It’s a familiar motif: ‘Standards have fallen at Manchester United, but why are the fans accepting this?’ To many, the most surprising element of United’s decline is not how badly the team are performing but instead how readily supporters have accepted their team’s newfound status as a second rate Premier League side. There are column inches, radio phone-ins and heated debates devoted to fan discontent, but the crowd at Old Trafford – the real barometer of supporter satisfaction – have yet to turn against the manager at Manchester United, José Mourinho.
There have been moments when it seemed close.
It helps that the Manchester United players really know how to rally to save their manager. At 2-0 down to Newcastle United in October, they came to life. It was free-flowing attacking football, albeit against the worst team in the league at that point. It was a make or break moment for Mourinho. He would not have survived a home loss to Newcastle given the rumours about his impending sacking. Similarly, at home to Arsenal last week, the Old Trafford crowd seemed ready to turn on Mourinho, but his team produced a functional performance to nullify the Gunners.
That draw against Arsenal was reminiscent of when David Moyes’ Manchester United earned a draw at home with Bayern Munich in the Champions League Quarter Final. It was a game in which the crowd had feared the worst; that the reigning European Champions would rip Moyes’ weakened Manchester United babes asunder, and flaunt the carcass of their fallen idols for all of Europe to see.
The primary reason as to why the Manchester United support have not yet turned on Mourinho is same given as how the team rallied that night against Munich: pride. That Alex Ferguson instilled fiery pride still remains; in fighting, winning and above all else, that now infamous plea: to always support the manager.
That Ferguson plea is now a millstone around the necks of Manchester United supporters, shamed into faux bravado about supporting the manager, regardless of what they witness on the field.
But perhaps Ferguson was overtly biased to the plight of his own kind. Despite the best efforts of the infamous ‘Ta-Ra Fergie’ banner, he had been lucky to survive his early years at United but ultimately had the ability to manage better than his contemporaries. It should not apply to all.
Most can see that the current incarnation of Mourinho football lacks the basic fundamentals of attacking football and is the antithesis of Manchester United’s basic principles. These are principles going back to the Busby era; but a recency bias ingrained in the supporters tells them to always back their manager.
Supporters might believe that United’s elite status means that they should react differently to the Arsenals and West Hams of this world, but a quick glance across Europe demonstrates the fallacy in this argument. Even United’s fellow truly elite clubs become embroiled in ugly disputes about managers, most notably Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.
A fundamental difference in Munich and Madrid however, is that supporter discontent in those cities often mirrors discontent evident at boardroom level.
So why are United fans accepting their new status?
Something other than pride is at play. Something darker.
When the Glazer family bought the club in 2005, the United fans lost more than just their stake in the club, they also began to lose their voice. While the club was owned by the Edwards family, it was a time when football teams were deeply ingrained in cities, cultures and community lives. Matt Busby famously lived on a same street as many supporters.
This started to disappear in the 1990s and early 2000s as the globalisation of football took hold. Clubs targeted markets beyond their immediate surroundings and the footballers subsequently moved to Cheshire and Sale. Manchester and its community merely became a headquarters.
Yet even at that stage, Manchester United were still a PLC and fans felt some ownership for the club and believed that their voices mattered.
The biggest kick in the teeth to Manchester United fans was not just the Glazers acquisition of the club in 2005, but the manner in which the Newton Heath inspired, green and gold “Love United Hate Glazer” campaign ultimately faded into obscurity. The supporters could protest all they liked, but the big-money Glazers held the deeds to Old Trafford. The supporters could lay siege, but the corporates waited them out and ultimately won the battle.
The failure of the green and gold campaign, perhaps always destined to fail, was the first real indication that the voices of the fans no longer mattered at Manchester United. Despite what the locals might think, the Salford and Altrincham lads in the Trafford Bar on a Saturday, there would always be other supporters, demographics and markets should the protesters not like what they see.
Through their own silence, the Glazers learned they could also silence the match-day punters.
This was the beginning of the current supporter-management dissonance at Manchester United. ‘Why haven’t the fans turned on Mourinho or the team yet?’ What Manchester United fans currently display are the classic symptoms of learned helplessness.
Supporters now suspect that regardless of what happens, their voices no longer matter at Old Trafford. Rather than prove to the world that their club actively ignores them, the supporters now choose to remain quiet until absolute desperation kicks in. What’s worse; should the supporters reject their current manager and fail in their plea for his removal, it might only further damage the prestige of the club they love, a touchy subject for supporters of a team five years removed from their last league title.
The sacking of both Moyes and Van Gaal came only after these managers failed to reach specific contractual obligations. The fact that David Moyes survived successive 3-0 home league defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City demonstrated that fan disquiet was no longer enough to usher change at Old Trafford.
Manchester United may be one of the biggest sports teams in the world but the disconnect between the club and its local fans has never been greater. As the brand has gotten bigger, the importance of the fans in the ground has faded.
Make no mistake about it; the supporters at Old Trafford do not accept their current plight or the brand of football being played by José Mourinho’s men. In the last five years however, the team and its supporters have lost their claims of footballing invincibility and now risk seeing their club being exposed for the corporate entity that it is, one which disregards the fans, the people who feel most invested in the club.
To the supporters’ credit, they did oppose the arrival of the corporate money men from America with gusto. They protested in their thousands but it had little use. The Glazers ultimately held the keys to Old Trafford and many of the protesters were too desperate to watch the team they loved to stand outside with placards indefinitely. They had little choice then and the same is true now.