Manchester United have made it to the two-week international break, a natural time to take stock of a tumultuous two-week spell. They’ll need to make the most of the rest, too: Chelsea away, where United have a stinking record, is next, followed by a Champions League date with Juventus at home, two very difficult games against superior teams. They’re not just far superior to Wolves, Derby, West Ham and Newcastle, the four sides who made life so difficult for Jose Mourinho’s men in the past two weeks, but superior to Manchester United, too.
Mourinho, who was in a foul mood around the club last week, can gather his thoughts and composure. He, along with many United fans, are convinced that the media are out to get him the sack. They think they’re hounding him with sensationalist headlines and twisting his imperfect English, yet Mourinho has found allies among a significant number of match-going fans — including away supporters. They have been vocal in their support of him at matches, and this situation suits the United manager. Not for the first time, he’s in a preferred “us against the world” habitat; the only surprise is that it took him so long to get there since arriving in Manchester.
That vocal support, which was prevalent Saturday as the team roared back from 0-2 down to win 3-2 at Old Trafford, in turn divides United fans. Online polls actually show little support for Mourinho, but it’s at the matches themselves where the support matters most. Social media fury is easily discarded and less credible than opinions expressed at games, where officials and players can be directly affected by their environment. Encouraged by Gary Neville’s Friday night rant, for example, Saturday saw the first significant chants against the United board in the form of “Jose’s right, the board are s—-.”
Naturally, fans are more predisposed to back a football man over a perceived “suit” like Ed Woodward. Those chants echoing around Old Trafford will unnerve United’s owners far more than the continual whining on Twitter, too. Few pay attention even when the online moaners have a valid point, as they do now about the style of play, Mourinho’s public criticism of players, the lack of goals, the number of goals conceded (16 this season) and many poor individual performances. But there are no “Three years of excuses, Ta-Ra” flags in J Stand as there were for Sir Alex Ferguson. Those banners and songs expressed support for the under-fire manager instead.
The disarray at United is nuanced and complex, with many factors and no single person responsible for the club’s five-year drift, but Saturday’s victory really had a feeling of giving Mourinho a lifeline, even if the club claimed his position was never going to be decided at the weekend, as a Friday night report in the Daily Mirror claimed. They had less reason to decide it after a win, but what would have happened if United had lost or even drawn, making it only one win from six home games?
After all, that’s what looked likely after an awful first-half performance meant the team ran toward the dressing room 2-0 down at the break. Yet even as they ran — well, all bar the ever-languid Nemanja Matic — there were only a few boos around Old Trafford. For better or worse, fans are incredibly patient and supportive even if it means hiding their true feelings.
After the match, I asked Mourinho about his reaction to the atmosphere.
“I’m amazed,” he replied. “I don’t want that. If I could tell them please don’t do it, I would say that. This is not about me; this is about the football club they love.
“At half-time we were losing 2-0 and the fans were magnificent to the team. That’s fantastic. I beat Liverpool [as Chelsea manager] at Anfield 4-0 and I was amazed to hear the stadium singing Liverpool songs. [This Saturday] I’m losing 2-0 at home in a very important match, the fans were amazing, I’m grateful for that.”
The fans enjoyed it immensely, too. After years of winning almost every home game, United are so unpredictable these days that you don’t have a clue what to expect — in a way, it makes the United soap opera even more gripping — but no one expected United to be 2-0 down to winless Newcastle inside the opening 10 minutes. It was all slightly surreal, but then came the happy ending packed with defiance, attacking and a never-say-die spirit, attributes United fans like to associate with their club. Their greatest moment of a disappointing 2018 came at the Etihad, when they’d also been 2-0 down at half-time, only to triumph 3-2.
In some respects, Saturday felt like the return of United thanks to that comeback, but absolutely nobody expects the problems to dissipate because one struggling team have been defeated. It was the first time United had scored two or more goals at home, an event so rare that even Alexis Sanchez managed a goal — the winner, no less. Paul Pogba, so bad in the first half, was unaccountably so good in the second. If only he and Mourinho could sort out their differences.
The atmosphere was magnificent, with tens of thousands of Reds belting out songs from the stands: “Jose Mourinho,” “We’ll Never Die,” “Mourinho’s Red ‘n’ White Army.” Sparked by the Stretford End, which had seen all five goals up close, the whole stadium roared, “Oh, United we love you.”
For their part, the players haven’t stuck around to talk about it. Almost all have left Manchester for the international break. Eric Bailly, substituted after 18 minutes, was on the first flight to Paris on Sunday morning ahead of two African Cup of Nations qualifiers. His stock has never been lower as a United player; he’s one of many who needs a change in fortunes. His United team got that Saturday.
Here’s to it being a real turning point.