Recently, a Chelsea supporter reminded me of comments made by manager Jose Mourinho during the heat of the summer transfer saga involving the London club and Manchester United. With the media pumping out daily stories of Rooney’s imminent departure, and anticipation of a harsh reception during his first match back at Old Trafford, the striker turned in a man of the match performance against Chelsea. Instead of jeers, Rooney was roundly applauded and serenaded throughout the contest by United supporters.
Mourinho’s post match interview speaks volumes to how he and most managers view Manchester United: “This club must be a very special club because at every club in the world, when the player wants to leave they [the fans] don’t support him. When a player wants to leave, they give him a hard time — but [here] they support him all the way, so I think this is a real special club with special fans.”
That statement came from a manager who has worked (and won) in three of Europe’s biggest leagues: the Premier League, Serie A, and La Liga; so it holds a good amount of merit.
The relationship between the manager, players and supporters at Manchester United is the model that most football clubs want to emulate. Those words will be argued against or simply disapproved of by non-United fans. But if you asked football experts, owners, managers and players if they would agree with that statement, the majority would answer, “Yes.”
The past few weeks in the Premier League have been a reminder how crazy the world of football has become. Two league managers were sacked and another is in the process of being run out of a club by his owner. Whether these decisions were right or wrong is a matter of opinion, but it’s safe to say more than a few people were scratching their heads when word of the news first broke.
As football fans, our hearts goes out to the supporters of each of those clubs. Knowing that your club’s manager is on the verge of being sacked, or has already been removed, is a difficult situation. Fans exhaust so much of their emotions and money into a club, only to stand by helpless while big decisions like these throw the team they love into turmoil.
This has not been the easiest of seasons for David Moyes and the players at Manchester United. The club had to endure Rooney’s rumored move away from the club, a poor transfer window, numerous injuries to key personnel and have seen their chances of retaining the Premier League title all but vanish as they head into the busy holiday period. The bright spot for the club is the fact that United have progressed into the Last 16 of the Champions League and the semi-finals of the Capital One Cup.
Sky Sports analyst and former Manchester United captain Gary Neville recently said that the club is “timeless”. He went on to say: “As a club they [Manchester United] stand against the immediacy of modern life.” Neville’s response stemmed from growing criticism in the media regarding United’s sputtering league campaign and followed back-to-back home defeats to Everton and Newcastle.
At that time of Neville’s statement, according to the media, the storm clouds were gathering over Old Trafford as the reigning Champions of England sat in ninth place in the Premier League; thirteen points behind league leading Arsenal.
News outlets were convinced that Manchester United had lost their “fear factor” and David Moyes wasn’t the man to lead the club forward. Stories from “unnamed sources” were saying Robin Van Persie was “unhappy with the manager’s training style” and had requested a transfer. Rio Ferdinand’s comments during a BT Sport video diary regarding Moyes’ policy of keeping team selection under wraps until the last minute were blown out of proportion and labeled as “player unrest” at Manchester United. While poor player performances had a small section of fans screaming for the club to spend big during the January transfer window with every player in world football being on the list of candidates to save United’s season.
Most clubs and their supporters would buckle under the weight and magnitude of this hysteria; some under much less.
Mounting public criticism, lackluster home results, and a 5-0 defeat to Liverpool led to Tottenham and Andre Villas Boas parting company “by mutual consent”, a season after the Portuguese leader helped Spurs achieve their record points tally in a Premier League season; 72 points from 38 games.
After four successive defeats, West Bromwich Albion stunned most people in the sport when the club sent manager Steve Clarke on “gardening leave” only months after the manager had led West Brom to its highest finish in the Premier League table; eighth place in 2012-13.
Tottenham and West Brom made the decision to remove their manager with no replacement lined up or in mind, which leads to the conclusion that their responses were hasty.
These decisions are not surprising or alarming, they have become the norm.
That’s why the stability at Manchester United is so unique and held in such high regard. Rather than overreacting or looking for a “quick fix”, Manchester United’s history is lined with moments when the club was able to deal with adverse situations and find strength, from within itself and its supporters, to push through the difficult period.
After handpicking David Moyes as his replacement, Ferguson took to the microphone following Manchester United’s final home match of the season to remind the players of their responsibility to the club: “I wish the players every success in future. You know how good you are, you know the jersey you’re wearing. You know what it means to everyone here. And don’t ever let yourself down, the expectation is always there.”
He then went on to address United supporters (and the club’s owners): “I’d also like to remind you that we’ve had bad times here. The club stood by me. All my staff stood by me. The players stood by me. So your job now is to stand by our new manager. That is important.”
Ferguson had the foresight to understand that there would be a difficult transition period ahead for the club and he didn’t want ownership, the fans, or the players to have the same knee-jerk reaction seen at other football clubs.
These are the things that separate Manchester United from other clubs. The majority of people involved with the club hold United very close to their heart; they want to see its legacy carried on in the right way. Having people of tremendous character around Manchester United (Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Alex Ferguson, Ryan Giggs, etc.) gives the current players and management something significant to emulate; no one wants to be the one who sullies the club’s lineage.
United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once said: “They [United] are a big club, the best club, a family club.”
Since Manchester United’s home defeat against Newcastle, the fans and players have rallied around each other. In the days following the loss, one could easily find United supporters on message boards, call-in shows, and Twitter, lecturing each other on how they should be acting. The calls of “Moyes Out” were greeted by stern replies for patience. It was as if United supporters were policing themselves and letting each other know that panic wouldn’t help the club get out of their rough patch.
When the media began to run with Rio Ferdinand’s comments about David Moyes, United players were quick to extinguish the fire and put focus back on where it should be.
United defender Nemanja Vidic set the record straight on what was going on at the club and what needed to be done to fix it: “We have to accept we are not in the position we want. It’s obviously not the best feeling in the world. All the players realize we have to stick together, have to perform better and start winning games. Doing that will raise the confidence and everything will get better.” He went on to tell MUTV, “We cannot look back. We have to look forward and think about what’s coming up in the next few weeks.”
Vidic’s words were an example of how people involved at Manchester United are able to disregard what isn’t important and simply focus on what needs to be done. Even when one of their own teammates steps out of line, or shows a moment of weakness, United players are there to extinguish any potential flame.
Since that time, Manchester United have won four times in all competitions. They’ve steadily closed the gap on the Premier League’s top four clubs despite missing key personnel due to injuries. United’s ‘fringe’ players have stepped up and are starting to play to their potential. The club’s mid-week League Cup win over Stoke City was probably their most pleasing result of the season.
United were shorthanded with Robin Van Persie, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney all nursing injuries. They were playing in horrible weather conditions at the Britannia Stadium, which is considered one of the toughest grounds to get a result at in English football, against a team which had nearly beaten them a month earlier at Old Trafford. But on this day, United were able to grind out a 2-0 win and the players celebrated each goal with their passionate away supporters. You could see and feel the connection between the players and fans at the stadium that day. That win was a reward for the patience and support shown by United’s fans during a turbulent period and the result reminded the players of the magic which shrouds the club.
Patrice Evra comments reflected that sentiment, “The conditions at Stoke were not easy but you could feel the Manchester United spirit coming back. That is the name of the game now. We have to focus only on the present. We do not want to let down the Manchester United fans and the staff and ourselves.”
Manchester United is a special club.