One troubling facet of this country is represented by the legions of ABUs (Anything But United) whose motivation seems to be purely pessimistic, destructive and nihilistic. I can understand why supporters of another football club may dislike Manchester United but they seem absolutely the wrong club to be the recipients of blind, unquestioning, hateful negativity — although Alex Ferguson’s defensive truculence could invite dislike on a personal level.
Take the last two Premier League games — both have been described by commentators as classics (at least the second half of the Liverpool game). Against Everton both Fletcher and Berbatov scored goals that, as examples of fast-paced, one-touch football, were beautiful. Berbatov’s second goal against Liverpool was absolutely extraordinary. Most overhead kicks are opportunist attempts when a player can’t connect with the ball any other way but Berbatov’s was absolutely deliberate — he started with a perfect first touch, knocked the ball to the perfect height and dispatched it with incredible accuracy. Reina was rooted to the spot as he didn’t expect any sort of shot from a player with his back turned but the kick was so well placed he wouldn’t have saved it in any case.
I like Berbatov as, like Cantona, he gives the impression he isn’t really that interested in conforming to the expectations placed on footballers. He doesn’t run around like a screaming and putting in obvious displays of headless chicken shirt-kissing loyalty for ‘the fans’ — one pundit said he had invented football as a walking game and you imagine he might have a cigarette in his hand as he plays. As with Scholes, he doesn’t need the artifice — they produce a pieces of skill and vision that are at another level compared with everyone else and they shrug their shoulders and say ‘that’s what I do’.
Berbatov has a way to go before he can compare with Scholes who, sadly after he was scandalously wasted by England, is now becoming acknowledged as the best midfield player this country has produced. Some of the football that comes from the Ginger Prince’s boots is as awe inspiring as a great work of art — the 25 yard bullet against Fulham being one example. And all this is from a quiet, small, red-haired bloke who you’d hardly notice in the local pub.
I suppose the casual way that some United players produce flashes of genius might irritate some but that must be offset against the team’s astonishing capability to self-destruct — losing two farcical goals in injury time at Everton being one example. Almost as bad was gifting Liverpool a penalty and free-kick with two challenges that were almost comical in their clumsiness. United don’t need ABUs to detract from them — they’re very capable of doing it themselves.
Fortunately, against Liverpool United had enough time to show the quality which probably infuriates ABUs the most — their determination to keep going (something that is so ingrained that it’s shocking to watch performances when it has been lacking — such as the Champions League final in 2009 and the capitulation to Bayern Munich last season, although that was a great game). As Steve MacLaren once said, United never lose, they just run out of time.
This may also be a point that grates on the ABUs — an unwaveringly optimistic psychology. Alex Ferguson used to always maintain that United played better after Christmas. It’s beside the point whether this was actually true or not (it often wasn’t) but it maintained the belief that things would get better if you carried on trying.
It’s the kind of advice that’s often given to anyone aspiring to do something difficult — keep trying, perseverance is all. This advice is very difficult to disprove — if someone gives up they won’t achieve anything and a lack of success might be explained by the need to persevere more. For most football teams and people trying to demonstrate talent, an infinite amount of perseverance still probably won’t compensate for an innate lack of ability but it’s easier to attribute a lack of success to a failure of determination. Perhaps this is what’s at the root of ABUism — the frustration and emptiness that comes from a defeated realisation that they — or their team — will never achieve their dreams no matter how hard they try.