In the interests of full disclosure, I really like Gary Neville. Take my Cityzens card off me and set it on fire, if you must.

The former Manchester United and England defender is arguably the sharpest pundit and analyst on English screens and just seems a thoroughly good bloke all around. His evisceration of Edwina Currie on Good Morning Britain earlier this month was absolutely spectacular.

My teenage self, who loathed Neville as the epitome of all things United during the Alex Ferguson era, would be horrified by this development. I even listen to The Overlap, for crying out loud.

All that said, Stretford’s favourite hotelier is pedalling some fantastical stuff when it comes to the fortunes of his beloved club at present and it gets to the nub of why the post-Ferguson version of United are stuck in a perpetual cycle of false dawns and humiliation.

This has nothing to do with Neville refusing to call for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s sacking. As just mentioned, he’s a good fella. It’s daft to expect him to throw a friend under the bus on national television.

The problem is a romantic notion plenty of United grandees cling to, some combination of a blindspot and a myth when it comes to diagnosing the club’s problems and their solutions.

“A lot has changed in terms of the spirit of the club, the fans in the stadium,” Neville said during Sky’s post-match debrief.

“They were second in the league last year. A lot has changed in terms of the spirit of the club. “

The United Way?

With the best will in the world, what on earth does “spirit of the club” mean? It’s a nebulous concept and certainly not grounds in itself to dismiss Antonio Conte - one of the most successful coaches of the past decade - as “not a fit for United”.

Neville is being entirely consistent with his logic, having previously stated United’s spirit and ethos put them in a very select group of clubs in European football.

Gary Neville has shared his thoughts on the Manchester United defeat vs Liverpool.

"No one should ever be allowed to enter Manchester United's training ground or Old Trafford ever again to shape their own philosophy," he said on his Sky Sports podcast in early 2019 after Solskjaer succeeded Jose Mourinho.

"Manchester United's philosophy is so deep and so meaningful, it's like Barcelona's and it's like Ajax's.

"At Manchester United you play fast, attacking football in an entertaining way. You bring young players through and give them belief. And you win."

That Ajax and Barcelona philosophy is pretty close to home for United. Johan Cruyff laid the foundations for both clubs to become modern superpowers and now his star disciple Pep Guardiola is masterminding an unprecedented period of success for Manchester City.

Dumbing down Ferguson

Notions of footballing philosophy are probably tossed around a little too liberally, but what the Cruyffian approach certainly provides is a defined methodology - one espousing the virtues of positional play, tactical flexibility as a problem-solving device and multi-faceted footballers.

What Neville describes as the non-negotiable basis for all United teams isn’t a methodology. Fast, attacking, entertaining football and players coming through the youth ranks are all things any club and fan wants to see. They’re not particular to United. What he described is basically West Ham with some trophies.

This is the problem with The United Way. In reality, it’s The Ferguson Way.

The inimitable Scot is, by most reasonable measures, the best manager of all time. He possessed an uncommon feel for the rhythm of matches, for the big moments. He was a master motivator, intuitive thinker and a flexible and evolving tactician.

Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson alongside Antonio Conte (right).
Former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson alongside Antonio Conte (right).

But there is no manual to be like Ferguson. Asking a coach to run his team in the manner of Sir Alex is akin to telling a young sprinter, “do it like that Bolt bloke and you’ll be alright”.

In their attempts to lionise something that doesn’t really need to be lionised at all, huge sections of the United commentariat have dumbed down the Ferguson era to some sort of fast-food football endorphin rush. You’d think United won every game 5-3 after a spectacular comeback. In reality, they only usually did that to Tottenham.

Ferguson’s longevity depended on his adaptability. He replaced Andrei Kanchelskis with David Beckham. Find me two more sharply contrasting right-wingers. Similarly, Paul Scholes wouldn’t be the conventional choice to succeed Paul Ince as Roy Keane’s midfield partner.

The 2007-08 Champions League winners had heavy European notes harmonising with an all-star forward line. Park Ji-Sung could harry and press as a defensive number 10, Owen Hargreaves and Michael Carrick could control the tempo masterfully. They were a far cry from the 4-4-2 heroes of the first glory era.

The Cruyffian template

Cruyff’s overall body of work in terms of trophies obviously pales next to Ferguson, but the greater success when his players transition to the technical area is instructive. Alongside Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Ernesto Valverde, Frank de Boer and Ronald Koeman have won league titles.

Steve Bruce managing 1,000 games might be the best thing any of Ferguson’s managerial offspring has accomplished. If their mentor had a way of working that could be easily parachuted into other situations, surely the trophies would have piled up.

They haven’t, so whatever the United Way is, it’s a ludicrous way to direct how you appoint key staff and run a football club. United weren’t a sacking club for 25 years because they had a genius of the dugout, not because they have something special in their bones.

Ferguson’s tenure made them forget they’re just another football club like all the rest of them. A big and famous football club capable of making good and bad appointments and decisions. No spirit of philosophy makes them immune to that, just as Liverpool weren't strangers to flailing about before appointing a modern great in Jurgen Klopp.

Just like you, we can’t get enough of Manchester City! That’s why we’ve decided to supplement our expansive City coverage on the Manchester Evening News with a more fan-oriented platform catered specifically to City fans - City Is Ours.

Writers and presenters who share your passion for the blue side of Manchester will be producing written, visual and audio content to reflect the mood in the stands as well as the press box.

This is not to say the path City are on right now is without pitfalls. Replacing Guardiola when the time comes will be tough and you have to hope none of Pep’s current squad will be getting their car rocked by angry supporters after losing a derby, as was the case for current Barca boss Koeman after Sunday’s Clasico defeat to Real Madrid.

But, after comforting themselves with the knowledge City will one day appoint their very own Quique Setien, the only spirits Neville and the United faithful should be concerned with are the type that comes in bottles. There are sorrows to drown.

Clinging to the myth of United having guiding principles that set them apart is no way to close the yawning gap that has opened up in Manchester football.

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