United were once England's team. A nation mourned after Munich 1958 and popular sympathy swelled them to symbols of a proud and resilient footballing culture. It spread worldwide with the words "Bobb-ee Shal- ton" a starting point for conversation. In England, at least, times have changed, attitudes hardened.
To many, United now seem less the people's champions, more Mammon and mammoth emblem of a game bloated by commerce. Ground capacity outstrips all others by 15,000, profits soar towards pounds 40m this year and their value nears pounds 500m. Merchandise is everywhere. Grandeur is replaced by grandiosity, empathy by envy.
When United run out against Borussia Dortmund on Wednesday night in the second leg of their European Cup semi-final, they will nominally be England's representatives. Television will no doubt trumpet them as such. In reality, the committed fans of other clubs will not see them that way; nor, indeed, may United themselves, even if in his attempt to secure an extension to the season, Alex Ferguson has used the idea of them carrying a nation's hopes.
Many viewers will probably be tuning in for the Chris Eubank effect - the sheer pleasure of witnessing a possible defeat for arrogance. The German visitors would recognise it as Schadenfreude. The United manager has spoken of the jealousy of the less successful in thwarting his club.
"We don't feel we are representing England, it is an insult to the tradition of United- supporting, which is based on the immigrant, the Celtic fringe, the dispossessed," says Richard Kurt, contributor to the Red Issue fanzine and author of The Red Army Years (Headline, pounds 16.99) published next week. "We are the Catholic church of football, loyal to Pope rather than country, and we are under the dual papacy of Ferguson and Cantona."
The turning against United began in the early Seventies, "with some reason," adds Kurt. "There were four or five years of rampant hooliganism when United fans wrecked away grounds and sympathy was lost." Neither has it gone away, he adds, though it may be less overt.
At Blackburn last Saturday, he says, provoked United fans "did" a pub in retaliation. "There have been six quite major fights around matches at Old Trafford this season, on the forecourt, in the city centre. Ten years ago they would have made the back pages. Now I think there is a vested interest in it not being reported as it detracts from Old Trafford's image as a family place. There has also been a violent atmosphere around United at away matches since '94-95 but mostly the vigilance of police and stewards has kept it under control. There are now signs of police letting it slip."
The 1994-95 season represented the most open manifestation of the anti- United feeling, Kurt believes, "at the height of the Cantona stuff and when we had Ince, who was combative and targeted because he was black". There is nothing new, or even English, in antipathy towards a country's top club. Roman taxi drivers would tell you before last year's European Cup final they hoped Ajax would beat Juventus. Bayern Munich fans will probably be urging on United come Wednesday.
In Britain, Leeds United were roundly reviled during the 1970s, and a dose of failure, at the European Cup Final of 1975, improved their image a little. In the Eighties all-conquering Liverpool were rarely lovable. The difference these days comes in the more hostile vehemence of the opposition. Hatred is not too strong a word in these days of an angry, jealous society, a mood spared Sir Matt Busby in a less complicated era.
"United these days are probably an easy metaphor for a lot of what's wrong with modern football," says Kurt. "When Liverpool were the most successful club, there was still this Scouse proletarian feel to them. They were built up with the money of supporters and the people, a good traditional club.
"The new breed of supporter at United probably doesn't know anything different than all this commercialism. For the traditional supporter there is an element of the modern United that does stick in the craw, I have to admit. But you would only ever say that talking amongst yourselves. Mostly you use that to rub other clubs' noses in it, in that loadsamoney Eighties way. Their clubs and their lives are so sad that they have nothing better to do than criticise United. Howard Wilkinson at Leeds used to say that the fans there spent too much time singing anti-United songs rather than backing their own team."
Such "triumphalist crowing" by United's following, as Kurt puts it, is clearly one reason why United are frequently detested. Another is that, as the jibe has it, their fans come from far and wide, but not Manchester. "In Guildford," says Kurt, "there are four or five hundred United fans. They are like a foreign sect, offending the locals, and they love it."
If they haven't come to love it, it seems that United under Ferguson have at worst come to live with it and at best learned to profit from it. At first shocked by the dislike, when he witnessed bananas being thrown at Paul Ince, the reaction to Cantona's suspension and hearing a BBC announcer saying that their weekend had been improved by United losing, the manager now looks to make capital from it.
Ferguson turned United's power on the FA last week, saying that if his club did not receive some concessions, they might not play ball when digital TV came around, instead going their own way. Their own channel would need other teams to comply but clearly a Premiership wanting to be even-handed is treading a fine line, worried that its flagship club may bloody-mindedly ignore domestic matters should the European league gather momentum.
"Most United fans savour the hatred. It is an acknowledgement that we are the best," says Kurt. "All class division falls apart. It unites us. As long as any bias against us is not translated into harm by the governing bodies, we don't worry. And I think Fergie is a clever bastard. This is a device to make us beleaguered, to create team spirit and strengthen the mood of the club."
Quite possibly. Publicly fierce, Ferguson can be amusingly self-deprecating in private. "I've been told not to go on too long but I've applied for an extension," he joked when he stood up to speak at the Professional Footballers' Association dinner last Sunday.
We will know more when United take the field against Dortmund on Wednesday. Ferguson will be looking for a stoked-up Old Trafford to lift his team and intimidate the opposition. To counter a Borussia augmented by the likely return of five regulars, notably Matthias Sammer, he may seek to match the passion of Porto and retrieve the goal deficit by again playing Cantona, Andy Cole and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer in his front line.
It should be a passionate night, inside the ground and in pubs, clubs and living-rooms. In the main the strong emotions one way or another that United excite are healthy, a way for the traditional follower of the game to rediscover voice amid the all-seater cathedrals.
Any danger comes in the potential for violence just under the surface. That must be the best we can hope for in the present climate. For United, respect rather than popularity is probably the best they can hope for. Victory and another championship, and they will surely settle for that.