Special for the Armenian Weekly
The hallowed turf of Old Trafford was nicknamed “The Theatre of Dreams” by Sir Bobby Charlton, one of Manchester United’s storied attacking midfielders from days gone by. Charlton could be described as “Mr. Man Utd.,” having played most of his career in Manchester before rejoining the club as a director some 10 years after his playing career was over, a position he continues to hold to this day. All told, Charlton has been with the club since the mid-1950’s and is a man whose life has taken many dramatic ups and downs. Achievements such as winning numerous domestic and European honors with United and winning the World Cup with England in 1966 are juxtaposed with his involvement in the infamous Munich Air Disaster at the tender age of 20.
Soon after being spotted playing at school level by Manchester United’s chief scout Joe Armstrong, Charlton signed with the club as a 15 year old. As he served his apprenticeship, Charlton would become one of the famed “Busby Babes,” a team of talented young footballers who emerged through United’s youth system and graduated to the first team under the management of Sir Matt Busby. The notoriety of this special group of players came from not only being young and gifted, but also from being a product of the club’s youth system, and not talent simply bought and assembled from other clubs. The success of those players was unmistakable, winning the league championship in England in both the 1955-56 and 1956-57 seasons with an average age of just 21 and 22 years, respectively.
Tragedy would strike the group on Feb. 6, 1958, when eight players lost their lives in a plane crash at Munich airport as the team returned home from a European Cup match in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. In total, 23 of the 44 people on board lost their lives—players, club staff, and journalists. Charlton and Busby were among the survivors. Sir Matt resumed his managerial duties in the fall of the same year to begin the 1958-59 season, and he began building a second generation of great young players who would go on to win the European Cup 10 years later with such players as George Best and Denis Law. Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes were the only two survivors of the crash to play on that cup winning team.
The Busby Babes, the Munich Air Disaster, and the European Cup winning side of 1968 are etched into the fabric of Manchester United’s history. The club’s identity and philosophy was shaped and galvanized by the events of the 50s and 60s. The philosophy of developing young players, but more importantly, giving them a chance to prove that if you are good enough, you are old enough became United’s signature on the English league and the world game. Their exciting brand of attacking football, coupled with a youthful fearlessness forged the wonderful reputation and legacy the club is famous for.
After the league success of the 1966-67 season and the European Cup the following year, United would not capture a league or European title until the 90s. Charlton rejoined the club as a director in 1984 following the resignation of Busby from the board. His appointment was seen as continuity and a connection to the successes of the past. In 1986, Alex Ferguson joined the club as manager and after narrowly escaping relegation early in his tenure, he began putting a system in place to bring success back to the club.
Just as Joe Armstrong had scouted the Greater Manchester area all those years ago, Ferguson increased United’s scouting efforts 10-fold. That foundation began the recruitment and development of what became known as the “Class of 92.” David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, and the Neville brothers were the new crop of talented young players that would scale the heights of English and European football, and bring back fond memories of the Busby Babes. During Alex Ferguson’s time, United became one of the winningest teams in English football, winning the Treble in 1999 and amassing a staggering 13 Premier League Titles.
However, since Ferguson’s retirement from management, United have regressed in their performances. Perennial Champions league berths are no longer the norm, leaving United conspicuously absent from Europe’s marquee competition. With the appointment of Jose Mourinho as manager earlier this year, United have had four men take the helm of the storied club (albeit Ryan Giggs was in a caretaker role) since Ferguson stepped down. Four managers in 3 years is a far cry from the vast 41-year span of the previous 4 managers.
The recent managerial changes are only one sign of what I see as a worrying trend for the club, a trend that seems to be a departure from the famous United way. The magnanimity of the players, board and especially the United fans has been tested over the last three seasons. Developing and playing young players may be the noble way to run a club, but in the shareholder era of modern football, success dictates all. The historical success of Manchester United’s young teams had given the club and fans the luxury of being patient. Patient to see players develop and grow, knowing that as they develop, they also were winning trophies.
That has not been the case recently, and with that an air of panic has crept into United’s affairs. Take for example, the appointment of Jose Mourinho as manager. Undoubtedly he is a highly successful manager, and a personality large enough to fill the void left by Alex Ferguson. He also has the strength of character to handle the weight of expectation on his shoulders. He has been appointed to right the ship by returning the club to its winning ways. But how is he going to do that? The Mourinho way is a far cry from the United way.
Mourinho’s track record of developing young players is very poor, choosing to stockpile talent from the transfer market instead. His footballing philosophy is one driven by winning at all costs, to the detriment of playing style. United’s idea of a great team and great football can be broadly categorized as flowing attacking football, last-minute goals and dramatic winners, an overall splendid and admired product on the pitch. On the other hand, Mourinho categorizes great football as scoring one more goal than the opponent, with no emphasis on stylish play. The ends justify the means.
Since he has been appointed, Mourinho has bought Eric Bailly, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The rumor mill has also linked France and Juventus’s star midfielder Paul Pogba to the club, with talk of transfer fees reaching record levels to land such a talent. Mino Raiola, the man who happens to be the agent of Pogba, Ibrahimovic, and Mkhitaryan is squeezing some serious money out of Mourinho and United. Such spending is more indicative of the blue side of Manchester and Manchester City Football Club rather than Manchester United.
Such comparisons are heresy among the Red Devil’s fan base, but the argument can be made that Manchester United are no different to any other club or fan base. They are trying to buy their way back to the top, that’s something that other clubs do, but not United right?
The transfer of Henrikh Mkhitaryan from Dortmund to Manchester United is a step backwards for Armenia’s talisman in the short term. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was once famously quoted as saying, “Zlatan does not play on Thursdays,” in reference to his ubiquitous involvement in the Champions League as opposed to its poor relation to the Europa League, whose games are played on Thursdays. Henrikh and Zlatan will forego the Champions League this season, and Zlatan will indeed play on Thursdays.
In the long term, Henrikh’s future can scale new heights with United. His career path has followed a consistent upward trajectory from his early days in Armenia before moving on to Ukraine, Germany, and now England. His hard work and professionalism is being recognized by more and more people as his career progresses. Provided he stays in the forefront of Mourinho’s plans, he has the talent, strength, and skills to play United back to their glory days. With Mourinho’s admission that he doesn’t see Wayne Rooney in a midfield role, that is good news for Henrikh. Playing underneath Ibrahimovic as the orchestrator of the United attack, Old Trafford has a new leading man playing at the Theatre of Dreams.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan will be the first Armenian to play for Manchester United, but not the first in the Premier League. French International Youri Raffi Djorkaeff, who has an Armenian mother, played for Bolton Wanderers in 2002. Andranik Teymourian also played for Bolton in 2006. In the early 90s, Ara Bedrossian played in the English lower divisions for Fulham.