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FOOTBALL'S FRONT LINES

Are the Premier League’s most dominant club beginning to fear relegation?

The chasm between Man United and their great rivals Liverpool is the largest it’s been for decades.

United still boast the biggest global following of any UK team, while their rivalry with Reds – their north-west neighbours that reside just 50 miles away – remains the most famous match in English football.

But heading into the weekend’s game at Old Trafford, the trajectory of the two teams couldn’t have been more different.

Liverpool currently sit top of the Premier League table and, prior to the match, had won their first eight games, while United were hovering precariously around the relegation places following their embarrassing defeat to Newcastle in their last fixture.

Collectively, the Red Devils are a far cry from the side that dominated during the 90s and 00s under Sir Alex Ferguson.

So what on earth has happened to the side that were once so imperious?

The glory days feel like a long time ago for United fans

Getty Images - Getty
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The glory days feel like a long time ago for United fans

We visited Old Trafford as part of our Football’s Front Lines series for the biggest match this country has to offer.

Far from being a title-decider, many United fans feared defeat to Liverpool would drop them down to 17th in the table — just a place above the dreaded relegation zone.

The worry of finishing in the bottom half of the table seemed almost unthinkable for United fans not long ago, but on current form it’s arguably a more realistic concern than qualification for the Champions League.

Ahead of kick-off at the Theatre of Dreams, United fans were preparing themselves for a nightmare.

Tension in the air ahead of kick-off

Reuters
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Tension in the air ahead of kick-off

We spoke to Harry Robinson outside the stadium, a writer for United In Focus and host of the Man United Weekly podcast, to understand United’s fall from grace from a match-going fan’s perspective.

He told us his first trip to this famous stadium came all the way back in 2007, when United faced Roma in their famous 7-1 thrashing of the Italian side.

“Even looking back at 2007,” he told us. “There was signs within about two years afterwards that United were on the way down when they replaced Cristiano Ronaldo with Gabriel Obertan, Antonio Valencia and Michael Owen.”

Since Fergie’s retirement, replacing the brilliance of the club’s longest serving and most successful manager has perhaps been the greatest difficulty a club has faced in the Premier League era.

David Moyes – Ferguson’s hand-picked successor – quickly proved to be nowhere near up to the task, while Louis Van Gaal and Jose Mourinho enjoyed fleeting success but ultimately failed to appease the expectant fan base.

Now under the management of club legend Ole Gunnar Solksjaer, things appear to be worse than ever.

Harry says: “Fergie was able to paper over the cracks, but since he’s gone we’ve seen the likes of Van Gaal and Mourinho do the same, while Solksjaer – as a manager – along with Moyes, have both exposed the mismanagement of the club.”

Harry Robinson before kick-off on Saturday

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Harry Robinson before kick-off on Saturday

While many believe Solksjaer is not up to the standard you’d expect of a United manager, the club’s current plight is far from being his fault alone.

Ahead of kick-off, angry United fans held a protest against the Glazer family and their bumbling chief-executive Ed Woodward, with supporters marching to Old Trafford from the Tollgate pub in Manchester with a banner saying: “Glazers Out. Woodward Out. Over £1b stolen from MUFC.”

Harry explained to us that the club is currently paying the price for years of mismanagement from their nefarious owners Joel and Avram Glazer, as well as the transfer dealings and general decision-making of Woodward.

“There’s things you can criticise Solksjaer for and there’s a lot of things you can criticise the players for,” he said. “But the root of the issue comes from the top of the club with the Glazers, and more particularly Woodward.”

“We’ve seen with the Glazers that their lack of investment could be managed by somebody like Ferguson and [former CEO] David Gill, but now we’ve got Woodward who’s a banker with no knowledge of football come into the club and transformed it into a commercial superpower.

“But he can’t paper of the cracks of the Glazer’s lack of investment in the football club.“

A protest against the Glazers is nothing new

PA:Press Association
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A protest against the Glazers is nothing new

United could soon be free from the Glazers’ clutches though, as recent reports have linked the club with a takeover bid from Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

But this is far from being a desirable outcome for United fans, as many believe the club shouldn’t sacrifice their morals for a chance at financial domination.

“There’s many different issues with the Glazers and there’s an incredible amount of hatred towards them from United fans,” Harry said.

“But from my point of view – and view of plenty of match-going fans that I know – is that there could not be anyone worse than Saudis as United new owners.”

For many fans, the thought of being financially secure beyond the club’s wildest dreams is not worth dancing with the devil.

“As much as it would improve the success on the pitch, we’ve spent the last 11 years talking about Man City and their owners from the Middle East having a terrible human rights record – the same with PSG – and while they’ve done plenty of good things in the city of Manchester, it’s all there just to cover up the awful things they do in their own country,” Harry tells us.

“I think as a fan I couldn’t personally come to United games anymore or support the club in the same way, knowing the human rights record of the potential buyers.”

Ed Woodward (left) standing with Avram Glazer

Getty - Contributor
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Ed Woodward (left) standing with Avram Glazer

While there’s continuing animosity from fans towards the club’s owners, there’s definitely mixed feelings on Solskjaer.

“As a player, he was always the club legend, the treble winner, the Baby-Faced Assassin… but I think his reputation has been tarnished for a lot of supporters,” Harry explained.

“But for the United fans who will be inside Old Trafford today, and the ones that go to games every week, we’ve seen Solksjaer come up to us at the end of a game, applaud the fans in a way that previous managers and players forget to do.”

You certainly get the sense that Solskjaer is doing his best despite the limited backing from the owners, the lack of quality in his squad, and his own shortcomings as a high-level manager.

In fact, the general feeling is that the likeable Norwegian has been ‘set up to fail’ by the club’s higher powers, possibly to provide a distraction to growing list of off-field issues.

Conspiracy theories will always be prominent in football, but this one certainly holds some tenability.

Ole’s appointment hasn’t exactly gone to plan

Times Newspapers Ltd
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Ole’s appointment hasn’t exactly gone to plan

But the truth is, recent results have not backed-up United’s decision to offer Solskjaer the manager’s role on a permanent basis back in March – another poor footballing decision from Woodward – but has the media’s portrayal of United’s woes been an over-reaction?

“I don’t want to say people have been over-reacting, because our recent form has been atrocious,” Harry said.

“It’s relegation form and it goes back to last season, since the win over Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League.

“But I think you can condemn the abuse that has been directed towards Solksjaer from so-called United fans, because at the end of the day he’s trying to do what’s best for the club and there are so many other issues.

“We’ve seen with some of the best managers in the world at this football club – including Mourinho – fail here, so I think people need to be more patient.”

Mourinho failed to turn things around at United

Reuters
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Mourinho failed to turn things around at United

But with things going so badly for the club right now, are fans concerned with the possibility of relegation?

“The sense you get from the club at the moment is that they will stick with Solksjaer, even if we’re mid-table by Christmas,” Harry said.

“If United were anywhere near a relegation battle by April then I can’t see him still being the manager.”

The club were last relegated during the 1973-74 season when they finished in 21st, while their lowest finish in the Premier League is seventh during the 2013-14 season under Moyes – the season after Ferguson’s departure.

The talk of relegation still seems far-fetched to fans like Harry, but he admits it’s something he’s pondered.

“The phrase in the 70s was ‘they’re too good to go down’, and to be honest I do think we’re too good to go down now,” he said. “Sure, there’s an element of fear there, but I can’t see it happening at all.”

Famous last words?


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