José Mourinho signed off the end of his programme notes this week with a sarcastic barb aimed squarely at “some” Manchester United fans. Following Tottenham and prior to Benfica at home, Mourinho ensured there was no mixed messages on this occasion – or at least who the intended target was.
Another Mourinho comment on fans in tonight's United Review: "I hope that you enjoy the game more than some of you did against Tottenham."— Andy Mitten (@AndyMitten) October 31, 2017
A ballsy play considering the swirling cocktail of other vague and not so vague points of contention aired in numerous interviews just recently. References to income generated and other career opportunities to his boss while defending his work to the press, capped off with shushing the “experts” down a camera on the final whistle leaving Mauricio Pochettino hanging. There’s enough going on, never mind stonewalling any questions on his best player’s return.
Why, then, would Mourinho pointedly attack the fans? Mourinho had already taken umbrage at a smidgeon of disquiet over his substitutions and his striker by the home crowd at the weekend, why go after them again in midweek before another fixture at Old Trafford? Either Mourinho is particularly sensitive, which seems entirely possible but a bit premature, or he simply wants something.
Mourinho has on numerous occasions encouraged the home crowd since being manager; recalling the atmosphere as a visitor, imploring fans to help the team or not encourage their opponents and baiting United supporters with praise for visiting allocations. The softly-softly approach for over a year has patently had no impact. In a crucial and tight game with Tottenham, the crowd was brought back to life not from a challenge, of which there were plenty, but handbags from a combatant Ashley Young and Dele Alli. Conflict has now certainly got a reaction, but don’t expect Manchester United Supporters Trust to be thrashing out the finer details.
Pitched closer to Alex Ferguson calling the crowd “dead”, “disappointing” and “like a funeral out there” nine years ago than Roy Keane infamously questioning the intelligence and motivations of the club’s supporters, Ferguson also made a point relevant today.
"It was so quiet," he complained. "I don't think that helped us. The players need the crowd sometimes but the atmosphere inside the ground wasn't good. It's all right saying the players have to make the crowd respond but there are some situations, like today, when we need them to get behind us and give us a lift. The players need the crowd to respond and vice versa. But it was dead."
Modern football has been blamed, more precisely economic and social issues, but United fans are said to be more patient than most. That holds true if you ignore recent blemishes from roundly booing Marouane Fellaini last season and crassly Van Gaal collecting his medal the season before.
If your ‘support’ has jeered Fellaini at OT and booed LVG whilst he was actually collecting the FA cup, then you’re fair game for criticism.— Stuart (@__Bingo) October 31, 2017
United are not impervious to the culture of modern football. Similarly, forgetting the strides Mourinho has made so far – 37 games unbeaten at home, second in the league and topping their Champions League group – and the reliance on a “cold, hard winner” to turn the post-Ferguson juggernaut around is the same arrogance that appointed David Moyes.
United’s away support, in contrast, is exemplary. When interviewed by Andy Mitten for the United We Stand fanzine after a bad run of results, Mourinho was invited to take the coach with the fans – preferably while serving a touchline ban so he could indulge – to an away game and responded: “… let’s do that after we are crowned champions in an away game. Then I’ll come back with you rather than with the team.”
Old Trafford has been on a Mourinho hit list which probably includes Antonio Conte in pencil and Pep Guardiola in permanent marker. Criticising match-going fans is and should be a delicate issue, but Mourinho is within his rights not just to prevent Arsenal aspects seeping in, but raise the temperature for when his team needs it most. So why now, with everything else he’s currently fighting?
Manchester United’s next big home game is Manchester City, and there are a few winnable home fixtures beforehand in which to make up over. Mourinho is attempting to rebuild Old Trafford as a place to be fearful of, as much as that’s possible. If Mourinho’s also having to act as cheerleader, don’t expect it with high kicks and a smile.