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Aug 26, 2014

A test of conviction for United faithful

ESPN FC's Craig Burley analyses how new signing Angel Di Maria will help get Manchester United back on track.

There must be a rock bottom. It has to be down there somewhere. At some point, Manchester United's backsides will reach their final destination. Won't they?

Right now, it's hard to tell. Defeat, a deserved defeat, to the Milton Keynes Dons, a third-flight franchised club that wasn't even officially "formed" until 2004. Does it get much worse? United supporters have learned never to ask that question out loud. Just in case.

The dark, gloopy ripples from last season continue to wash over this campaign. United's very presence at this early stage was a result of their worst league finish in 24 years. Further ripples will be felt on Sept. 16, when the Champions League group fixtures take place without United's involvement for the first time since 1995. More will arrive next April, the end of the tax year, when the accountants discover how deep the hole in the TV revenues column is. But nothing will feel quite as disturbing as this.

- Report: MK Dons drill United
- Brewin: United humiliated by MK Dons

It's been 19 years since United were obliged to appear at this early stage of the League Cup. That year, they contrived to lose 4-3 to York City on aggregate. In comparison to this, that night seems like a fairly respectable result.

It was surprising, given that United have no commitments in Europe this season, that manager Louis van Gaal didn't choose a stronger team. After all, it's not like his squad are going to be stretched by a busy schedule this season. If they go out in the FA Cup third round, their entire season will consist of just 40 games. A run-out against a third-flight side might have been the perfect way to boost morale while further acclimatising to the new system.

Is Van Gaal really that concerned by the threat of Burnley on Saturday afternoon? If he is, with the greatest of respect to Burnley, you'll struggle to find a more brutal indicator of how far this club has fallen.

Jonny Evans and the rest of the United defense were all out of sorts.
Jonny Evans and the rest of the United defense were all out of sorts.

The only positive to all of this, and sometimes you have to look really hard for positives, is the feeling among some supporters that this might at least purge the fan base of a few fair-weather types.

United's rise in the early 1990s coincided with the renaissance of the sport itself in England. It is hard to believe in these days of saturation coverage, but in the 1980s you'd struggle to find more than one televised game a week, and the crowd numbers across the board were far lower. In the wake of England's efforts in the 1990 World Cup, the interest returned and increasingly successful United picked up the lion's share of the new support. The surge in the popularity of the league abroad brought another wave of new supporters in the 21st century. Neither group was always welcomed with open arms.

A schism exists at Old Trafford between the old guard and the day-trippers, as it does at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad. There is an uneasy peace between those who feel they have paid their dues and those who are perceived to be searching for vicarious glory.

Now, many of those new fans are in rebellious mood. In England, in the wake of United's draw with Sunderland, a furious fan called a BBC phone-in, pledging to ditch the club if Tom Cleverley were ever picked again. Well, there are fans at United who remember watching Ralph Milne. There are fans at United who remember getting relegated just six years after winning what is now known as the Champions League. And they have no intention of going anywhere.

David De Gea endured a long night in goal for Manchester United in their Capital One Cup defeat to MK Dons.
David De Gea endured a long night in goal for Manchester United in their Capital One Cup defeat to MK Dons.

Over 6,000 United fans made the journey down the M1 to Milton Keynes, and they sang from start to finish, even as the goals rained in. When MK Dons took the lead, you could hear them shouting, "Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!" At 4-0 down, when no amount of attacking was going to change anything, it was open defiance. Shirts were off, hands were raised, chants were bellowed. Never mind the scoreline; it was their club when they were rubbish, it was their club when they stood astride Europe, and it remains their club now, even as the shadows grow.

After more than two decades of viewing this sort of match as a meaningless jolly, after two decades of going into almost every single game knowing that anything less than a win would be seen as a failure, suddenly everything has changed.

It would be entirely wrong to suggest that United's demise has made supporting them more fun, but it's certainly made it more real. What will follow now is not going to be for the faint of heart. But you suspect that many of those United fans, who will wear this night as a badge of honour for years to come, wouldn't have it any other way.

Iain Macintosh

Iain Macintosh is a U.K. football correspondent for The New Paper in Singapore, writer for ESPN and co-author of "Football Manager Stole My Life" from @backpagepress. You can follow him on Twitter @iainmacintosh.

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