For those of you who are wondering, the ERG are historical recreationists who wage make-believe warfare on a political battlefield of Elizabethan exceptionalism (with tongue less firmly in cheek; they are actually the European Research Group - a grammatically punctilious faction of uncompromising Eurosceptic ideologues within the UK's ruling Conservative and (they may have to rethink this part) Unionist Party). Indeed, like Blackadder incarnate, so entrenched in ruff-wearing nostalgia are the ERG, that their defining Euroscepticism seems symptomatic of a deep-seated - and highly irrational - form of "Armada-phobia" (think arachnophobia - but substitute spiders with shipwrecked - and weirdly anthropomorphised - Spanish galleons seditiously plotting from the seabed). If this portrayal seems as farfetched as an L. Ron. Hubbard creation myth, then you've clearly had your head buried beneath a Thetan's volcano for the past couple of years (or, alternatively, don't happen to hail from a couple of windswept islands in the North Atlantic) as oblivious to reality as the corporate ostrich that is Ed Woodward.
Indeed, Ed seems exactly the sort of convinced solipsist who would think nothing of blithely reopening a faultline in a simmering ethnoreligious conflict just to further his own blinkered agenda. A footballing Dominic Cummings if you will, albeit - given his cack-handed inability to leverage United's Facebook following so as to rig the Balon d'Or in Fred's favour - very much a cardboard cutout version, watered down into a soggy brown porridge by the miserable Manchester rain. This lumpy puddle of ineptitude a clear reminder that in terms of
oblique analogies breakfast-based substance, where Cummings is the "Full-English" (with a side of Welsh rarebit), Ed is nothing but waterlogged, turd-coloured oats.
Now, while the virtue-signalling whole-grains of a 16th-century calvinist's breakfast may appeal to the vegan speed-humps of Extinction Rebellion, football thrives on a capitalistic diet of former orangutan habitats of palm oil, trade deals of chlorinated chicken, and the souls of baby dolphins. Incapable of rustling up so much as a facon sarnie in response, the only means by which Ed can "take back control" is by endlessly proroguing United's search for a Director of Football. As such he finds himself locked in a labyrinth of indecision; as hopelessly entangled as soup kitchen scraps in the bearded scruff of marxism's vacillator-in-chief, comrade ooohhhh Jeremy Corbyn.
Now, clearly, the frenzy of follicles which typifies the hobo groomed panache of the committed communist bears little resemblance to the politburo-defying neatness of Ed's treacherously trimmed capitulation to both free-market economics and Jonathan Van Ness' grooming tips. Nevertheless, since the toilet brush aesthetic of any beard connotes an unhygienic aversion to self-improvement, the itchy purgatory of sporting one provides indisputable evidence of full-blown borscht sipping Trotskyism. Somewhat counterintuitively, however, far from damage Ed's ERG credentials, it is his very hirsuteness which - according to this admittedly tenuous product of extreme Brexit-fatigue - cements his links to the cleanshaven Thatcher groupies.
Approximating the grand Blairite tradition of pseudo-liberalism, Ed's facial merkin bristles with political misappropriation so as to whisker its "third" way into the commie (and therefore very collective) subconscious. As such, the political centre of gravity is displaced to such an extreme extent as to outflank a right wing of Andrei Kanchelskis and Ayn Rand and afford Jacob Ress Mogg sufficient legroom to drape himself across the democratic process without his worldview feeling unduly cramped by the cumulative advances of the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.
In purely footballing terms, this sudden inclination to lean into the Farage-ian zeitgeist is epitomised by the unabashed nativism of Utd's recent recruitment policy. On this front, while Daniel James' Welshness does represent a significant deviation from the ERG's preferred brand of home counties nationalism, Old Trafford has nevertheless done more than enough to establish itself as an incubator for a newly homogenised orthodoxy of "emerging British talent".
