Manchester United Football Club is an English professional football club, based in Old Trafford, Greater Manchester, that plays in the Premier League. Founded as Newton Heath LYR Football Club in 1878, the club changed its name to Manchester … see full wiki
What say, for a minute, that you, an American sports fan, have mastered every ridiculous quirk and nuance carried by all three - or four of you include the NHL - big leagues. You're looking for something that might potentially become the next big thing, and upon checking out this tournament for a sport called soccer called the World Cup which is apparently a huge-ass deal everywhere else on the planet Earth, you instantly fall in love. All action, no stoppages, 45 minutes of heated action in two halves, no commercial interruptions, pure, ongoing blood feuds, transcendent athletes, and unique song anthems, and let's face it, soccer just gets a lot of shit right that American sports fucking suck at. So, after watching matches every time you can over a couple of years and following the American National Team, the Yanks, you decide it's time to take the completion step and adopt a team from the English Premier League - the most popular professional sports league in the world - to call your own.
Unfortunately, picking favorite soccer teams - in any of the big Euro leagues, not just the Premier League - ain't like grabbing onto the most appealing baseball team and charging forward. The problem - actually, it's one of the major appeals of the sport, another thing the European leagues get right - is this process called relegation. European leagues aren't split into conferences and divisions and all those other weird, forgiving Yankee niceties. There's one cross-league table for however many teams are in the league, so whatever spot a team is in at the end of the season is their finishing place. And if your team is in one of the last few spots, there's no "better luck next season," like in the United States. Finish too low, and YOUR ASS GETS BOOTED FROM THE LEAGUE. They get sent back to a lower league, while the best teams from the lower level get promoted to take a shot with the big dogs.
Unfortunately, being kicked from the top level means less international exposure, which makes it exponentially harder to adopt a team. Since the 1992 inception of the current form of soccer's top league (note: There has always been top flight soccer and relegation, but 1992 is merely when the league took the name it uses now), only seven teams have been able to avoid relegation completely: Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa, and Everton. Those clubs are the seven giants. They have money and coverage. And of them, it's Manchester United that is always the safest pick to win the league and produce a solid showing in the Champions' Tournament. It's Manchester United which is the team that capitalized the most on Nike market sports media. As a result, it's Manchester United which gets showered in glory. It's the team of the world's most popular transcendents: David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo. They're the team whose supporters are least likely to be mentally preparing to hate their favorite players when Real Madrid inevitably signs them. They are the most popular professional sports team in the world; over 300 million people claim some level of affection for Manchester United, and there are supporter branches in every country. They're the richest franchise in the world, too, and although they're NOT the most successful team, they ARE most definitely up there.
Yeah, if Mr. Casual Sports Fan in the States has ever heard of one single English team - or hell, one single European team at all - it's almost certainly this one.
It wasn't always that way, though. Manchester United Football Club, like pretty much every other popular soccer team in England, was started as a factory team in the hopes that the workers would abstain from the popular (read: only) vices like drinking and unionizing. They would take any warm body who happened to work in the factory. The club, Newton Heath, first applied for the Manchester and District Challenge Cup in 1884, when they lost the Final. The loss didn't deter them very much - they returned to the Final five more times, winning four of them. In 1887, the Heathens entered the FA Cup for the first time and drew a 2-2 draw when Captain Jack Powell refused a period of extra time. This pissed off Newton Heath, and they imposed a Football Association exile on themselves until 1889. They tried to form a league that year, but after the league folded, they applied to the new Football League. When the application was rejected, they became one of the founding members of the Football Association in 1890. They were relegated a couple of years later and spent the decade roaming the Second Division.
By 1902, Newton Heath had very few connections left to its origins, so new owner John Henry Davies renamed it Manchester United Football Club. And hey, Davies had money, you know, for good players, and the team started performing exponentially better. They finished fifth in 1903, which is coincidentally also the year they hired their first manager. In 1906, they finally won promotion, and went to the quarterfinals of the FA Cup. They also signed Billy Meredith, maybe the era's best player. In 1908, Manchester United won its first League Championship. By 1912, they had falled to 13th place, and 1915 was a low point; three of their players were found to have been conspiring with Liverpool players to fix matches. They were all banned for life.
