Season panned out similarly for Premier League club three decades ago, when Alex Ferguson had choices to make - just as Jose Mourinho has at the end of this term
Echoes of 1987/88 season as Manchester United take on West Ham United
Ahead of Manchester United’s penultimate league game of the season at West Ham United on Thursday night, there are shades of 30 years ago for the way this league season has panned out for Manchester United.
Alex Ferguson’s side finished second in his second full season in charge, clear of the third-placed team but well behind 1987/88 champions Liverpool. United picked up 81 points, their highest tally in the 1980s and only lost five games all season, but Liverpool were streets ahead.
The Scousers lost only two of the 40 league games in 1987/88 and the league was theirs from the halfway point. It is the same with Manchester City this year. You would have struggled to find a United fan as early as the end of October who felt their team would win the league.
There was some fanciful talk about winning the December Manchester derby to reduce the gap and then catch City over Christmas. City won the derby and continued to pull away over Christmas as United drew three successive games.
In 1987/88, United’s average crowds slipped below 40,000 and the team dropped to second in the average crowd table for the first time since 1972. Liverpool stayed England’s best-supported team in the following season, when United slipped to 11th in the Division One.
The second-place finish had given fans false hope and Ferguson knew that his side were not strong enough to be champions, knew that significant changes were still needed.
Is the same true of the current United side? If you believe every piece of current transfer speculation, United will have about two of their current players left by the time next season starts.
Agents are working hard to drive up demand for their players, journalists pushing various agendas, too. As always, there are so many versions of the truth and what Jose Mourinho says in public is not what he thinks in private.
Mourinho has been explicit to his players that they have not been consistent enough to play in a side that hopes to win the league. He has backed that up by pointing out how United have lost to all three promoted sides from last season, plus bottom of the table West Bromwich Albion.
It is Mourinho who will lose his job if United cannot become more consistent and seriously challenge for the title, his neck that would be on the line.
Mourinho is confrontational and that is not to every players’ liking, just as the style of play under him is not universally admired by United fans, but the Portuguese has made improvements and United have an FA Cup final to look forward to next weekend against Chelsea.
Then the transfer activity should start. Players will leave and players will arrive at Old Trafford, but it is the scale of changes that is important. Wholesale changes, especially under Louis van Gaal, saw United regress rather than improve. Mourinho will be trusted again to get things right.
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Thursday night’s game at the London Stadium game means little. United need a point to confirm second place, the best finish since 2013, while West Ham are safe. Romelu Lukaku and Marouanne Fellaini are injured and unable to play against Fellaini’s former manager David Moyes.
And while Michael Carrick is unlikely to play against his former club, the midfielder will start for United at home to Watford on Sunday in his final game as a professional footballer. Carrick, who has an autobiography out in the autumn, has enjoyed a superb career at West Ham, Tottenham Hotspur and United.
Asked about his qualities, Jose Mourinho said: “Most important quality is to be a man. Capital letters - MAN. Proper man. Football and society is not full of them. When you find one you have to value and keep.”
That could be taken as a barb at the players at the club who he does not consider to be strong enough mentally to play for Manchester United.
Carrick will become a coach at United having already coached with some of the club’s younger players.
Back to 1987/88. Manchester City were not even in England’s top-flight, Oxford United and Luton Town were, while Chelsea were relegated. West Ham were six places off the bottom of the league, with nine wins to their name – exactly the same as now.
The Hammers have not won a single major honour in the 30 years since. Manchester United have won 45. West Ham fans have every justification to feel dissatisfied – United’s support far less so.