Man United fans' 'Anyone but Van Gaal' attitude is damaging the club
On Saturday, Louis van Gaal admitted that the Manchester United fans who booed after their 1-0 defeat to Southampton were right to do so. It was a welcome piece of honesty although he could hardly have said anything else without being laughed out of Old Trafford.
The trouble was that the booing didn't start at the final whistle. It didn't start when Charlie Austin scored his 87th minute winner either; it began well before that. The atmosphere was bleak (if not yet poisonous) from the first half and there was only a brief spell towards the beginning of the second half, when Juan Mata replaced the misused but bumbling Marouane Fellaini, in which United at least showed a glimmer of invention and intent. The positivity from the stands or on the pitch didn't last, though, and things took a turn for the worse pretty quickly afterwards.
This vitriol was coming from a United support generally predisposed to backing their team and manager: it's taken a long time for many of them to turn on Van Gaal and even on Saturday, some among the fans that remained (and the TV images didn't do justice to how many people left before the final whistle) applauded as the United manager walked down the touchline.
This is obviously not the first time dissatisfaction has been made clear from the Old Trafford stands, but to wear United fans down to the point where they cannot take any more is an unmistakable sign that the state of things at the club has reached a point of no return. The deterioration under Van Gaal is chronic and cannot seemingly be avoided; the pinpricks of light against Liverpool and Newcastle were firmly blocked again on Saturday. In a season of spirit-sapping lows, the performance against Southampton was surely the lowest.
The problem is clear but the solution less so, and United have moved themselves into such a position that it's looking increasingly tricky to extricate themselves from it.
One of the ancillary issues created during these past few months under Van Gaal is an "anyone but..." atmosphere. At this stage, many inside Old Trafford would welcome Jose Mourinho -- a man who seemingly broke out his finest stationary in a bid to persuade the club -- with open arms, even if the reservations about him still apply and have been exacerbated by the alarming speed of his failure at Chelsea. Mourinho might turn out to be a good manager for United but if he's appointed now it won't exactly be with a clear mind. It will also be partly because he's "anyone but Van Gaal."
That sentiment extends to players, too. Adnan Januzaj was greeted with the cheers one might associate with a great returning hero even while warming up on Saturday, and his name was sung before he was introduced as a second-half substitute. It took a moment to remember that Januzaj had returned to the club after an underwhelming loan spell at Borussia Dortmund during which he didn't make a single league start. Yet his introduction was welcomed so warmly by a home support who had been so starved of excitement or interest that they almost seemed to forget why he had been sent out in the first place.
This is not to say that appointing someone such as Mourinho will be the same but it does illustrate that so many fans are sick of the thin, joyless soup of football being served to them by Van Gaal that they'd take anything else, whether that's a good idea or not. That seems to be the prevailing atmosphere in the stands and it could spread to the boardroom too; then again, if Ed Woodward didn't see fit to dismiss Van Gaal during what we thought was the nadir of their season before Christmas, he might never do so. Whether the Dutchman is still in a job because Woodward & Co. genuinely believe in him or because dismissing him would reflect badly on them is unclear. It's also unclear as to which of those possibilities is more worrying.
Assuming they do still think that Van Gaal is a "genius," the problem is that if they're wrong and life doesn't improve soon, then at the end of the season they will be in more or less the same position as they were when David Moyes left the club: still looking for a manager, still with a deficient squad, still no further on from when they started the whole process. It's been just under two years; all that's happened is everyone is two years older.
If Van Gaal was younger and set to stick around for years to come, the stability and longevity argument would be easier to buy. Perhaps it would take him a couple of years to get things right and everyone would have to be patient for a bit. But he plans to retire at the end of next season. There might be an argument that someone should be given time and patience, but that someone isn't Van Gaal.
United have backed themselves into a corner. If they stick with Van Gaal, they could be condemning themselves to more of the same grinding tediousness and grim existence. But they've also left it so long to get rid of him that the "anyone but Van Gaal" atmosphere means they won't be replacing him under the most favourable conditions either.
Nick Miller is a football writer for ESPN FC, the Guardian, Eurosport and a number of other publications. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.