Manchester United woes leave fans wondering when the storm will pass
I spoke to Jose Mourinho an hour before Manchester United's game at Brighton on Sunday and told him he had the support of the club's fans at the game. He said "thanks." Twice. And, sure enough, the 3,000 away supporters were behind the manager once they made their way into the ground, very close to kickoff as usual.
They sang "Jose Mourinho" and "Mourinho's Red and White Army" during the first 15 minutes when things were not too bad. United's boss acknowledged each time, just as he had nine days earlier when his name was sung against Leicester from a vocal area in front of Old Trafford's J Stand.
My notes from the early stages at Brighton show Andreas Pereira was neat and tidy, United had more possession and the hosts lost their captain. And then it all fell apart -- badly -- with three goals conceded in 19 minutes. The fallout since has been huge because it goes deeper than losing a single game, which can happen to any club, though let's also not forget that Brighton played very well.
A backlash has been waiting to happen, given recent goings on at United, but enough fans have given the benefit of the doubt. They were not delighted with summer transfer activity, but acknowledged other factors. For example, there were many good players already at the club and hope they would improve. Meanwhile, second place was not a disaster last season which, though it tailed off at the end, featured some excellent games and results.
However, anxiety levels rose during preseason when Mourinho set a tone that made supporters feel uncomfortable. Maybe he was lowering expectations, but this is Manchester United and being prepared for failure will never be accepted. He had his reasons and didn't get the players he wanted, but the football hasn't been great in 2018 and he has overseen heavy spending; his two £30 million central defenders hardly convinced at Brighton.
Ed Woodward is also coming under criticism, as has been the case since 2013 when he took over as executive vice-president and oversaw a disastrous first transfer window. Woodward is the Glazer family's main man in Manchester and is very good at bringing money into United, amounts that remain the envy of rivals who wish they had as many sponsors.
But Woodward made an odd statement in May when he said: "Playing performance doesn't really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business."
Why is that strange to a fan? It suggested winning trophies was not as important to the bottom line as sponsorship commitments, which place significant demands on players. Further, such comments explain why there will always be doubts about Woodward's involvement in player recruitment, given his background in banking.
"For me it should be the coach who decides what is happening with the players," former United player and head of the club's youth system Brian McClair told me recently, adding when asked whether a sporting director, as is the norm at other clubs, was needed: "Is that not the job that Ed has always wanted to do? That's the role he's seen himself in since he became executive vice-chairman." A couple of days later, United briefed that they were looking to appoint a director of football for the first time.
Woodward, Mourinho and stand-in captain Paul Pogba are three of the most important people at the club, but have been coming out with different messages. Pogba and Mourinho could be happier and, while it would be better if they could all work together, each man has his own view. The upshot, though, is a battle for power.
Pogba's agent Mino Raiola defends his client when Paul Scholes echoes what fans think about the midfielder, while Woodward is right to say he has backed Mourinho and Mourinho is right to say he wants more players.
Conflicting egos destabilise the club, leave supporters uncertain and unhappy and give opponents confidence that they can beat United. Plus, there are external factors. This would be less of an issue if Manchester City were not so good and had not run away with the Premier League title last season, though United's Champions League exit vs. Sevilla dented Mourinho's popularity.
Flying a banner from a plane in protest against Woodward will divide fans, just as it did four years ago when David Moyes was the target, but it would show the frustration of some and get attention because it happens so infrequently.
United fans turning on their club in such a public way is more notable than those, who shout into the empty abyss of forums and social media, but it is also a complex issue because many do not like the idea.
There will be also questions about the identity of those behind the stunt, as well as their intentions and whether they can be trusted. A 2014 banner, supposedly organised by United fans to fly over a Real Madrid game and urge Cristiano Ronaldo to return to Manchester, had no credibility on the terraces because nobody had heard of its organisers.
None of this would be happening if United had won at Brighton; wins soothe everything. But while a win vs. Spurs on Monday will help, don't expect the storm to go away just yet. Too many clouds need to pass first.