Football: Champions stay bullish despite bear market

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YOU did not need to be in the north this week to divine the mood of Manchester United supporters. The City pages quantified the anxiety, putting the fears that the team would win nothing this season in terms of pounds and pence.

The shares in Manchester United plc plummeted 30 pence on Monday to 630p in response to the team losing the Coca-Cola Cup final to Aston Villa. That represented a wiping of pounds 4m off the value, as investors, who are mainly fans, anticipated a slump that would deprive the club of a place in the richly lucrative European Champions' Cup next season.

The Stock Market had looked at United's attempt on a domestic treble and foresaw disappointment multiplied three times. It was a vision that was revealed, too, to people who would not know a share certificate from a worthless piece of financial officialese.

'I know they say the team's not feeling the pressure,' one man leaving the United souvenir shop said, 'but we'd lost twice all season until March and now we've been beaten by Chelsea and Villa in 22 days. The players look tense, there's not the freedom about them that there was. Don't tell me a team that has four sendings-off in five matches is relaxed.'

He was clutching a black shirt United use for away matches. It was for his son and bore the No 7 on its back and the legend 'Cantona', an appropriate symbol for the mood of foreboding because the Frenchman's double sending off and five-match suspension had been seen as conclusive evidence of United cracking.

At a bookmakers in Stretford, which had cut the odds on United winning nothing from 50-1 to 9-2 in the space of eight days, the theme continued. 'What happened two years ago is still fresh in the memory,' a 29-year-old fan, who had cut his emotional losses by betting on Villa at Wembley, said. 'After we let Leeds nick the championship then, no Manchester United fan underestimates the ability for this lot to blow it.'

The spectre in 1992 was Leeds; this time it is Blackburn and Jack Walker's millions. The calculations in pessimistic red minds centred on their closest rivals winning at Wimbledon on Tuesday and United losing to Liverpool the following day. United's summit meeting at Ewood Park would then be a clash of equals, a disagreeable concept for supporters who revelled in a

16-point lead at the top of the Premiership not so long ago.

And for much of Tuesday night the bearish tendency prevailed. Pubs were filled with United fans who had quit Radio Five Live at half-time with Blackburn winning at Selhurst Park. They drowned their sorrows and then were awash with contrasting emotions as reinforcements arrived bearing news of Wimbledon's 4-1 victory.

'It was the first time Blackburn have been under pressure,' was heard repeatedly in the queues for admission to Old Trafford on Wednesday. 'They've had it easy, they've been chasing without any hope of catching us. As soon as they got within range their bottle went.'

Many bottles went down many necks later that evening when United defeated Liverpool 1-0 to establish a six-point lead. The mood had turned 180 degrees in the space of 24 hours, which had older supporters recalling the last, even more violent, swing in fortune.

'It was like the 1979 Cup final in reverse,' a woman in her 40s said outside Old Trafford yesterday. Then, United had scored twice in the last five minutes to equalise, only for the Gunners' Alan Sunderland to get a winner in the last minute. 'We looked like we were going to throw everything away, now we're feeling cocky again. I feel like I've lost a fiver and then found a pounds 10 note.'

'Blackburn will have to come at us now,' her son added. 'A draw's no good to them, they have to beat us. And United are brilliant on the counter-attack. I thought Cantona's absence would be decisive but now we can hit them on the break I think the pace of Giggsy and Kanchelskis will be more important.'

The protestations of the United camp had a more authentic ring to them, too. On Monday Alex Ferguson claimed had his charges were not cracking. 'They are not feeling sorry for themselves,' he insisted, although his supporters had dismissed the words as predictable, and empty, managerial bravado.

They were listening to him as the Blackburn match drew near, however. 'We've a cushion,' he said. 'That's vital. There are eight games to go and we started to show ourselves at this time last year. Our players have the experience of playing in big matches, we're used to the tension.'

The City had heard, too. When the Stock Exchange closed its doors for its Easter holiday, United's shares had recovered their Monday losses and more. They stand at 675p.