Man United hasn't ruined my life

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The Independent Culture
SO WHY do people hate Manchester United? Because people do, that's one reason. Because so many love them, that's another reason. After that, you can take your choice from dozens of prejudices and theories, few of them logical.

Watching the Cup Final on Saturday, who should spring on to the screen but two beaming Prime Ministers - Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern. What are they doing at Wembley, I thought, when there's a peace settlement in Ireland to be achieved, not to mention sorting out Kosovo? But listening to them chatting about soccer suggested another reason for this dislike of Man United.

It is traditional. Why else was there a Gallup poll on Saturday, trying to find out its precise extent? They interviewed a representative sample of 1,000 people - and seemed surprised that Man United were not quite hated as much as they used to be. Some 47 per cent wanted Man United to win the Cup Final while 44 per cent wanted Newcastle to win. I suppose the surprise there is that if Man United are hated so much, you would have expected far more people - that is the neutrals, and supporters of other clubs - to be shouting for Newcastle.

What surprised me was the small amount of people who had no opinion, didn't care - just 6 per cent. In a sample, national poll, I would have expected far more to react by saying boring, boring, boring.

The two traditional reasons for the antipathy are money and arrogance. Man United is the richest club, with a turnover of nearly pounds 100m, about double that of its nearest rival. It's supposed to be one of the English vices to resent success, so a lot of us presumably dislike Man United simply because the club is so wealthy.

The arrogance is harder to understand. At this moment, they are most definitely, as Alf Ramsey used to say, a team. Fergie does not allow individual arrogance on the pitch, not since Cantona went off to be a luvvie. Beckham, for all his glamour, and Giggs, for all his dribbling skills, subordinate themselves to the good of the whole.

Off the pitch, the club itself can appear arrogant and greedy, especially on the merchandising side. The constant changing of shirts did upset many loyal fans. But it worked - merchandising and assorted rights now bring in more money than the turnstiles.

Fergie has used the hatred of Man United to foster a siege mentality, "us against the world", so the hatred has rebounded, though it is tough for any newcomer to the team to find that he will be reviled, abused and spat at by rival supporters everywhere. It also goes back a long way.

In 1968, I was in a crowded hotel lounge in Gozo, Malta, watching Man United win their first and only European Cup. Days before, travelling round the island, the talk was constantly of Best and Charlton. Bus drivers had icons of them on their dashboards, along with the Madonna. Man United has an international following no other English club can match, from Hong Kong to Hawaii. When my daughter in Botswana got her car serviced last week, the mechanic wanted to talk about Dwight Yorke, his favourite player.

I didn't know till Saturday that Bertie Ahern was such a committed Man United fan, though I knew that Tony supported Newcastle. Despite being born in Scotland, he looks upon Durham as his hometown, and Newcastle was his local team when growing up. (One of his sons follows Liverpool, hometown of Cherie, while the other, yawn, is a Man United fan).

On the telly, Bertie showed a keen knowledge of Man United, whereas Tony tended to giggle and say little about Newcastle. Mr Ahern then revealed that 5,000 Irish fans would be going to Barcelona for Wednesday's Euro final against Bayern Munich. And that is when it struck me what Man United's real crime is in the eyes of other football fans.

It happens every Saturday in the season. Coaches take thousands of Man United fans away from Carlisle and Torquay, despite the fact that their home towns' clubs are desperate for support. Planes fly in from Ireland, Europe and even North America. That's what some people hate, the pathetic followers of fashion and success who have no connection with Manchester. It means you now find few natives of Old Trafford at Man United matches. Sadly, they cannot afford the seats, or the merchandising.

I might support two other clubs, but I have never hated Man United. Oh no. I like to think I am a follower of football. So, I will be cheering them in the European Cup final against Bayern Munich on Wednesday - along with 86 per cent of the population. That's what that Gallup poll also revealed. And, after all, they'll be on foreign soil, and they'll be doing it for Britain. Won't they?