseating garbage like “the cavalier style” and “going for the jugular” – sound familiar?
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against West Ham per se. It’s the mindless manner in which fans of almost all clubs lay claim to a certain style or attitude, as if they own that particular style. This is stupid for a few reasons. Firstly, by calling it a ‘way’, you are by definition marking out a particular brand of football as being exclusive to your club; otherwise it would just be called ‘attacking football’. Only the very first team to employ a previously-unseen approach can ever really say this with any truth, and even then, how can it ever be proven that no other team has used the same approach? Call me a pedant if you wish, but you’ll be wrong. Is it really so hard to say “We’ve always played with wingers/played attacking football/gone for the jugular etc” without being sanctimonious about it?
Secondly, and I’m no historical expert here, but do fans really think they’ve always played the same way since the dawn of time? Have all their managers always towed the same line? Have opposition tactics always allowed for their apparent ownership of one style to be implemented? Give me a bloody break.
The thing such dimwits need to realise is that this is ok. If anything, it is a sign of a more appealing team if it can adapt to the times and changing personnel. Imagine if England still held rigidly-disciplined positions filled with honest, hardworking men as they did in 1953 when the Mighty Magyars destroyed all previously-held British notions of how football should be played. After all, that was the England Way. Thank God it isn’t any more.
Next time you feel the need to whinge about your club’s ‘Way’, just save the world a favour and don’t – because it is about as real a concept as Santa Claus.