A season on the road
"Pain", wrote Naomi Wolf, "is real when you get other people to believe in it. If no one believes in it but you, your pain is madness or hysteria". Although she wasn't talking about following a football club, she could have been; the pain must be real because others endure it simultaneously, but because each experience is unique, the madness and hysteria remain.
As a Manchester United supporter, some may think I'm a hypochondriac with no conception of what it is to suffer, but I can assure you, I have and then some. Even if we discount a childhood blighted by Liverpool's pre-backpass law success, every present-day celebration is tainted by the sadness of absent friends.
After the 2005 Glazer takeover in that blackest of Mays - dire football, cup final defeat and a European Cup for Liverpool (at least you can't win the league on penalties) - a significant number of time-served Reds were forced into proving that they really did mean it when they said that they weren't for sale.
For my part, there was no way I was paying off the debt of a family wanting to own the club but expecting the fans to buy it for them. At the same time, I couldn't face a life without watching the shirts, so I joined a fairly large minority who only go away from home. Ok, there's still a 3% booking fee every time I buy a ticket, and I missed the first few aways of the following season while I made my peace with that, but I'm now relatively comfortable with the compromise. And each time I think about going back, I remember that even in a previous incarnation as a City lawyer, I was unfamiliar with terms like rolled-up interest and pay-in-kind notes, on which I am now a lay expert. Or maybe that's just why I'm no longer a City lawyer, but you get my point.
Still, seeing the takeovers of other clubs, I retain a large helping of pride in the resistance that we offered. Enough to defeat Murdoch in 1998, although we failed second time around, at least we were savvy enough to realise we were being screwed and bothered enough to try doing something about it.
As it happens, I don't actually miss Old Trafford all that much. Don't get me wrong; I miss the things that surround the game, and every time I think about the fact that I don't go I feel like crying tears of vomit - but as far as the actual 90 minutes go, I'm less bothered. OT was already something of a theme park in 2005, and having wheedled my way in on freebies a few times since then, it's now a whole lot worse. Those who left at the time, along with those who've been priced out since, seem to have been uniformly replaced by people who learnt how to behave at a football match either from Soccer AM or Hyacinth Bucket.
But anyway, what of 2009/10? 18 titles certainly made for an enjoyable summer, but as the slog begins again I'm less confident than I've been for a while, with Ronaldo gone and the money we got for him sitting in the bank. Originally, I'd assumed that bank wasn't United's, but after chatting to someone who knows and whom I'm also inclined to believe, this probably isn't the case. I'm unsure, though, if this has made me more or less aggravated; with the team so patently in need of high-class reinforcements, not purchasing them is frustrating in the extreme.
What I am sure about, though, is that Michael Owen in a United shirt is equal parts eyesore and Eeyore, although looking on the bright side, you could argue that we've got rid of two unpleasantnesses and replaced them with one. On top of that, chances are he'll be a handy impact sub - although impact could also describe a first touch that reminds me of another overrated pint-sized striker, who I was delighted to see join City's band of bribed mercenaries - and his propensity to injuries ought to ensure that Macheda and Welbeck get a proper go at establishing themselves.
The real problem, of course, is the midfield, although in the league, it's not really an issue. They're plenty good enough for that, and the defence concede seldom enough while the attack score often enough to deal with pretty much everyone, even if Ronaldo's ability to guarantee easy games against teams playing above themselves will be missed.
Europe, though, is different; in last season's final we were utterly outpassed by Barcelona. It's fair to say that the team was hampered by injuries and suspension, and slightly unfortunate not to go ahead before the Spanish side scored. But notwithstanding those excuses - all legitimate in their way - over the course of the season, it's impossible to argue that Barca weren't streets ahead of us, and everyone else for that matter. And despite all the fuss about their three up front, it was largely because in Xavi, Iniesta and Toure they had a midfield that kept possession so well their shoddy defence was rarely tested, at the same time as making sure that Messi, Eto'o and Henry got enough of the ball to do what they do.
To be confident about competing with them in an open game, some kind of box-to-box beast was required, along with a goalscoring schemer, and we've signed neither. Still, if we win another league, play like United and the kids do well, I'll get over it.