In migrating towards the ERG's "sunlit uplands" - which bear a suspicious likeness to the Yorkshire Dales on a solitary day in June - Ed's readiness to willfully segregate the parish of identity from the broader community of belonging marks a definitive disavowal of cosmopolitan globalism and, as a knowing consequence, imposes a hard border between Utd and their "noisy neighbours". Although, in a holistic sense, City's cynically curated "wokeness" is unforgivably hollow (very much like Ireland's), when applied to football specifically it undeniably delivers truly sparkling returns (very much unlike Ireland). Returns which are further burnished by the lumpen quality of Utd's troglodyte-shaming brand of artless retro-ball and steadfast flat-earthism.
Not only does such neophobic intolerance of change restrict Utd to the bit-part role of embittered historical bystanders, in many ways, it actually serves to embolden change by clarifying both its purpose and meaning. Essentially, football's evolutionary cycle dictated that it was time for Utd to be knocked off their f*cking perch. That said, the landing could, and should, have been much softer than the ensuing face plant proved to be. By futilely resisting the new natural order and ignoring the lessons learned by City and Liverpool, the club, to all intents and purposes, fed oxygen to its own crisis. Or it did so in a footballing sense at least. For at this point, to understand Utd as anything other than an experiment in Glazernomics is patently misguided. In an age of commodified values; football is to the Glazers, exactly what American football is to the Glazers, or, what Brexit is to the ERG; a front for disaster capitalism.
Reduced to pretence, football takes the zombified form of a chlorinated chicken scratching around for the carelessly scattered scraps of the club's official agri-food partner. Although, admittedly, more than sufficient to sustain most clubs, at Utd this stale proliferation seems to fatten bank balances at the cost of starving imagination. So stark is the imbalance, in fact, that, at the moment, a grassroots DUP convention chaired by Priti Patel would constitute a more fertile incubator of progressive thinking than Utd's haplessly unoriginal boardroom. As a result, is it farfetched to suggest that Old Trafford should now be redubbed the Theatre of Non-Dreams?
Ageing ever less discretely, the stadium increasingly feels like a Vote Leave time capsule buried beneath the cantilevered iconography of the Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton stands. Inside, amidst the plastic seats and prawn sandwiches, disaffected masses and ambivalent elites are boxed together by a cause which no longer unites them and will, if given time (lots and lots of time) - like Ryan Giggs - tear them apart. The growing disunity of purpose mirrors that which grips both the Conservative and Labour parties and helps create the impression that, on a systemic level, Utd is little more than a lame-duck which has been mated to a cash cow. Which is to effectively say that the club represents the sporting embodiment of the coalition between Boris Johnson and Arlene Foster.
Under such fractious conditions, even if Utd's retreat from Champions League football wasn't quite by design, it was, nevertheless, clearly signposted. Or at least it was to anyone who appreciated Marouane Fellaini's limitations. The club, hopelessly bypassed by events, seems now to be desperately retracing history in order to piece together the origins of their decline. Patently incompatible to progress, this retrogressive DUP-ist strategy has had the effect of tying Utd to the past. And any way you look at it, that's a problem. (Well, to most people it's a problem at least).
Although Sammy Wilson may insist otherwise, prising an anachronistic dichotomy into a liquid pastiche of volatile symbols is akin to crowbarring divided histories into tentative hope or pretending that the Class of '92 weren't largely schooled by seasoned pros from France, Denmark, and - whisper it - even Ireland. On a pragmatic level, such heavy-handed political DIY is based upon a regressive and duplicitous conceit to which diminishing returns are as intrinsic as broken promises, sore thumbs, "maximum facilitation", and Jesse Lingard. In other words, irrespective of whatever happened in 1916 or 1999, nobody, Sean Dyche excepted, plays 4-4-2 anymore.
Moreover, over the longer term, it needs to be remembered that, by design, populism's easy ins are altogether more difficult to escape from. A lobster pot principle that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer embodies so convincingly that he wears the resigned look of a man on the brink of being dumped in boiling water and smeared with garlic butter. With such wariness has come increased circumspection. As the furrows in his worried brow have deepened so too the torrent of gushing romanticism, which flowed so easily during the early days of his tenure, has slowly ebbed into realism's mirror-like pools.