World War I stopped everything on the pitch, and the return to soccer was rather inauspicious for Manchester United in 1922 when the side was relegated again. Although they returned to the First Division in 1925, they spent the next few years struggling, never getting above 12th and then being relegated again in 1929. By 1932, the team was in such bad shape that they were a mid-table Second Division team by 1932, couldn't pay their players, and needed a financial bailout. Fortunately, James W. Gibson was just around the corner, and he offered help on the condition that he got to be the Chairman and pick the directors. The influx wasn't immediately helpful; Manchester United avoided getting bumped into the Third Division by a single point in 1934. The next year was more what Manchester United expected from themselves: They thumped the Second Division, took the title, and returned to the First Division again.... And got relegated again the next year. Fortunately, they were also breeding stars like Johnny Carey, Jack Rowley, and Stan Pearson by then, and the season after that, Manchester United returned to the First Division, where they finally halted the eternal game of divisional bumpy they had been playing for the next 36 years.
A few of those years, however, were due to league suspension due to a ridiculously small-scale territorial conflict. Nothing major, really. Just World War II. Their stadium, Old Trafford, was used as a depot until a German bomb raid in 1940. Although soccer continued, the Association was effectively suspended. The bombing of Old Trafford forced the team to move its games.
In 1945, Association soccer returned, and the appointment of Matt Busby turned Manchester United into the force it's known as today. Busby demanded - and got - a Jerry Jones level of control over the team including selection, transfers, and training. Unlike Jerry Jones, though, he knew what he was doing, and by the late 40's, the Red Devils (the team's nickname) were beating up on the First Division. In 1948, they won the FA Cup, and in 1952, they won the First Division for the first time in 41 years. (In European soccer, instead of a single, decisive title, teams spend their seasons vying for several different trophies, all of which are won in different ways. The League Championship is decided by finishing standings, others are decided by different tournaments. I know it comes off as confusing when you first start following European soccer, but - and I'm completely serious here - it makes a LOT more sense than American college football.) By 1957, Manchester United was the first English team to compete for the European Cup. The youth movement of the decade was known as The Busby Babes.
1958 marked a tragedy. The Munich Air Disaster. The team plane dropped into Munich to refuel, and takeoff had to be aborted twice due to a problem called boost surging which was common back then. The fuel mix was too rich, which caused engines to accelerate too quickly. The pilots got control of the surging during the third attempt, but as they reached the speed where you can't abort a takeoff, the airspeed dropped and the plane crashed through a fence and into a house. the tail and left wing were ripped off and the fuselage hit a fuel tank and exploded. Of the 24 people who were were killed on the spot, ten were team members. Three more were critically hurt, with one dying 15 days later. The disaster hung over the team.
The initial shots at rebuilding didn't go well, but by 1963, Manchester United had their Holy Trinity in place: Bobby Charlton, Denis Law, and George Best, whose surname hardly does him justice. The Red Devils won the League Title in 1965 and 1967, although they were knocked out of the League Cup tournament by Blackpool in the second round, in 1968, they rose up and won their greatest triumph: The European Cup, beating the Portuguese club SL Benfica. The end of the era was 1969, when Busby retired. After his replacement, Wilf McGuiness, proved to be a lousy hire, though, he was coaxed into one final season of work before leaving for good in 1971. His replacement then, Frank O'Farrell, also only lasted a season. Tommy Docherty came in the following year and saved the team from relegation, but that was staving off the inevitable as Manchester United was finally relegated again in 1974. They were promoted again in 1976, when they also reached the FA Cup Final and got beat by Southampton. They did win the FA Cup the next year, though, and beat Liverpool, which was basically the best team in England at the time.
