Man United's Dismal Season Is Their Worst In Premier League History... And Beyond

You have to reach back further than 1992 to find a United season this bad
16:45, 09 May 2022

As if the ignominy of a 4-0 crushing at the hands of Brighton & Hove Albion was not enough, the shock result also condemned Manchester United to their worst Premier League points haul in history. A reflection of the sorry state of affairs at Old Trafford, but is it wholly accurate? Does United’s malaise stretch back further? A look at pre-Premier League life at Old Trafford would suggest so.

Taking the carefully-marketed view that English football started in 1992, when the glittering Premier League usurped the old First Division at the forefront of the sport, this is indeed United’s worst season. Despite the fact the league title has not made its way to Old Trafford in nine years, United have still won the Premier League more than any other club. During the Sir Alex Ferguson years, second place was seen as abject failure and third was seen as a crisis. Compared to these lofty standards, it's no wonder that a sleepwalk into sixth, or possibly seventh, is attracting so much scorn.

United’s current worst Premier League performance came in the first season post-Ferguson. David Moyes’ ten-month stewardship did the damage, with the former Everton boss being sacked with four games remaining of the 2013-14 season. Ryan Giggs took interim charge, winning two and drawing two as his side limped to seventh place and a final total of 64 points. In a state of total flux, with their first new manager in 26 years, United finished two points better off than the absolute maximum total this season’s side can finish on.

That state of flux has never really lifted. Their have been false dawns, such as second-place finishes under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, trophies under Louis van Gaal or both under Jose Mourinho. But United have never shaken the ‘work in progress’ tag and, after an utterly disastrous 2021-22 season, that progress has stopped completely.

While the Premier League is an understandable starting point when establishing records, it is an arbitrary once. Football existed before 1992, as did the teams playing it. So, taking this into account, how far does one have to look back for a United season as desolate as this?

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Using pure points as our barometer, not that far. The 1990-91 campaign, the penultimate season of the old First Division, saw Ferguson’s Reds finish sixth in the table with 59 points. However, depending on your measure of success, it could be argued this season was a more positive one than that which the current United are enduring. 

For a start, Ferguson’s side actually finished eleven points and five league places better off than they had the season before, a marked improvement. They also lifted the European Cup Winners’ Cup, beating Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in Rotterdam. It is a victory that is still held dear by the matchgoing fanbase, a priceless memory of a time just before United became English football’s dominant force.

So what about the previous season, the one upon which 1990-91 was such an improvement? Well in the league United were wretched. 13th place and 48 points puts meat on the bones of the tales of “Ta-ra Fergie” banners and fan discontent. But once again, silverware bailed out the Red Devils. According to popular myth it also bailed out their Scottish manager. 

Had Ferguson not lifted the 1990 FA Cup, the decades of success that followed may have branched off into another timeline entirely. 1989-90 simply cannot be described as worse than the current United campaign because it was the dawn of an era of unbridled success. The pieces were being put in place that would see Manchester United become the defining team of an era. Their league finish might have been the lowest they had endured since their 1974 relegation, but a trophy and the attendant glimmer of hope see it edge 2021-22 in the annals of United seasons.

No, for a genuine answer one must look back a year further. 1988-89 saw United finish 11th, garnering a paltry 51 points. There was no cup success to speak of and, just like today, there was an air of cynicism and apprehension surrounding the future of the club. Ferguson had not yet won over his public. Nor had he won many games. The previous season’s second-place finish looked like a false dawn, just like 2020-21’s runners-up spot does today. 1988-89 was United’s last great low, and worryingly it carries many of the hallmarks of their current predicament.

Once again United are in desperate need of a new dawn. It is hard to envisage incoming manager Erik ten Hag being allowed to survive a 13th placed finish, even if he does lift the FA Cup in the process. But United’s dicey late-80s gave way to an incredible 90s and an unprecedented early-Millennium. United fans will be hoping this new low of the Premier League-era will give way to a similar return to dominance. That much remains to be seen. But United’s nightmare season is not the worst since the Premier League began. It’s the worst since 1989. Over to you, Erik.

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