It was 7 a.m. on the morning of Manchester United’s home game against Arsenal in December when I was rudely awoken by my 7-year-old Manchester City-supporting nephew, Charlie. To my dismay, he’s got a season ticket and goes to games with his father. My sister has failed in her duty to indoctrinate or convert him, like the rest of the family, to being a United fan.
“Uncle Andy,” he said, waking me up. “If United lose tonight, you’ll be 19 points behind City. Which is the same as last season, but this season hasn’t even finished.”
Ouch. He was put up to this by his father, a blue from a family of blues in Manchester. They’ve watched their team home and away for as long as I’ve known them. They’re very good football fans, loyal to a fault; Man City have had a thousand faults over the years, to be fair.
United didn’t lose to Arsenal in an exciting, scrappy, four-goal encounter that December day, but they didn’t win, either. United were eighth in the league at the time, 17 points behind City. United’s goal difference was minus-1; City’s plus-39. The league was over with less than a third of the games played.
It’s still over, though the gap has closed since. United are now “only” 12 points behind City, though the City fan who tweeted me (and then blocked me before I’d replied) to suggest that fickle United fans would be changing their tune about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after he’d been in charge for 10 games could turn out to be wide of the mark.
As great as seven consecutive wins under a new United manager might be, and the prospect of a big FA Cup game Friday night at Arsenal with 5,200 away fans to come this week, United are still well adrift of City. What’s even worse is that Liverpool are further in front, a massive 16 points ahead of United. Even if United win their remaining 15 matches, they’re highly unlikely to claim the title this season. Not that anyone expects that.
In short, United fans are enjoying what’s happening now under the Norwegian with the extending, treble-winning toe. That’s sufficient for now as Solskjaer chases down a top-four spot, something that would have been considered a long shot when he took charge given that Arsenal, the team above, were eight points ahead. That gap has been reduced to zero in only six matches.
While United’s rise will likely attract more eyeballs than any other story in English football this season, it’s still not the main one. That honour goes to the title race and the possibility that Liverpool might win the league for the first time since 1990.
Liverpool have got an excellent team and an excellent manager. The same, of course, can be said of City, their greatest threat. Once it became clear United were not going to win the league, many fans in England (United fans included) started rooting for Spurs as an inoffensive third option. United beating Mauricio Pochettino’s side last week was a major blow to Spurs, not that the travelling fans minded too much at Wembley.
As every week passes, United fans are having to face the awkward reality of City or Liverpool becoming champions, just as they did in 2014. They can laugh when one of them slips up as Liverpool did in 2014, but there’s not a United fan who wouldn’t swap league positions with one of their greatest rivals right now. If only.
So which of the pair do fans want to win the league? Which one is the lesser of the two evils?
The answer might surprise because it’s City, by a distance. That’s nothing to do with the fact that they’re also from Manchester — although there are people who want big Manchester clubs to do well, just as Newcastle fans exist who can remember them winning a trophy — but because Liverpool are considered a greater rival and threat. Liverpool have won 18 league titles, United 20. City have won five.
Much as it might pain United fans to think about it, Liverpool are the closest thing to Manchester United in English football, another northwest giant with a magnificent history that’s tinged with disaster. Both have global support, both play in red, both boast more European Cups than any other English side and both have had legendary Scottish managers. Both sets of fans despise each other, not that it was entirely evident in Michigan during the 2018 preseason when fans of both drank in the same bars. Such a thing wouldn’t happen in England.
United fans find it hilarious that Liverpool haven’t won the league for so long and revel in “You nearly won the league” chants when the two teams meet. Whisper it quietly, but they also know Liverpool’s current side is very good, though they’ve yet to win a trophy. There’s less coveting of what City have done because no matter how well they play on the field or how well they recruit, United fans think they’ve had to cheat financially in order to do it.
There’s one way the current title race could be more palatable: if both City and Liverpool get knocked out of the Champions League while United don’t. We can but wish, but given the great form of Solskjaer’s men, it doesn’t quite seem so far-fetched as it did a month ago.
I’d like nothing more than to ring my 7-year-old nephew — and his dad — at 7 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, June 2, from Madrid, having watched United win a fourth European Cup the previous night. Let’s see if they’re so confident then. I can always dream.