Manchester United are in their hour of need – fans must help push them to Europe


Unless Manchester United defeat Newcastle United by a margin of 17 goals on Wednesday, Erik ten Hag’s team will go into Sunday’s final Premier League game of the season in eighth place. And if United finish in that position, it will mean no European football in 2024-25 — unless Manchester City are defeated in the FA Cup final.

A season without European football will drag and drag — as it did in 2014-15, the last time it happened. Before that, you must go back to 1989-90. European football, whatever the competition, is a huge part of Manchester United.

This season has been awful but it is not yet finished, and Wednesday’s game against Eddie Howe’s side is a six-pointer. Lose, and that’s it for qualifying through the league. Win and United can still finish sixth or seventh — sufficient for continental football — so the team should be going all out for victory.

It shouldn’t matter to fans that accountants aren’t excited by the numbers from the Europa League or Conference League.

Does the child being taken to their first game pause and say to their parent: “I’ll only go if it’s the Champions League.” Did the fans turn their noses up at Cup Winners’ Cup qualification in 1990? At winning the Europa League in 2017 or coming back from 2-0 down to beat Barcelona in a lesser UEFA competition in 1984? Nope. And if it’s the Conference League, then it’s another trophy to win, a set to complete — just as the Europa League (UEFA Cup) was in 2017.

European football means more games, chances for squad players and new destinations for fans to visit. The rise must start somewhere. Against part-time Connah’s Quay in Wales? We’ll have that.

People can sneer all they like about how the mighty have fallen.

Manchester United have done just that, but what are fans supposed to do? Give up? Stop going? Stay quiet? Or support their club because this team which doesn’t play like one needs support more than ever. It’s easy when your team are winning everything — plenty of fans were attracted to United by the glory — and yet plenty became fans when they won nothing. Even when relegated to Division Two in 1974, United were still the best-supported team in England.

The game against Arsenal on Sunday was another defeat, the 19th since August. But United weren’t rolled over as against Crystal Palace last week. Young players including Amad, Kobbie Mainoo, Rasmus Hojlund and Alejandro Garnacho ran tirelessly, as did the young substitutes.

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After no wins in three, United are at serious risk of failing to qualify for Europe next season (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

But United have scored one goal in the past three games and centre-forward Hojlund is struggling. If he is to become a success at United — and he should — what is he going to remember? The fans cheering a goal or the fans who continued to back him when he didn’t?

It is United’s hour of need. The Northern Lights may have dazzled over Manchester on Friday, but by Sunday fans were drenched by rain as they left the stadium. Old Trafford lived up to its name, mocked by memes and metaphors. ‘The Theatres of Streams’ was one of the better ones, as water spectacularly cascaded off the roof and down the stands.

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The fans who go fill those stands are the club’s greatest strength. They’re the ones who are there through thick and, as it is right now, thin. When Wayne Rooney said on television some players could play but were choosing not to, he didn’t say that off the top of his head. He’d be able to back it up if needed. That’s as damning as many of the statistics around United this season.

There’s plenty of self-preservation going on at United right now, networkers looking after number one. One member of staff, speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their position, put it to me that “in these moments you can clearly see the ‘I’ people and the ‘we’ people. And that is abundantly clear among the players too.”

Staff are nervous about their future. INEOS’ involvement may ultimately bring success, but the mood is far from harmonious among rank-and-file staff who are worried about their jobs.

Whatever his pros and cons, Ten Hag is a ‘we’ person. He is trying to manage in difficult conditions, and while fans are entitled to have their view on whether he’s the man to take the team forward, he also needs support right now — even from fans low on energy and enthusiasm. These games feel like they’re dead-rubber, end-of-season nothing matches — but they’re not. Wednesday is huge. Sunday at Brighton could be huge. And when was an FA Cup final not a big deal?

The players don’t like criticism from those who won the Treble and have told some of them so in recent weeks. There are two sides to this, since pundits are paid to tell it how it is and would look like partisan apologists if they soft-pedalled.

It’s fine to make a film about the glories of the 11 days in May 1999  — why does everyone say 10? — and there was a premiere for the latest release in Manchester last week. But in the history of football support, the glory days are matched by those narrow escapes from relegation, the days when the wheels could have come off but didn’t and, when they do, by the ability to pick yourself off the floor and kick on. These next 11 days in 2024 can also be big in the history of the club.

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You can see it at games where the support has been generous with this failing side. Fans have barely booed and the away following has got right behind their players at the worst moments. Outsiders can be baffled that fans are not turning on their team. Old Trafford’s atmosphere was decent in the second half against Arsenal — the choice of songs less so. The rendition of “We’ll keep the Red flag flying high” was rousing, but how does singing songs about going for a beer with George Best resonate with or help the current players?

United fans are right to celebrate their history, but we’re in a moment when those on the pitch need support. There used to be a chant, ‘Sing the names that are on the pitch’. Many are young, talented and have had no part to play in the headwinds which led to United’s decline. They simply want to be the best footballers they can be.

Newcastle are formidable opponents and have sold out their section as normal. In the 1980s when they won nothing — actually, that could be applied to most decades — the Geordies brought some of the biggest and loudest away followings to Old Trafford.

This season, Newcastle won comfortably at Old Trafford in the Carabao Cup, partially avenging defeat in the 2023 final. They have twice as many points from their past 10 games as Manchester United’s 10. Yet Newcastle are poor away in the league: 15th in the table for away games with only five wins. Their league position this season is because of their home form — the fourth-best in the league, including a win against Manchester United.

Are there any positives?

Bruno Fernandes, badly missed for two matches, should be back. United have no intention of him leaving either. Ten Hag tends to stick to the same formation and tactics, but he made a significant change against Arsenal. He was more pragmatic — the team didn’t press high and tried to keep the central midfielders together without the ball, in order not to get stretched and become too open. The irony was that then happened for the goal, but the rest was much better than at Palace.

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Bruno Fernandes is expected to return from injury to face Newcastle tomorrow evening (Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)

And the crowd. That can make a big difference. The Stretford End should arise. J and K Stand should be on their feet. The rest can follow. One of the greatest United supports I ever saw was at Anfield in 1990 when United lost 4-0. The year before, the 1988-89 season was out and the team had lost their previous three matches when Newcastle United came to visit for the final game of the season. Manchester United won 2-0.

Night games can lend themselves to a better atmosphere – there will be fewer football tourists there to dilute the noise. This run of one win in eight must end in the last home game of the season. This team is running out of time to improve before the FA Cup final, but they have to.

Wednesday is the 23rd anniversary of United’s Cup Winners’ Cup success in Rotterdam, when the fans sang ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ in the driving rain and propelled United to an unexpected win against Johan Cruyff’s mighty Barcelona. Take that spirit, whatever the deficiencies of the current side.

And if the team lose for a 20th time this season, it must not be for the want of trying and instead will be time for gallows humour. The PA can at least play “Not Nineteen Forever” by the local group The Courteeners. Though it will have very different connotations to when it was played 11 years ago this week — when United won a record 20th league title.

(Top photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)



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