Heart Of Football

United still princes off the pitch but are drained in confidence

If Manchester United were a limousine or a truck, the manufacturers might wish to throw a tarpaulin over the engine to hide its apparent corrosion.

Chevrolet, the Detroit makers of anything from flashy cars to heavy lorries, is committed to paying US$70 million (S$98.4 million) a year to have their gold bow-tie insignia on the shirts of "the world's most famous club".

Famous is perishable.

After United's defeat by Midtjylland in Denmark on Thursday, and fearing the worst before Monday's trip to Shrewsbury in the FA Cup, many Red Devils fans took to a self-mocking ditty that is unprintable in this newspaper.

Better to reflect on a banner recently seen at Old Trafford. "If I hadn't seen such riches," it reads, "I could live with being poor."

One thing United cannot claim is poverty.


A United fan holding a pre-game banner which makes his sentiments crystal clear. However, there is no guarantee that replacing Louis van Gaal with Jose Mourinho will provide long-term stability. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

The Chevy logo is not the only sponsor tied to the fabric of the club that - in history, allure, and up to recently in swashbuckling style - was up there on the global stage along with Barcelona and Real Madrid.

How has it come to this? Midtjylland was formed as a club in 1999, the year that Alex Ferguson's United won the treble - the Premier League, the FA Cup and the Champions League.

But Midtjylland are also faded. The team is in mid-winter hibernation, and before that won only once in 10 games.

United's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward's undoubted ability to negotiate lucrative sponsorships is self-evident. His know-how in terms of running a football club was always suspect.

Even United aren't that bad. But the failure to win 18 of their last 27 fixtures has drained confidence out of the team, like fluid leaking out of a busted radiator grille.

Blame Louis van Gaal, and give in to the orchestrated glamour to install Jose Mourinho? It's a plan. But only an appealing one if you remember the victories of Mourinho last season and overlook the fact that it cost Chelsea an arm and a leg to get rid of him after the whole thing imploded this season.

Van Gaal and Mourinho have something in common. They were together, head coach and assistant, at Barcelona in 1997. They were winners then, and because neither of them sustains harmony for very long, their careers have oscillated from triumph to sporting disaster on three-year cycles.

Players will run for them for a while, but the evidence is that top players grow bored with their rhetoric and their habit of claiming the prizes were primarily down to their genius as coaches, and a little bit to the compliance of over-achieving players.

The morning after United's Europa League last-32 first-leg capitulation, the Manchester Evening News headlined its coverage: "LVG Must Go."

And who is available to replace him?

Why, Jose Mourinho.

The bandwagon is rolling. Sean Bones, the vice-chairman of the Manchester United Supporters Trust, was among the 900 fans who were fleeced by the £71 (S$144) ticket price the Danes stuck on Thursday's game, presumably equating the club's wealth with deep pockets of fans who follow it.

Bones said he never heard United fans sing such self-deprecating songs as they did on Thursday. "I have been there in the 70s when we got relegated," he said, "but even then you felt the players were giving 100 per cent.

"The songs now are a reflection of how far we have fallen. The players need to take responsibility for the performance and show some pride when they wear the United shirt."

However, Bones does not share the sentiment that sacking van Gaal is the quick fix needed at Old Trafford. "A lot of supporters feel the problems are permeating down from the Glazer family," he said, referring to the American owners in Florida.

"The quality of the squad isn't fit for purpose, and it is something the Glazer family need to address before the situation deteriorates any further."

The Glazers put their trust, their club, in the hands of Ed Woodward when they promoted him to executive vice-chairman from accountant after he advised them on the United takeover in 2005.

His undoubted ability to negotiate lucrative sponsorships is self-evident. His know-how in terms of running a football club was always suspect.

Letting the previous chief executive, David Gill, go at the same time that Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013 was a catastrophic blunder.

Fergie knew what he wanted and how to motivate what he had. Gill knew how to wheel and deal in the corridors of football power where agents will sell you a Chevy truck as a Rolls-Royce, and where attracting top players to your place rather than Real, Barca or Chelsea is an art in itself.

Woodward listened to Ferguson when he appointed David Moyes as his successor. Maybe Fergie, Bobby Charlton and all those on the board also backed the decision to panic and sack Moyes to hire van Gaal.

The club, wary of what happened almost 50 years ago when Matt Busby retired, went abroad to hire an experienced, big-name coach.

Van Gaal was persuaded to delay retirement to his villa in the Portuguese Algarve to give it one last shot. His brief was to guide United through transition, and to let Ryan Giggs understudy him until Giggs was ready for the managerial role.

Nobody will know, unless United takes the gamble, whether Giggs could emulate Pep Guardiola and shoot from player to manager.

As Woodward (and the almost invisible Glazers) dither, the question of succession is a darkening shadow.

Mourinho is out there. He makes no secret of his desire to manage United, and makes sure that his appearance at Inter Milan yesterday should not be interpreted as a sign that he might return to Italy.

It's just a friendship visit, he says. But yes, clubs are chasing him, and yes he can't wait for a club (preferably English and as rich as Chelsea) to hire him.

Van Gaal, in the meantime, has Shrewsbury to worry about, followed by Midtjylland again at Old Trafford, then Arsenal.

A fixture pile-up, a squad decimated by injuries, and fans who could live with being poor if they had not seen such riches.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'United still princes off the pitch but are drained in confidence'. Print Edition | Subscribe