Consensus of boring football might overshadow Van Gaal’s time at the club whatever he achieves.
If we are to believe what many football writers, and indeed fans, say about United’s past, the club has played an all-out attacking brand of football that has wowed crowds the length and breadth of the country since day dot.
And with almost a quarter of a century of success still very much in our recent memory, it’s understandable that many of us will look back through rose tinted spectacles.
Like reminiscing over a now defunct relationship and only remembering the good times, while conveniently overlooking the blazing rows that occurred on a regular basis, we’ve all erased more than the odd bad performance from our collective memory banks.
Then, of course, there’s the spirit of Matt Busby and the ground-breaking football played by his babes of the mid 1950s that still haunts the club – even after 60 years.
But there is one period in United’s ‘recent’ past which flies in the face of the swashbuckling tradition that many pundits seem to think is engrained in United’s make-up. And the similarities with the current United side are interesting to say the least.
Dave Sexton took United to an FA Cup final and to second in the league during his time at the club, but was still sacked after four years, despite a run of seven straight victories.
Now to compare Sexton with Luis Van Gaal is like comparing apples with oranges. Their personalities and lifestyles were poles apart. But their outlook, not to mention the way their sides played the game, was not.
Sexton was not a natural in front of the camera and was noticeably anxious and awkward in public, preferring talking to his players than to journalists.
And perhaps his biggest problem, which the current United boss certainly did not suffer, was that he had to replace a man that was worshipped by United fans due to his charisma and gung-ho attacking style of play.
Tommy Docherty had left United in the summer of 1977 despite beating Liverpool in the FA Cup Final after having an affair with the wife of the club’s physio.
But his larger-than-life, brash and popular persona, combined with his cavalier 4-2-4 formation that used two wingers, had Reds falling over themselves to see what they would conjure up next.
So when Dave Sexton arrived from Chelsea complete with school master demeanour and stifled delivery, it was something of a shock to the system to say the least.
Whereas Van Gaal is still a darling of the press, due to the fact that nobody quite knows what he is going to say next, Sextons drawn out answers, punctuated by painfully long periods of hesitation, didn’t endear him to journalists or fans.
But perhaps the biggest similarity between these two very different characters was their outlook on the way their respective sides played game.
Sexton had learned his trade the traditional way. He was thoughtful and cautious, wanting to win, but more afraid of getting beaten. He was part of the academy at West Ham that thought nothing of spending hours in the boot room discussing formations and tactics with their peers.
And in fairness, this approach had stood him in good stead in his early coaching days, winning the FA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup with Chelsea, while almost pulling off a shock league title success with QPR.
But he was always dogged by the perception that his sides were boring, something that was re-enforced by some pretty impressive, yet un-exciting statistics during his time in the hot seat at Old Trafford.
In his first season his United side United scored 67 goal, the fifth-highest tally in the division, yet they conceded 63; only six teams let in more. The following season they scored 60 and let in 63.
Of course reaching an FA Cup final had bought the softly spoken Londoner some time, but being hard to beat would only earn him so much kudos with fans that had become hungry for the style of football they had lapped up under Docherty.
Perhaps Sexton’s most memorable season was the 1979-80 campaign, which saw United going into their final game with Leeds level on points with Liverpool. Yet despite having only conceded 35 goals all season, they choked when it really mattered and were beaten by their Yorkshire rivals, handing the title to the Anfield club.
So by the time it came to his fourth term in charge, patience was beginning to run out. The consensus among fans and press alike was that United played boring football, ground out functional performances and basically did things the hard way – essentially Sexton simply did not play the ‘Manchester United way.’
What also didn’t help his plight was a fairly erratic transfer policy.
Sexton tried to buy the magic rather than generate it himself, but the failure of million pound signing Gary Birtles to score in his first 25 games for United summed up the failings he suffered when it came to some pretty high-profile signings.
And although Dave Sexton’s United would finish the 1980-81 season with seven straight wins, it wasn’t enough for the United board.
The supporters’ frustration with a man who simply did not believe in getting the ball wide and scoring more goals than your opponents had become impossible to ignore. And after four seasons they would wish Sexton all the best and turn to the more flamboyant Ron Atkinson in an attempt to revive the fortunes, not to mention an attacking style demanded by so many.
Of course, no one can compare Louis Van Gaal with a man who never looked comfortable in the job and, in all honesty, probably belonged to a previous generation, even some 30 years ago. But the similarities between their shared dislike of cavalier football for a more conservative approach, not to mention some pretty spectacular transfer fails is striking.
If nothing else, the fate of Dave Sexton shows that fans’ perception of failure alone is enough to get a Manchester United manager sacked, despite the results they achieve.