Those of you that follow football may be aware that last night was a pretty big night in the Champions League, especially if like me you are a follower of Manchester United. I was raised in Manchester and have supported United all my life. Growing up, I was spoilt by having Sir Alex Ferguson, the greatest manager in premiership history, manage my team. It was an era of legends with players like Eric Cantona and at one stage arguably the best club midfield in the world with the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Keane, Butt and Beckham. Fergie, the team and the fans expected and demanded success. The promised land was reached in 1999 when United won the holy grail of the treble: the premier league, the FA cup and the champions league. No english premiership team had ever done it before and almost twenty years later it has yet to be repeated. The winning goal was scored by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in injury time. I remember being on my knees, screaming at the television just before he scored it. There were many more trophies over the years to come, but for me that was the high watermark.
Sir Alex retired in 2013. Since then, it’s been pretty uninspiring. A few more trophies, lacklustre football and a series of uninspiring managers, the last of which was sacked in December 2018 when the team were at an all time low. One of the accusations made by the fans was that these managers didn’t understand the history and traditions of the club. On December 19th, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed as interim manager, largely out of desperation. I don’t think anyone seriously expected what happened next. Three months later, United have played 15, won 12, drawn 2 and lost 1. They are undefeated in the premier league, and still in the hunt for the FA cup and the Champions league. Last night they made european football history by coming back from 2-0 down in the previous match, scoring 3 goals to defeat their opponents and qualify for the quarter finals.
What’s the secret? How has a team of dispirited individuals, performing as so much less than the sum of their very expensive parts, been transformed? Does Ole have a magic wand? The answer, partly at least, is connections. He is legend of the club, whose name was still sung by the fans even before he returned as manager, and he is a connection to the glorious past. He is connected to arguably the club’s greatest manager as he once played under him and considers him his mentor. He is connected to the team by his understanding of and passion for the game, and his ability to inspire and motivate them. As a result, the players are once again connected to each other. Last night there were ten players unavailable through injury, including their world class midfielder Paul Pogba, and yet because they were connected they actually played together as greater than the sum of their parts, some of whom were teenagers out of the academy. He’s connected to the fans who sing “Ole’s at the wheel” endlessly, home or away.
Connections are vital for all of us. This week I have been listening to two of Dr Rangan Chatterjee’s best ever episodes of the Feel Better Live More podcast. It’s a two part conversation with Johann Hari, about understanding the real causes of depression. I cannot recommend these two episodes enough. Johann shares so many insights and important messages. I was struck by some in particular that I will list without commenting:
We have evolved to live in a tribe but nowadays often try to live without it.
Home is where someone notices when you are not there.
People are happier thinking collectively than individually.
Social media is fine as a way station to real life, offline encounters but if it’s the last stop on the line, then there’s a problem.
Speaking of social media, my friends and I use a WhatsApp group to organise our man-cave evenings. Last night they brought some beers and crisps, as per man-cave rules. We played some really terrible pool. We talked about our week, our work and our personal lives. Some did more talking, others more listening. The only thing I used my phone for once we were all together was a mancunian music playlist as we watched champions league history unfold in front of our eyes. Regardless of our tribal football affiliations, or lack thereof, we all enjoyed the evening. I’d like to think that at the end of evening I was the happiest person in the room, for obvious reasons. However, my friend Darren was a close second. He’s a West Ham season ticket holder who had decided to pop down the bookies beforehand and place a bet on United winning. To be honest, he had more faith than I did. He got fantastic odds. Next time we connect, the drinks are on him.