“Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson
Manchester United is staring at what could be its last Champions League home match for some time when it faces Olympiakos in the second leg of their European tie. United is facing a 2-0 deficit against the Greek champions and would need to score three times without conceding if they hope to advance to the quarter-finals of the competition.
Of course, the club is not mathematically eliminated from finishing in the top four (or five) in the Premier League, a position that would secure European football for next season. But the Red Devils are being handed their coats and told that the bar is closing. In other words, it’s only a matter of time.
In a season of record breaking lows on the pitch, Manchester United’s traveling supporters (The Red Army) have proven time and time again to be an unwavering source of inspiration for the club. Despite the sputtering performances of United’s players and their manager’s inability to galvanize the team or engineer winning tactics on any kind of consistent basis, Manchester United supporters have continued to fill every seat allotted to them at away fixtures. They have barely warmed those seats while continually standing and singing encouragement to their faltering idols.
The response of these fans shows in the club’s results. Manchester United actually has more wins on the road this season than they do at home.
That steadfast loyalty has been on display at Old Trafford, largely in the form of the Stretford End supporters. But the entirety of the Theatre of Dreams has occasionally fallen flat during several home contests this season. While United’s most passionate supporters have remained resolute and focused on lifting up the players and their manager, large sections of the adjacent stands have stuck to groaning and criticizing the club or just leaving the stadium before the match has ended.
But Sunday’s match against Liverpool was a turning point for United’s home support this season. With their club trailing Liverpool 2-0 and the away supporters looking to revel in their team’s triumph, United supporters burst into song and subsequently drowned out any attempt by their rival supporters to rub more salt in the wound… even as Luis Suarez tucked Liverpool’s third goal past David De Gea.
For the final 20 minutes of the match, 70,000 Manchester United supporters took the opportunity to remind their North West rivals (in unison) how many English top flight titles their club has in its trophy case.
“Twenty times, twenty times, Man United! Twenty times, twenty times, I say! Twenty times, twenty times, Man United! Playing football the Busby Way!”
Of course the song refers to Manchester United twenty league titles and was a reminder to rival fans that Liverpool may have won the battles this season, but the Anfield club still trailed United’s trophy haul while being stuck on eighteen league titles (their last was in 1990).
The chant was repeated continuously until the final whistle blew and the passion behind the words never dropped off in intensity. Any viewer just turning on the match would have assumed that United were the team leading the match. That’s how amplified and unified the masses were at Old Trafford on Sunday.
The noise at Old Trafford on Sunday didn’t go unnoticed by the players.
Juan Mata took to his blog to voice his appreciation for the fans and his disappoint in letting them down:
“There are no words to describe your support in the stadium. In games like yesterday it makes me mad not being able to give you what you deserve. I know there is nothing I can say right now, but at least I want you to know how I feel.”
Wayne Rooney took to his Facebook page to add:
“Yesterday was one of the worst days I’ve had in football and was hard to take. Having said that the fans were brilliant right until the end under difficult circumstances so I would like to thank them for that. We need to move on as we have a big game on Wednesday. If the fans can repeat an atmosphere like Sunday, then we will have a good chance of going through. Thanks again for all your support.”
There are moments when an individual’s efforts or a manager’s decision can propel a club to victory. But there are also times when fans, as a collective unit, can lift a team’s performance and push them to new heights. Even with players performing at their worst, resolute support from the fans can bring something out of players that an athlete didn’t even know was inside of them.
Wednesday evening will be one of these times.
Manchester United supporters will cause Old Trafford to shake its foundation, while making every effort to raise the performance level of the players and their manager. Should Manchester United end up being knocked out of the competition, it will be by no fault of their supporters. Those fans have been the only constant in United’s year of transition.
During a season which has been filled with inconsistencies on and off the pitch, the one thing that has remained steadfast at Manchester United has been the loyalty of its supporters.
Those fans will ensure that Wednesday will be another magical European night at the Theatre of Dreams.