Threatening to cut someone up from head to toe, or throw them on a bonfire, while hardly pleasant, certainly sends a message. And, it’s fair to say, Manchester United fans got their message across on Saturday afternoon inside Old Trafford.
As they watched their team cut up their opponents, in a purely footballing sense, beating a hapless Norwich City 4-0 in a rampant, authoritative display, their attention turned to the man in the directors’ box and his employers. The Glazers have long been despised in these parts and now, six and a half years on from Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, and the success he ensured through his managerial sorcery a thing of the past, the club’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, is the focus of these fans’ ire.
This is a long story, years in the making, about which books have been written. Murky businessmen, dodgy deals, threats and even horse semen all come into play when delving into the history of why one of world football’s most successful clubs was allowed to fall into the Glazers’ hands all those years ago, and be plunged into crippling debt in the process.
I was there at Old Trafford when David Beckham, playing for AC Milan at the time, donned a green and gold scarf as he made his way from the pitch to a standing ovation. The cheer that went up from the crowd when he put that scarf on was visceral. It had felt like a game-changer at the time, a kind of crescendo in the ever-growing anti-Glazer movement that had been gathering menacing momentum.
I was also there when an anti-Glazer banner was ripped down and confiscated in Old Trafford’s Stretford End, amidst furious boos and howls of hate-filled outrage from the watching crowd. Protests, which Ferguson had always insisted were every fan’s right, were being suppressed, and you wondered how long this tinderbox atmosphere could hold without bursting into flames.
That was back at the start of the last decade. Wayne Rooney had recently flirted with Manchester City, his infidelity still raw. The bleak truth behind the reasons laid out in Rooney’s statement, however, struck a chord with supporters. Where was the club’s ambition? How would they respond to the ‘Noisy Neighbours’ down the road?
Manchester City’s new-found wealth put United’s position into sharp focus. Their fans had been only too happy to be taken over by a nation-state whose bottomless pockets made their human rights record perfectly palatable. City fans wore tea-towels on their heads and welcomed their saviours with open arms, the possibility of finally clambering out of United’s shadow too mouth-wateringly delicious to worry about how many souls had been trodden on along the way.
While United were busy selling the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid and giving Michael Owen his number seven shirt, City were revamping an entire area of Manchester, developing one of modern football’s most impressive youth set-ups, and spending hundreds of millions of oil-soaked pounds on players.
Things settled down as Ferguson worked his miracles and, even after he left, with his beseeching cry to support his successor still ringing in their ears, fans towed the line. The anger and disgust was only ever bubbling beneath the surface, however. And, after a flurry of transfers under Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho had assuaged the anger for a time, the old thriftiness of United’s owners has long since returned and this great, proud club has been allowed to drift further and further into a sea of mediocrity.
Last summer, with Ole Gunnar Solskjær openly admitting that the squad he inherited was not fit for purpose and in need of urgent surgery, just three players were signed. One of those was Daniel James, a youngster who was only ever meant to be played sparingly in his first season at the club. James’ own form has played a part in his inclusion in so many starting lineups this term but is doubtless also a sign of how desperately short of options Solskjær has been.
Match-going fans have been steadfast in their support of Solskjær, who they love. They see him struggling with the limited resources at his disposal and take heart from his blooding of youth, one of this club’s proudest traditions. They understand that, having inherited so much mediocrity, assembled over so many years in the wilderness, and with so little support from on high, he is fighting a nigh on impossible battle. One transfer window, yielding just three players, does not constitute a rebuild.
Others, who prowl on social media and pounce on his every word, accuse Solskjær of being little more than a sycophant, a puppet whose strings are being manipulated by Woodward, dancing happily to the Glazer’s tune. They would do well to remember the glowing terms in which Ferguson, then David Moyes, then Louis Van Gaal, and then José Mourinho spoke of their then employers, for you do not bite the hands that feed you.
These people seem to believe that Solskjær is simply heaping praise on his employers for fear of losing his dream job, never wondering whether he might actually believe that he has set the wheels in motion for a return to something resembling the heights to which this club used to climb. Should he have come out after the 4-0 win against Norwich and agreed with the protestors, as some seem to feel he should, he would have been cast out of the club and left to watch on, like the rest of us, as it is left to toss in the uncertain waters churned by so many other managers who tried and failed to right this sinking ship. While he is at the helm, he has the power to bring about change, however slowly, however much the odds are stacked against him.
United fans have been accused of being fair-weather protestors in the past, who go quiet when things on the pitch are going well. Yet their deep strength of feeling has never gone away – not since those first protests when their club was sold all those years ago. Support for the team should not be confused with support for a regime that has bled a Goliath of the game dry for so long.
Woodward no doubt hoped that an impressive performance against Norwich would keep fans happy, but the memory of that first half against City just a few days before was too fresh in their minds. Patience is running thin and, as he sat in his cushioned seat on Saturday, Woodward may have felt just a little less comfortable than usual, having received the fans’ message loud and clear.
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