Manchester United don’t really do grace periods. Not any more. It has been an awfully long time since a certain Govan-born boss was allowed to survive three years of turmoil and “Ta-ra Fergie” to lead the club into its greatest sustained period of success. Erik ten Hag, the latest man in the hot seat, has already had longer than David Moyes’ 51 game. The current West Ham United boss joined ten years ago today and was sacked ten months into a six-year contract. Jose Mourinho, Louis van Gaal and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer were afforded more time, but arguably even less patience. Fans were quick to give up on the dull football of the former pair and the erratic results of the latter.
After a chastening spell under interim manager Ralf Rangnick last season, Ten Hag has restored plenty of faith at Old Trafford. The football has improved, as has the standard of signings. The long-needed clearout has taken place, with aging and expensive stars moved on. The thorny issue of Cristiano Ronaldo’s decline and subsequent insolence was dealt with. These running repairs have taken place while United have spent most of the season ensconced in the top four. The Red Devils have also broken a six-year trophy duck to lift the Carabao Cup and will aim to make it a double when they face local rivals Manchester City in the FA Cup final. By any measure, this has been a successful season. Any measure except one; the court of social media opinion.
The bigger they are, the harder they fall. United’s status as the most-followed English club on social media means they attract the widest gamut of opinions. This invites extremes and United’s recent drop in form has seen some severe takes. After an abject display in a 1-0 defeat to West Ham United on Sunday, the first coordinated phalanx of “#TenHagOut” twits took hold.
Considering the progress United have made this season, it seems almost laughable that any right-minded fan would want a change of manager. Granted, this season could end in disappointing fashion. Consecutive defeats to the Hammers and Brighton & Hove Albion have left United’s fourth position a little more precarious.
They sit just one point above Liverpool albeit with a game in hand. But considering the Rangnick-fuelled nadir of last season, the two Wembley finals of this campaign and the formulation of a workable playing style are surely enough to quell the discontent. Even if United do the unthinkable and drop out of the Champions League places, this has been a season of progress.
But there is always a vocal contingent at big clubs for whom this will never be enough. Beyond the thick-or-thin diehards, the weekly match-goers, the once-a-seasons and even the further-afields there is another group. The element of the fanbase for whom following a Premier League is akin to pop culture fandom. Where the latest adventures of Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford are no more or less vivid than the latest dispatches from Grogu or Rocket Raccoon.
Like the hyper-critical Marvel or Star Wars watchers, the fans who treat football in this way are demanding. But what they demand is often a world away from the concerns of the normal fan. This type of support, if you can call it that, has driven the toxic focus on football transfer, in which securing a “Here We Go” from Fabrizio Romano’s Twitter account is more vital than any set of three points. It has also fuelled the mistreatment of club legends, such as the callous “#WengerOut” campaign that marred the denouement of an icon. These fans want to shape what they are seeing. The club has to sign the players they want and they have to win every week. Failure to do both means the manager must suffer. It’s a cold, numb take on what it means to identify with a football club. An arbitrary facsimile of true support.
A defeat against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday will embolden the extremists. And truthfully, it will ask some questions of Ten Hag and his team too. But United would be mad to cut and run at this, the first sign of trouble. They tried quick fixes and “serial winners”. Now they’ve got a manager with the style, confidence and force of will to potentially put them back on top. Even considering sacking him before he’s had a chance to do that is lunacy.
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