• Premier League

Fans show defiance, but patience is running out

Andy Mitten
March 18, 2014
David Moyes was lambasted after Manchester United's dismal defeat at Olympiakos © PA Photos

In August 1996, I walked out of Selhurst Park in London before the end of a match and missed one of the most famous goals in English football, scored from inside his own half for Manchester United versus Wimbledon by a 21-year-old named David Beckham.

My excuse was that I had a fanzine to sell. Fanzine sellers have to duck out of the ground just before the end of the game, otherwise they'll be caught up in the crowd.

It may seem bizarre to travel five hours from Manchester to see a game, only to then possibly miss its defining point, but that's the compromise. It's our bit for our community.

I sold United We Stand for more than 20 years outside Old Trafford. It's normally a great experience where you can interact directly with readers, though it has been known to rain in Manchester, and rain decimates sales. Who wants to stop to buy a paper-based product in the rain?

The mood after matches varies according to the result. Outside Old Trafford for the past two decades, it has usually been good because United have usually won. People would pass on their way home, happy in the haze of another three points.

True, you'd always get some budding comedian shouting '"Divided We Fall" after you'd shouted "United We Stand", and now and then you'd miss a late goal too.

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You'd hear an isolated roar, and people would move toward anyone with a radio to find out what had happened. You couldn't make out a goal for the away team as the noise of 3,000 visiting fans didn't escape Old Trafford's bowl. A huge guttural roar meant one thing: a United penalty or goal.

The lads selling outside Old Trafford on Sunday had a new experience. They were in position before the end of the defeat to Liverpool awaiting the crowd of angry fans and spiky comments. Fans rarely buy when they're annoyed, either.

But then there was a prolonged noise, deafening, as loud as if a goal had been scored. Manchester United had been outplayed by a motivated and finely tuned Liverpool team, yet the home fans got louder as the magnitude of the defeat got worse.

As the final whistle edged closer, the whole of Old Trafford was singing "20 times, 20 times, Man United, playing football the Sir Matt Busby Way".

Liverpool fans, meanwhile, loved their moment and some held up a flag on which was written "David Moyes is a football genius". However, the wider world couldn't hear them as 70,000 United fans were ramming 20 league titles down their necks.

Once upon a time, Liverpool thought their title haul was insurmountable. After their last win, in 1990, they held an 18-7 lead over United.

Thirteen championships later, United are ahead and Liverpool haven't won the league in nearly a quarter of a century. The "Have you ever seen United win the league?" flag, last seen on Kemlyn Road outside Anfield in 1992, has long since vanished.

Match-going United fans have been praised for their support this season. They feel that after 20 years of winning everything, that the least they can do is give a bit back.

Old Trafford's often-mocked atmosphere has been better than in any of the more recent glory seasons, but fans' defiance has been criticised as blind loyalty in the face of reality, like the band playing as the Titanic went down.

David Moyes should be - and is - hugely grateful for the backing he's getting, but it's not explicit support for one man doing a job badly. It's support of a team when they need it.

Plus, there's a message in the song: that United have a tradition of playing a certain type of football, the Sir Matt Busby way, the Sir Alex Ferguson way, the attacking way.

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That tradition has seldom been evident in this dreadful season in which United have already been beaten five times at home in the league.

I've spoken to four different players, none of whom know each other, from four different teams who have played at Old Trafford this season. All said something similar: They expected a far harder game.

United have won as many points at Old Trafford as have 15th-placed Norwich City at Carrow Road and have scored 18 goals at home, the same as bottom-of-the-table Fulham.

The pitch-side advertising hoardings urging fans to join a priority waiting list for season tickets will attract laughs, yet United will remain - by a distance - the best-supported team in Britain next season. Sales in the huge corporate sections in and around Old Trafford may not be so resilient. Success sells.

But this football under Moyes is not good enough, is it? Fans have hoped to see evidence of improvement since August, but the United that Moyes inherited were more feared then than now.

Chelsea were cautious at Old Trafford in August and, if they played in M16 tomorrow, they'd attack because they know they'd likely win against a United side short of confidence. And don't even mention the words "Manchester City". They are United's next home league opponents next Tuesday.

But first come Olympiakos on Wednesday night and a 2-0 first-leg defeat which must be reversed. The away shambles in Piraeus saw the biggest swing against the manager to date.

That was the night the moderates among the hardcore thought, "This is woeful. And it has cost me £500 to come to Greece to see the reality of how bad it is."

Things have been so poor that United needed a positive from these three home games against Liverpool, Olympiakos and City.

A positive means a decent performance, even a draw. Few fans expect United to go through against the Greeks and fewer still think their team will overcome City.

United haven't lost six games at Old Trafford since 2001-02, and you have to go back to 1973-74 - a season in which they were relegated - to find when United last lost seven league games at home in a season.

There are five home league games left, one of which is against City. Given the way the team is playing currently, would you bet against two opposing teams winning?

Support for Moyes from above is not absolute. The board knows he had a job to do, and Moyes will tell people that it was Ferguson who insisted on the six-year contract he was given because he also knew the size of the task faced by his successor.

If that's so, though, why did Ferguson tell fans after last season's title win that "we have a young squad, with a lot of good young players who are going to get better. The big test is to win it three times in a row. I hope the boys can do it."

Faith in Moyes from the decision-makers was rocked after the farce in Piraeus, and yesterday's humiliation compounded that. Meanwhile, do you think the players were all sweetness and nice in the dressing room after the match on Sunday? Not a chance.

Directors want Moyes to succeed and hope he will. Fans do, too, but they don't want any more of the "We're going to keep trying hard to win every game" comments. If you're the manager of Manchester United, that should be a given.

Every man has a breaking point, and for the majority, that point is now. After eight months of support and no sign of improvement, most fans have had enough.

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