Poor old hapless Manchester United. Now there's a phrase we haven't been able to dust down too often during the past quarter of a century. But they're in a tight spot right now, having failed to win in six since a fortuitous last-minute scramble at Watford.
During that period, they've somehow managed to get themselves knocked out of an easy group in the Champions League, been defeated by minnows Bournemouth, and given up their undefeated home record to another newly promoted team in Norwich City. A title tilt, excitedly talked up only a few weeks ago, looks little more than a pipe dream now. For the self-styled biggest club in the world, this state of affairs patently isn't acceptable.
In that sense, it's no wonder that vultures are currently performing elaborate pirouettes above Louis van Gaal's head. He's reportedly two bad results from the sack and extremely short of friends, with Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola casting ominous shadows from the wings and a frowning Ryan Giggs ostentatiously distancing himself from his boss by performing the Unsubtle Jig of Concern on the Old Trafford touchline. With a tricky away match at Stoke City coming up, followed by the visits of Chelsea and bogey team Swansea City, the climate is closing in on Van Gaal. It might not be long. Better men have been sent packing by one of the modern superclubs for much less.
Manchester United assistant manager Ryan Giggs speaks with Memphis Depay
Image credit: Reuters
And yet the kingmakers in the United boardroom would do well to think extremely carefully before making any dramatic moves. Getting shot of Van Gaal may make perfect sense on one level: his team is woefully underperforming, turgid football no sort of return on the club's heavy investment in players, despairing supporters teetering on the brink of open revolt. But any short-term gains from a new-manager bounce would be offset by some longer-term damage.
Coming to terms with the end of the Sir Alex Ferguson era was always going to be difficult - he was there for 26-and-a-half years, after all, and 26-and-a-half none-too-shabby years at that - though few thought United would find themselves in Busby-McGuinness-O'Farrell territory yet again. But here we are.
The first big mistake of the post-Fergie years is commonly thought to be the appointment of David Moyes. Misconception number one. Moyes may well have been the wrong man at the wrong time, but the *real* first error was to jettison him within 11 months of his appointment. In one fell swoop, United became one of Those Clubs, the sort that sacks their manager at the first sign of uncertainty.
In retrospect, United would have been better served sucking it up, giving Moyes at least until the end of his second season to either prove himself, or prove the naysayers right. Would they have been any worse off at the end of 2014-15 than they subsequently were under Van Gaal? Even if Moyes had failed to turn his own fortunes around, at least the "what if?" question would have been conclusively answered. That will now always remain hanging, a loose end forever untied. (Just like it would have been had Fergie got the push in December 1989.)
Perhaps more vitally for United's well-being going forward, the board would not have established an oppressive environment where any lack of instant Fergie-sized success leads to instant Moyes-shaped pressure on the incumbent manager.
Getting shot of Moyes so quickly simply transferred all the pressure onto the new man. Which leads us to the second great misconception of the post-Fergie era: that Moyes, having been the one to follow Fergie, at least wiped that particular slate clean. It's a nice attempt to wish away the rare difficulties of working in the wake of a genius like Ferguson, but it doesn't quite wash. Take the post-Matt Busby era. Wilf McGuinness followed the great man. But then so did Frank O'Farrell, Tommy Docherty, Dave Sexton and Ron Atkinson. Only Fergie managed to fully step out of the old boy's shadow, and even then it took him some time, with United a couple of decades down that particular road. In a similar vein, Van Gaal is following Fergie, just as Moyes did, too. Obsessing on the strict sequence won't make that shadow go away.
Van Gaal must operate under that pressure, and should be cut a little extra slack accordingly. Is it reasonable to expect him to replicate Fergie's free-flowing 1994 or 1999 sides within 19 months of his arrival? Was it reasonable to make similar demands of Moyes in half the time? If Van Gaal goes now, will it be fair to ask the same of the next man?
What if Mourinho or Guardiola arrive and fail to overhaul the petrodollar twins of Chelsea and City, their "cast-iron guarantee of success" having delivered nothing tangible within *their* first 18 months of office? What then? Another sacking? Another new manager given a year and a bit to get it right before the axe falls? Apart from a couple of years of panic post Busby, this has never been the United way.
Sir Alex Ferguson in converstaion with Sir Michael Moritz, Co-authors of Leading: Learning from Life and My Years at Manchester United
Image credit: AFP
It's true that Van Gaal doesn't appear to have many answers right now. Taking his performance in isolation, he's in awful trouble when measured by the modern metric. But a grand old club like United should be better than this. He should be given until at least the end of the season to fail, the end of the next one too if we're being scrupulously fair about his chances of seeing a job through.
He might turn it round: a dependable striker and central defender would go a long way. Or he may oversee United going five years without a trophy. These things happen to them all, though. Only the tiresomely entitled would moan too much, and seeing the Van Gaal project through to its conclusion would at least re-establish United as the sort of club prepared to give its managers a go. (For the record, their three title-winning mangers, Ernest Magnall, Busby and Fergie, were given eight, seven and seven years respectively to win their first championship.)
If they don't - and if, say, a new man like Mourinho fails to rediscover his mojo - the famous Manchester United will only be another 18 months from another crisis. At which point they'll have started burning through managers like Chelsea. Some things are more important than silverware and short-term relief. What sort of club do Manchester United want to be?
Love Manchester United? Connect with fans at Manchester United Forum on Facebook and manutdforum.org