“What have you done for me lately?”
Janet Jackson sang it in 1986. Eddie Murphy satirised it in 1987. But it is a phrase which sums up football perhaps better than any other in 2019.
Manchester United are a case in point. With no league titles since 2013, and not even a significant challenge in that time, they have fallen off many a fickle follower’s radar when it comes to the game’s giants. The catalogue of failures in recent years has, for some, become a bigger identifier than the procession of successes which preceded it.
But, in reality, Manchester United remain a huge force in the world game. Thirteen league titles in a quarter-century of dominance cannot be forgotten in an instant, and for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the prospect of cobbling together something resembling a title-challenging squad in the coming years is as exciting as it is daunting.
The Norwegian has said on numerous occasions that his rebuild will take time, reiterating after United’s Champions League exit to Barcelona in April: “We know there’s work to be done. I’ve said all along that this isn’t going to change overnight. The next few years are going to be massive for us to get to the level that Barcelona and other teams are at.
“We need to create an environment of having a world-class attitude every single day. We’ve got good players to work with and done really well to get to the quarters and challenge for the top four.”
United need to aim higher than that, though, and Solskjaer has begun his rebuild by targeting young, hungry, positive British players.
Daniel James from Swansea and Aaron Wan-Bissaka of Crystal Palace have provided greater energy, and Harry Maguire will bring a readiness to compete in the Premier League which only comes with the experience of having tasted the environment before.
And what all three have is the ingrained feeling that Manchester United is the British game’s behemoth. Footballers can often arrive at a club from foreign shores claiming to know the name and the culture and everything that goes with the badge, but the majority will tell you later that it is only once you have been on the inside that you truly understand what makes a club tick.
You can watch on from different parts of the world and get something of a feeling for a club’s status, but when Manchester United success is all over your TV screens, on every sports site you browse and reflected in the countless red shirts in every playground, only then do you really know the lure of United when they are winning.
In James, Wan-Bissaka and Maguire, Solskjaer has identified players who will understand immediately what it means for Manchester United to be the best of the best.
All three grew up with United being British football’s dominant forces. All three have watched on as Sir Alex’s period of success threatened to never end. And all three will long to taste that feeling of being a part of the Red Devils’ renaissance.
That is the hunger that Solskjaer has been aiming to add, and that is one of the reasons he has gone so heavily into the British market in his first summer as United boss.
When he was a player under Ferguson, Solskjaer was party to the injection of countless key foreign stars, from Jaap Stam and Ruud van Nistelrooy to Cristiano Ronaldo, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic. There was always the need to bring in that something extra from abroad.
But what was never lacking at United in that time was the desire to identify Premier League icons who would instantly get the club, and comprehend without a word spoken exactly what Manchester United needs and where it belongs in the food chain of English football.
Players like Teddy Sheringham, Dwight Yorke, Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney and Edwin van der Sar were signed during Solskjaer’s time as a player, and each one went on to be considered a modern United great. Not just because of their achievements on the pitch, but because they needed no real introduction to what it means to pull on the United shirt.
That is not to say that players like Paul Pogba, David de Gea and Victor Lindelof cannot be part of a successful United, but they cannot necessarily be the fulcrum of one. There is a British heart that was always evident about Manchester United when they were winning, but that is not really the case anymore.
There are local lads Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, and they ought to be a part of Solskjaer’s side for many years to come. But in terms of plucking the very best available from home shores in any position on the field, Luke Shaw may be the last player that United went out and snapped up at the right sort of age and with the right sort of signal. Ashley Young is a leader in the dressing room but is a fading force as a senior player.
Some have claimed that United need to get away from what they used to do to be the best again, but maybe they were too quick to stop following the Ferguson way in the first place. Players like Angel di Maria, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Zlatan Ibrahimovic always had the sniff of big-name, short-term projects rather than establishing roots for the future.
This is part of the reason why United decided to walk away from negotiations to bring Paulo Dybala to the club from Juventus. Dybala was never particularly keen to move to Old Trafford and his representatives were demanding an extremely hefty salary. Regardless of the talent that Dybala possesses, Solskjaer wants players who are invested in the club – just as Maguire, James and Wan-Bissaka are.
Solskjaer is going about re-establishing the club's heart. So while United haven’t done much for anyone lately, it would be unwise to forget exactly what made them great once upon a time. Ole hasn’t.