Nothing less than a footballing juggernaut for the last two decades, the most popular team in England – and arguably the world – now stand on the brink of becoming the most successful side in British history.
Feel free to start your own debate here about how many Champions Leagues and English titles they’ll need to win before they officially become statistically better than Liverpool, but one thing is for certain: under Sir Alex Ferguson’s steely command, United have emerged from the doldrums to become an imperious outfit on the pitch, and an unstoppable brand off it – now said to be worth around £1.2bn, making it the most valuable footy club on the planet.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. Born in 1878 as Newton Heath, the club moved to its current home, Old Trafford in 1910. A solid rather than spectacular northern outfit winning the league twice pre-war, United’s first period of sustained success came in the 1950s and 60s under (Sir) Matt Busby, who won five league gongs.
His “Busby Babes” were an outstanding generation of youngsters who scooped United’s first title for 41 years in 1952, then bagged back-to-back league crowns in 1956 and 1957. Tragedy struck the side in 1958, however, when the Munich air disaster claimed the lives of eight players.
Somehow, Busby found the strength to rebuild the team, becoming champions again in 1965 and 1967. His efforts culminated in the historic 1968 European Cup win – the first by an English club. The wonderful players that took part in that campaign – George Best, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton – coupled with post-Munich sympathy helped to win United fans far beyond Lancashire.
But as they became England’s best-supported side (they still are, usually selling out their 75,000-capacity home), so the quality of football dipped. Busby’s departure ushered in two decades of mediocrity. Ferguson’s arrival in 1986 would change that – eventually. It took him seven years to win the league title (take note, knee-jerk sack-happy chairmen), but once he started, he couldn’t stop.
With astute signings (from enormo-keeper Peter Schmeichel through defensive yeoman Steve Bruce to Gallic genius Eric Cantona) augmented by a generation of home-grown players to rival the Babes – Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Nicky Butt and the Neville brothers – Ferguson completed a league and FA Cup double in 1994, and an incredible treble in 1999, with a last-gasp win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final.
Nowadays, visitors can marvel at the skills of Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Nani – as well as a new breed of promising youngsters like Fabio and Rafael da Silva, Chris Smalling and Darron Gibson.
United haven't always had it their way – Arsene Wenger's artful Arsenal and the Roman Abramovich-bankrolled Chelsea have presented major obstacles, and the ‘noisy neighbours’ of Manchester City promise a new challenge.
Things aren’t perfect for United fans, either: such is the hatred of their owners, the Glazers, that they’ve even set up a homegrown non-league club, FC United of Manchester. The worry also remains that Ferguson’s eventual retirement will have as bad an effect as Busby’s. For now though, the Theatre of Dreams can continue its reverie, and it remains an essential destination for any overseas football tourist.
United’s appropriately world-class home Old Trafford is the second-largest football stadium in the country after Wembley, seating 75,957 fans – all of whom enjoy wonderful views and great facilities. The atmosphere isn’t always electric when the smaller teams play here – although you’re more likely to see a thrashing – but it really hots up for the derbies against City and Liverpool.
Old Trafford is served by its own train station – conveniently named Old Trafford – which is just a few minutes (and pounds) ride from Piccadilly station. Equally quick and easy is the Metrolink tram, which run every 12 minutes from Manchester City centre. Drivers from the south should get off the M6 at Junction 19 and follow the A556 then the M56 for six miles, from the north leave the M6 at junction 30 then follow the M61 into the M63, leaving at junction 4 onto the A5081 for two miles. Look out for Sir Matt Busby Way, or pop the postcode M16 0RA into your sat-nav.
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