Empires don't usually go out in a blaze of glory. They tend to hang around, stamp their feet a bit then slink out by the back door. Rome took about a century to fall apart; being turned over by the Vandals and Visigoths was simply the endgame.
In the same way, although Manchester United's defeat to Benfica on Wednesday was actually just further proof of something we'd known for a while, it felt like the end of an era. It was like that bright Saturday afternoon at Maine Road in 1974: United's decline had arguably begun the morning after they had beaten Benfica to win the European Cup six years before. But it was Denis Law's back-heel that remains history's marker buoy. The look of sadness on The King's face after he'd scored for Manchester City was an eloquent commentary on that dim period for United, almost its defining image.
There were a few of those on Wednesday, like Alex Ferguson pointing at his watch and staring at the referee. In the old days, the mere act of Fergie consulting his timepiece was enough to induce anxiety attacks in match officials; now, he seemed marginal, nutmegged by history. Then there was Wayne Rooney muttering imprecations in injury time, and Ryan Giggs gesturing in frustration at Ruud van Nistelrooy. All of them, flailing against the inevitable.
With 20 minutes to go I thought about Malcolm "Visigoth" Glazer and wondered if he was watching. The team's downward trajectory this season hasn't been as painful to observe as it might have, thanks to his rude invasion - schadenfreude almost overrides loyalty. But with five minutes to go indifference had been kicked off the park and replaced with the promise, standard in these circumstances, of piety unto death if God could see his way to fix the result.
United fans looked glum, and one gingerly felt his black eye, which seemed symbolic (a couple of rows in front, a man with a shaven head was picking his nose, which didn't). Four boys in Santa hats and T-shirts spelling "B-E-S-T" were devastated. Alex Stepney and Brian Kidd looked on bleakly from the stands. Like Bestie, no doubt, from the upstairs bar.
Sadly, Sky's prosaic commentator Rob Hawthorne wasn't really up to conveying the immensity of the occasion. "Into the Stadium of Light they come," he said as the teams filed on to the pitch. "But will there be light at the end of the tunnel for Manchester United?" "Light", you see, it's a play on words.
"That Scholes goal came inside six minutes," he said a little while later, "which ironically is about the same sort of time when George Best scored in the famous quarter-final in 1966." If anyone can explain why that's ironic, I promise I'll eat their underpants, straight from the washing basket.
According to one of its senses in the Oxford English Dictionary ("A contradictory outcome of events as if in mockery of the promise and fitness of things"), Richard Keys later used the word correctly (now that's ironic).
"It's funny to say that United are not even in the Uefa Cup," Ruud Gullit was saying. Keys replied: "I know what you're saying, it's ironic - something lost in the translation there, I know what you're saying."
Gullit was needlessly contrite. "Sometimes I translate in the Dutch way," he said. But United not even making the Uefa Cup is funny, in a funny-peculiar way, and I found myself shouting at Keys, "Don't make him apologise! He speaks better English than you, you buffoon!"
The patronising anchor (sorry to slip into rhyming slang) then threw in a classic of his own to round off a dismal night for fans of United and lovers of language alike. "Quite literally the lights went out on Manchester United's European campaign tonight," Keys said. Not to mention the light in his head.Reuse content