If Manchester United and their fans did not have enough to worry about this season, the team will become the worst defending champions in Premier League history if they fail so finish in the top seven this season. The Old Trafford outfit, along with Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City, have never failed to finish in the top four as defending champions. The only time a side has failed to do that was Blackburn Rovers, who finished in seventh place in 1996, after a monumental collapse in defending their crown.
History, however, is on United’s side. Although it is rare for a team to lose more than six games in a season and win the Premier League crown, Blackburn proved it could be done by winning the title in 1995 with seven defeats, one more than that year’s runner-up, United. David Moyes may take heart from that, but then even though his side are not mathematically out of it, he knows that winning every game from now until the last day will still not probably not be enough to reclaim the Premier League title.
In fact, it has been a tough year for Moyes and Manchester United in terms of breaking records. It could well be considered the worst ever for a defending champion. This season, Newcastle United won their first game at Old Trafford since 1972. West Bromwich Albion won their for the first time since a Cyril Regis inspired 5-3 victory in 1979, while Everton claimed their first Old Trafford victory since 1992. Meanwhile, Swansea City’s FA Cup victory earlier this month was their first ever win at Old Trafford in any competition. When Tottenham Hotspur beat United last season when Sir Alex Ferguson was in charge, it was the Spurs’ first win at Old Trafford in the Premier League era; the first in the league since Gary Lineker scored in a 1-0 win in the old Division One in 1989. The north Londoners came back this season and did it again.
Opposing teams, managers, fans and even referees no longer feel intimidated stepping into the “Theatre of Dreams,” as the inimitable Sir Alex Ferguson is no longer on the sideline. His icy, Glaswegian stare is no longer barracking officials and scaring players, on both sides, as during his tenure. In fact, it was Spurs manager, Tim Sherwood, who stoked the flames after his side’s recent win when he said that nobody is afraid of Old Trafford anymore.
Some bookmakers have offered cheeky odds on Ferguson coming back to manage United in an emergency capacity, as Sir Matt Busby did in the 1970s. One even has an image of the Scot behind emergency glass. Cheeky perhaps, but there is a serious question to be posed and answered. Was that fear factor down to just one man? Those who watched Liverpool dominate the 70s and 80s in England and abroad often point to referees losing their nerve when a man in red went down in front of the Kop. Ferguson even claimed that it was no surprise managers ‘”have to leave here choking on their own vomit, biting their tongue, afraid to tell the truth.” The rest of the world could argue the same was true of Old Trafford in the Premier League era. Not anymore. Mr Moyes needs to find that answer, and quickly, if he is to prevent a showing for Manchester United as the worst defending champions ever.