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Semifinal matchups

#UltimateUCL 6 days ago
Read
 Posted by Andy Mitten
Sep 1, 2014

Fans the bright spot of Manchester United's season so far

ESPN FC's Gabriele Marcotti gives his take on Louis Van Gaal and Manchester United.

Managers are required to walk across the pitch to get back to the dressing room at Burnley's Turf Moor.

There's no slipping away while nobody is looking. You either walk across the pitch and muddy your shoes or go past the 4,400 wooden seats in the away end, which on Saturday was packed with what will be Manchester United's biggest league away allocation of the season. It's just over half of the 8,000 tickets visiting teams used to receive at nearby Blackburn, but it's rare to get a full end as at Turf Moor.

Louis van Gaal went for the pitch option. As he did, he chatted to one of his backroom team while the whole end sang "Oh, United we love you."

Van Gaal was distracted and began looking at the away end. He appeared transfixed, as if he didn't understand why the fans were still backing him after another poor result. The mood also contrasted with a few minutes prior, when a 93rd-minute back pass from the halfway line sent the travelling horde into a rage.

The Dutchman attempted to applaud the faithful, but it was difficult as he had a handbag with him. But he did continue to show his appreciation as he got nearer the tunnel of the Cricket Field End, so called because it has a cricket field directly behind it.

(Before we continue, one for groundspotters. When that stand was built in 1969, it was the first in Britain to incorporate oil-fired heating for fans, whereby warm air was blown through holes under each seat. It was so costly to run that the system was shut down after two years.)

Despite the support of a large away following, United were unable to secure their first win of the season at Burnley.

Van Gaal can have numerous complaints about his team, including the limited threat offered by his front men. Perhaps he and Robin van Persie were talking about that very subject as they flew from Manchester Airport together on Sunday after United's third game of the season without a win.

Monday's United-related headlines are all about the last-minute deals being done by the club as the transfer window closes. If the club has its way, Falcao won't the last player to be marching up Sir Matt Busby Way to sign a contract, but time is slipping away. So far, United's acquisitions have been both numerous and impressive.

I watched the Colombian striker live several times when he was at Atletico Madrid. He frequently showed his intelligence, pace, power and sheer X factor. He humbled European champion Chelsea when he lost his markers in the UEFA Super Cup, and the variety of his goals showed he's more than the poacher Javier Hernandez is.

We'll examine United's signings in a future column -- perhaps the departures too -- but amid the madness of the past few weeks, we have seen Hernandez, a finisher if not always a footballer, flop in Milton Keynes and then find himself at Real Madrid.

That was the one club the always professional Mexican wanted to play for as a child, so now he's got his wish, though he may find himself warming a different-coloured bench. At least the Bernabeu has heaters. And they work, unlike the ones in Burnley.

Amid all the turmoil at Manchester United, there has been one constant: the support. Fans have sold out every competitive away game since Shakhtar Donetsk in October. Before that, the last away game not to sell out was a meaningless Champions League game at Galatasaray in 2012 when Sir Alex Ferguson was still in charge.

The Turks won that one, and one cheeky local journalist put it to Ferguson that: "You were eliminated here in '93, and now you've been defeated here 19 years later. Has anything changed in the meantime?"

"Two European Cups, two European Cup finals and, what, 13 Premier League titles," replied Ferguson. "Want me to continue?" It was a glorious retort.

United fans have been the one highlight of this season. In Milton Keynes, they conjured a 15-minute rendition of the "United calypso" as their team was slipping to a humiliating defeat. Not that Van Gaal was too concerned to be eliminated from the Capitol One Cup. Or so he said to a friend who bumped into him the following day in Manchester and challenged him on the subject.

Van Gaal enjoys near unanimous support throughout the current bumps -- something he didn't receive at Barcelona when results were less than spectacular.

United fans have had a mixed reputation in the past two decades, usually from people who one day will get around to visiting a football stadium to watch an actual game.

They're all glory hunters who come from nowhere near Manchester, naysayers reckon, passing off such comments with a veneer of humour when they're about as funny as mother-in-law jokes. They think it's easy being a United fan as it's all about success.

Here's the reality. United have a vast global support and, undoubtedly, many of those fans have been attracted by success. But when you strip that support down to the matchgoing fans, you find a community that goes week in, week out.

I'm proud of the club's vast diaspora. It means I can tweet about going to Tehran, Iran, for a job and then get six invites to meet United fans based there. But had you walked around that away end in Burnley on Saturday, you would have encountered a huge number of Mancunians who A) support their local team and B) support then every week in person.

An informal economy exists among those people who are versed in getting rejected for tickets. One mate, a longtime season-ticket holder, applied for 20 away games last season and was successful for three. He still went to the majority of games as fans help each other out for tickets -- for face value prices. You don't just turn up on a coach to Arsenal expecting to get sorted out with a ticket. You go to games for years, get your face seen and become trusted and part of that community.

Every away game is oversubscribed for tickets, but you see the same faces at them. Executive fans, who have priority, help out those who don't have such access to tickets. It's a community that sticks together through thick and thin.

- Darke: United must improve fast
- Okwonga: Burnley draw raises more questions
- Brewin: Three Things - Burnley vs. Man United

But what about at Old Trafford, that glorious venue dismissed as a tourist mecca? It has suffered growing pains and a shifting demographic, no doubt, but despite finishing seventh in the Premier League, Manchester United (75,207) were the second-best supported football club in the world last season.

Only Borussia Dortmund (80,297) had a higher home average, but what would the average of both teams have been if their stadiums held 150,000? I'm biased, but I'd go for United. Would the German club have attracted the vast crowds that saw United in America a month ago?

Both United and Dortmund sold out every week, and their average was their stadium capacity. Barcelona (71,958 in a 98,000 home) and Real Madrid (70,753 in 81,000) were the third- and fifth-best supported teams. Bayern were fourth.

United took 65,000 fans to the Community Shield a year ago. This year, the gaps shown by the Wembley seats in the Manchester City end for the same fixture saw as much red -- their colour -- as blue.

United fans mock, but City are an exceptionally well-supported club given their paucity of trophies until recently. They were selling their 34,000 capacity home out when they were in the third tier.

I have close friends who go everywhere with City. I respect them and the time they put in following their club before the 2008 takeover, but even in Manchester their support is heavily outnumbered by United's. See for yourself. Ask "red or blue?" to people in 20 Manchester suburbs. It will be three-quarters red.

I've heard blues laugh at United fans for praising their support after one dodgy season, but even in the 1970s and 1980s, when United didn't win the league once, the club was England's best-supported team in 18 of the 20 seasons.

What happened when United went down to the second division 40 years ago? The support went up. Over 20,000 fans travelled to Bolton and Sheffield Wednesday. There were more than 10,000 at Villa, West Brom, Oldham, Blackpool, Hull, Cardiff, Forest and Notts County. All glory hunters, obviously, following a just relegated team.

The generations change and fans claim games were better in their day and things aren't what they used to be, but the away ends remain full -- even when the fans in them are charged a premium because they support a huge club, as they will be this season, regardless of whether Van Gaal gets it right or not.

The Dutchman has given the players he inherited a chance. Some passed the test; most failed. So he starts again, with his quickly assembled and very expensive men. It will take time, but will it be three weeks, months or years before they start to click, these new players in a new system? Sorry, philosophy.

Whatever happens, Van Gaal can count on backing from the fans. Even David Moyes will testify to that.

Andy Mitten

Manchester-born Andy Mitten founded United We Stand in 1989, at age 15. He has written 11 books since his career began in 1995 and visited almost 100 countries while working for numerous magazines and newspapers worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten.

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