The weekend had begun with the suggestion that Jose Mourinho’s time at Manchester United was up. Irrespective of the result at Old Trafford the next day, Friday’s headlines insisted that the Portuguese was for the chop and, nearly twenty-four hours later, that seemed an inevitability. Mourinho’s demeanour in his Friday press-conference had been sullen and sulky and, in the images broadcast before kick-off the next day, he was certainly carrying himself as if he expected to be checking out of the Lowry Hotel in the near future.
But by 7.30pm on Saturday, everything was fine. Newcastle had remembered where they were and who they were playing, United had scrambled to find their three goals, and Mourinho was back in his comfort zone. He was a victim, the poor form he had overseen was an illusion and he had the full support of his employers.
One of the more intriguing facets of modern football is that, in spite of their size, many clubs seem to make future-altering decisions on a whim. A change of head-coach is possibly the most traumatic change a club can endure, one which creates a ripple of logistical and financial consequences, and yet the mood for that upheaval can often be dictated by a small sample of isolated football. In this particular case, the veracity of those Friday reports is unclear, but – contrary to popular belief – journalists tend not to be that bold without justification. At the very least, it seems reasonable to assume that The Mirror (and the many other outlets who echoed the story) had been briefed by a highly credible source.
But Newcastle’s collapse changed that. Supporters are allowed to be hopelessly optimistic; there is no such thing as a bad three-goal comeback and they’re entitled to some residual hope, but the reaction above them is harder to justify.
There are different possibilities. Perhaps those who make decisions at Old Trafford are being led by the mood and have reasoned that change in the immediate climate would be a tough sell. Perhaps, with such a vast severence package at stake, they’ve been seduced by the optics of that second-half fightback. The final explanation is also the most worrying: maybe the result has been enough to alter their perception entirely?
On Friday night, before Brighton’s game with West Ham, Gary Neville was questioned about the rumours leaking out of his former club. In a monologue which subsequently went viral, Neville delivered a withering assessment of Manchester United’s boardroom culture and, perhaps most jarringly, wondered what had happened to the club he knew, represented and – most importantly – supported.
He was emotional, but he was also right. Neville was referring to the erosion of values and the dilution of a perceived The Manchester United Way. Some will scoff, modern football does do cynicism brilliantly well, but if he and other supporters believe in such a concept, who really is anyone else to question it. For those people, United stands for something. Not just community, success and identity through style, but an expected behavourial standard.
Truthfully, it’s almost a semi-mythological quality now. The days of Louis Rocca and Matt Busby have been over for a long time and, in the present day, there’s little ideological separation between the various superpowers. Nevertheless, there are still differences to be found – in how Chelsea handle managerial hiring and firing, for instance, as opposed to how Manchester City conduct themselves. Or in the model employed by Daniel Levy’s Tottenham and, say, Paris Saint-Germain. For the sake of a more direct comparison, the various ideals employed by Real Madrid and Barcelona are also noteworthy. Beyond their traditional places on the political spectrum, the two clubs – while still aimed towards optimum success – clearly employ contrasting aims. Florentino Perez seeks to dominate the news cycle in a way which Josep Bartomeu does not and, partly as a consequence, the lifespan of employees underneath him tends to dramatically differ.
These, then, can be described as club behaviours. With the volume of coverage and information being what it currently is, fans are now very sensitive to them. Not only do they want achievement on the field but, generally, they also seek to take comfort in some kind of moral standard. One suspects that during Roman Abramovich’s first years in English football, Manchester United’s supporters took comfort in knowing that, while their club couldn’t compete with Chelsea’s resources, the team they supported wasn’t directed by a billionare’s tantrums. When players moved to Manchester United, they will have told themselves, they had been sold on history rather than just the size of a pay cheque. Their managers were also supported, not just jettisoned at the first sign of poor form. If ever a change did have to be made, the process wouldn’t be conducted behind the bike sheds and in earshot of the media.
The commodity is class.
The full extent of the damage done by the Glazer family will become clearer in time, but perhaps their most serious act of vandalism has been the blurring of those contrasts. Now, Manchester United are clearly not different. In the present day, they are actually ideologically closer to the nouveau riche than they are to their more traditional rivals. Given that their transfer policy seems often to be instructed by celebrity over suitability, it’s not unreasonable to make that claim. It’s not unjustified, either, in the context of Richard Arnold’s “television show” remarks or in Ed Woodward’s often reported fascination with social media traction. At their root, both might be the consequence of contemporary sporting imperatives and the necessity of brand building, but there is something so brazen and flagrant about the way United now chase these revenue streams. There is no tractor partnership too absurd, no Mexican potato snack too tenuous.
The neophyte response to people like Neville hardly needs exploring. He, they will say, is a traditionalist who needs to understand that the game has changed and that his expectations of what a football club should be are outdated. That’s not necessarily an unreasonable stance, there might even be some validity to it, but he and other like-minded supporters could counter by saying, quite rightly, that the institutional naffness and poverty of footballing thought needn’t be quite so obvious.
And, conveniently, there is no greater demonstration of their point than the cheap texture of this Mourinho saga. The longevity of Sir Alex Ferguson may now belong to a different era, but United’s behaviour in the sackings of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal was abysmal. The respective decisions may have been valid, but the treatment of both men was substandard – perhaps not by the low standards of football as a whole, but certainly within the context of United’s past. They have not been a hiring and firing or kneejerk organisation, they do not leak their discontent to Fleet Street. Conversely, they had always previously exhibited a quiet deference to unwritten football law. Yet, on both occasions, journalists (and subsequently the public) knew the fate of the managers before they did themselves. Once Ferguson was gone, the truth serum had quickly began to have its effect.
Mourinho’s situation is a reminder of those declining standards; it’s a further antogonism to those desperate to see some instituational responsibility. Irrespective of whether he should or should not still be Manchester United’s head-coach – which is really a very separate issue – this latest outbreak of charlatanism has offered a very unwelcome portrait of what Manchester United have actually become.