Disappointingly, for Ole and the gender politics of Friends alike, the ripple-free reflection confirms that it's not the 1990s anymore. Time's moved on. Where once the sight of Monica waddling around in a fat suit was a cheap laugh it now represents a malign nexus between sizeism and patriarchy. And where once Fergie's vertical tactics held the Premier League in thrall, under Solskjaer they now bore with almost horizontal dullness. Youthful, yet somehow already yesterday's men, Utd's diaper-soiling "academy graduates" play with the embarrassing crayon-like imprecision of VAR's dotted lines.
In midfield, Scott McTominay's passing is as adventurous as the contents of Arlene Foster's knicker drawer. While up front, Marcus Rashford leads the line as naively as Neville Chamberlain after one too many radlers in a Munich beer hall. In addition to the obvious shortcomings, almost as concerning is the fact that even the positives remain tentative. The contrails of Daniel James' jet heeled bursts dazzle like meteor tails in an inky night, while at decisive moments the defense remains as unconvincing as Andy Robertson's prepubescent attempts to grow a beard. All this despite Ed investing enough bogus-Boris-bus-fuls (a clunky neologism meaning £350 million) of cash to restore the NHS to its sepia-tinted heyday.
Despite such misgivings, the funny thing is that while Ed's scorched earth transfer policy has left Ole's squad looking as ashen as the Amazon, it has the potential to mark something of an inflection point from which the club could eventually pivot to the progressive. Or, rather, it could do so long as the slow-burn of rebuilding isn't first quenched by a cloudburst of manifest destiny's wet hokum. On this front, however, the signs aren't promising. Where, to the outside world, Utd's cocksure "biggest club in the world" mantra whimpers like a castrated elegy, within the club, its almost tangible wistfulness is touted as a touchstone for modernisation by the Fergie fetishising hierarchy. As a result, visceral instinctivism is allowed to runs rings around reasoned strategising, orbiting deliriously as it does so in a Pavlovian time warp to which sentiment is the bell.
All in all, a bit like salivating over Werther's Originals and then breaking your teeth on one.
And so it is that as the old certainties slip into a penumbra of doubt, arcane ceremonies desanctify into pantomime and weathered icons harden into stony shibboleths, the church of red nose's high priest is forced to practise an awkward form of improvised agnosticism just to stay relevant. In practice, however, the loudly trumpeted transition is hopelessly confused and amounts to little more than the slow redundancy of rebuilding backwards.
Symptomatic of such failings, the club, from the top down, acts as if gripped by cognitive dissonance. Lost between dreaming and doing, it is as if Man Utd finds itself looking at the stars from the defensive ditch it swore to die in. Exiled to the nowhere land where Fred's shots end up, the lesson that Ed has failed to grasp defines their isolation from meaningfulness. The psychological divide between who Utd are and who they imagine themselves to be cannot simply be bridged by synthesising selective histories into football's answer to fentanyl and then swallowing the lot in one desperate go. An obvious recipe for disaster; opting for the ERG/Johnson & Johnson model means that the club can numb the pain but never truly recover.
Indeed, by embracing nostalgia's low-fibre populism, Utd - like the Victorian cosplay enthusiasts of the ERG - are ensuring that they chase history down the toilet bowl. As a result, an institution once flushed with success is now just plain flushed. Sure, for the time being, Utd's commercial resilience continues to stretch into the same seeming-infinity as the Brexit timetable, but with the runaway train of wage inflation now steaming towards an unfinished bridge, the small print of lucrative sponsorship deals hiding furtive performance-based clauses, and any realistic prospect of on-the-pitch success retreating as quickly as Bojo's red lines, the club's long term economic footing may yet prove to be as unsteady as a backpedalling Phil Jones.
It's not hard to imagine Ed dismissing any such concerns as yet another craven manifestation of project fear. Fittingly articulated in the post-truthist doublespeak of the day, we already have evidence of self-validation being sought in untestable "facts". (According to their own figures Utd's global fanbase numbers 1.1 billion. More preposterously, they also claim to prioritise on-the-field success). However, by staking their future on the very type of parochial credulity which trusts that Trump's "very big deal" represents a break from the shackles of EU "slavery", Utd are setting themselves up to devolve into a fallacy. Consequently, if nothing changes, soon you won't be able to believe anything about the club. Much like any politician then.