Management briefly went through one of those horrible revolving doors for the next ten years. The Red Devils did have highlights at the time - Manager Ron Atkinson took them to the FA Cup in 1983 and 1985, but the club finished fourth in the First Division that same year, and by November the next season, they were in serious danger of relegation yet again. Atkinson was fired. Along came Alex Ferguson, and the rest, as they say, is history. Ferguson's run with Manchester United went until 2013, during which he oversaw the Red Devils through the First Division's transformation into the Premier League and the team's transformation into a global brand. Although it seems like Manchester United is the bad guy, it's under Ferguson that they truly achieved that reputation. Before him, they were modestly successful. After him, they were arguably the most successful club in the history of English soccer.
Here's Manchester United's run of successes: 20 League Titles, 13 of which were won under Ferguson. 22 titles if you include the two they won during their various stays in the Second Division. They've also won 11 FA Cups, four League Cups, and 20 Community Shields in domestic competition. In European competition, they've won the most prestigious trophy in Europe - the European Cup - three times and the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (not a typo) and UEFA Super Cup once each. In worldwide competition, they've hauled in the Intercontinental Cup and FIFA Club World Cup once each. Hard to argue with a list of accolades like that. Their number of League Titles and Community Shields surpasses those of any other team.
Manchester United maintains big rivalries with several other clubs. And as you've probably heard, rivalries are much bigger deals across the pond than in the United States. Their biggest rivals are Arsenal, Liverpool, and cross-town boys Manchester City. Also, surprisingly, Leeds United. Leeds United is odd because they've never been a power, at least not since the First Division became the Premier League. Hell, they were actually relegated in 2004 and that's the last the Premier League has seen of them since. At one point, they actually dropped into the third tier! The rivalry with Manchester City is obvious, as it is with Liverpool, another working-class British city with a club that has tons of soccer success. The rivalry with Arsenal comes from the number of times the two teams have fought over the Premier League title.
While the team's greatest success is pretty bottom-heavy, they fielded some true superstars: From Charlton, Law, and Best to earlier greats like Billy Whelan and Duncan Edwards on The Busby Babes to the early Earnest Mangnall, and later greats like Ryan Giggs, Joe Cantona, and Cristiano Ronaldo, fine athletes have lit up Old Trafford. Matt Busby revolutionized the way soccer management works, and Alex Ferguson may be the very best in English soccer history. The team's current Captain is Wayne Rooney, and its current manager is David Moyes.
Manchester United is one of the reigning crown jewels of English soccer, and they were the first team to capitalize of sports globalization. Translation: They're fucking RICH. All the good times that came under Sir Alex Ferguson don't look like they'll be in any immediate danger of going anywhere soon. European soccer doesn't have a salary cap, so across the pond, your team is either money or screwed. Sometimes, teams will luck out and a new owner will come along and turn a bad team into a real contender. Manchester United has been estimated to be the richest sports team in the world by Forbes. Deloitte ranks them third, behind Spanish giants Real Madrid and Barcelona.
With all the success, money, and branding, of course, come enormous swaths of fans. I mentioned above that some 300 million people on Earth swear some kind of loyalty to the Red Devils. That's a common guesstimate. More conservative estimates put the number at around "only" 75 million, while the most wildly liberal estimate I've read is 333 million. For comparison, the world's fourth-most populated country, the United States, has just under 315 million people, including immigrants. With the success, of course, also comes a kind of fervent sports hate, the likes of which you've never experienced before. You know your feelings toward the face teams of corporate sports evil in the United States, the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees? Well, take those, put them together, and quantify it by about 100 times, and THAT is the general attitude of the non-Manchester United supporter.
Full disclosure: I myself am a Manchester United hater. I support Liverpool. But there's no denying the kinds of things Manchester United brings to the table in English soccer. Manchester's universities use them to attract foreign students. Back in the start of the millennium, their ubiquity helped expose non-soccer countries to the Premier League, and Manchester United became the My First Soccer Team of many fans who fell in love with the sport. The Premier League is a much stronger league with the presence of Manchester United, and I'd be an idiot to avoid acknowledging that.