An hour before Manchester United’s defeat at Brighton & Hove Albion last week, I spoke to Jose Mourinho, telling him that the travelling United fans were behind him. He said thanks. Twice.
United’s manager had barely mentioned supporters pre-season, despite frequent opportunities to do so. When he did, it was to say that if he was a fan he would not have paid to see his team on their tour to the United States. That didn’t go down well, especially with fans who had spent their hard-earned money on flights, accommodation and tickets. Or with the organisers for that matter. Mourinho backtracked, but it was the type of comment that made a rod for his back.
At Brighton, the fans did singhis name – at least before the three goals were shipped in a 19-minute capitulation. The Portuguese looked deeply unhappy after that match and remains under intense pressure following Monday's 3-0 home defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.
Mourinho is dealing with the scrutiny without his long time right-hand man Rui Faria, who left the club in the summer. Mourinho said the pressure he faces was nothing compared to real world problems, such as the Rohingya suffering in Myanmar, but it’s relative to him, and it shows.
Mourinho could have done more to get fans on side pre-season in the US. He had opportunities, but unlike Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp, who sat down with supporters, communicated and sang with them in Michigan, Mourinho instead scowled his way through the tour.
He sets the tone at the club because he is the most important man there. His praise of the players before the Brighton loss looked forced. Same with the adulation to the fans before the Tottenham defeat.
There is no current groundswell of opinion among United supporters at matches to sack Mourinho. That may change, and he is not as popular now as he was at the start of this year. An embarrassing elimination to Sevilla in the Uefa Champions League and a flat end to the Premier League season saw to that, but United fans are sick of managerial changes and the ensuing disruption it brings.
United fans know their team are no longer the best in England and the club's problems are not easily solved, but success in football is cyclical.
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Mourinho doesn’t always help himself. He was wrong to say that fans don’t consume newspapers and television, but a lot of journalists do despise him. Maybe it’s because the feeling is mutual.
Mourinho might be favourite to be the first Premier League manager to get the sack this season, but the club are still behind him. And so are United fans. United are only three games into the season and, despite not getting all the players he wanted in the summer, Mourinho still has a very good squad.
Those players have failed him in the last two matches, but the Tottenham performance was better than the one at Brighton – though using "better" in association with a 3-0 home defeat is disingenuous.
United haven’t lost two of their three opening league games since 1992/93, when they won the first Premier League. Few fans think that will happen this season, but they are not giving up on their manager or the team. And they won’t. Even when they were in the second division, in 1974/75, United were the best-supported team in England.
Mourinho stood in front of a half-empty Stretford End for nearly two minutes after Monday's final whistle, applauding those who had stuck by his team. Those fans are not stupid, they know that all isn’t well, but other fans would have booed their team off.
Mourinho needs those fans and they need him. At Real Madrid, he had the hardcore fans onside and it will do him no harm to create a siege mentality at United, just as Alex Ferguson did. It helps if there is unity from within the club - and there isn’t at present.
More than 85 per cent of United fans wanted Mourinho as manager two years ago and they need to stick by him. And if they want to look to history, Ferguson’s side finished 13th in his third full season in charge.
Four months after he arrived in Manchester, in an interview with United We Stand fanzine, Mourinho asked to be judged after three years at the helm. That was a long time in a world of increasingly short attention spans, but it is a realistic and sufficient time for him to do his job. And until those three years are up, he deserves United's backing.