If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer didn’t know already how tough it is to be manager of Manchester United, he does now. Despite finishing second in the Premier League and preparing for the first final of his time in charge, he still looks like a man trying to hold the club together.
Caught between fans and owners while trying to end the season on a positive note is not an easy place to be, and he’ll be glad for a break over the summer, but only if his team can beat Villarreal in Gdansk on Wednesday to lift the Europa League trophy.
On the pitch, Solskjaer can point to progress after a relatively successful campaign, but for weeks, his news conferences have been dominated by questions about the business of football rather than the bit where his players actually kick the ball. One reporter’s query about Aston Villa a fortnight ago was greeted with a relieved “thank you” from the Norwegian.
The failed European Super League has triggered a fresh round of supporter protests aimed at the club’s owners, the Glazer family. There have been three large demonstrations at Old Trafford — one of which caused the postponement of the fixture with Liverpool, and another that tried and failed. The feeling among fans is that 16 years after the Glazers’ leveraged takeover, the time has come for direct action.
Images of the protest that eventually postponed the Liverpool fixture appeared chaotic, but in reality it was far more coordinated. While one group of fans surrounded the team’s base at the Lowry Hotel in Salford, another larger group was at Old Trafford. At exactly 2 p.m., two large fireworks were let off and fans surged through the line of security toward the only available entrance into Old Trafford and out onto the pitch.
It’s easy to assume the supporters who broke into the stadium on May 2 were young men full of alcohol looking for trouble after 14 months stuck in a pandemic, but it’s not all true. Two of the men who congregated at the gate on John Gilbert Way after making it onto the pitch were men in their 60s who’ve been watching United since the 1970s. They were back in the same spot for the rearranged game with Liverpool, when supporters tried to stop the visitors’ bus from making it to the stadium, only to be out-foxed by police who brought the coach through a back entrance.
Mark Ogden explains how the Glazer family’s ownership is keeping Manchester United from being as successful as their rivals at Manchester City.
Not all United fans are on the same page, of course. There are sections of the support who believe the best way to oust the Glazers is to starve them of income and want a full boycott of tickets, merchandise and sponsors. When the UK government allowed 10,000 supporters back into Old Trafford for the fixture with Fulham — the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic — there were fears of clashes between those who wanted to attend and those who felt buying a ticket was counter-productive.
On the morning of the game, Ian Stirling, Independent Supporter Liaison officer for the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, put out an appeal on social media. “Respect the decision of fans who want to attend the match,” he wrote. “There should be no confrontation. Let’s stay United.”
At one point during a protest on the plaza in front of the East Stand, a couple of fans were caught arguing about why one had brought along his son, who was wearing an official United shirt bought from the club’s megastore. His answer was that it was hard to explain to a seven-year-old why a takeover built on a mountain of debt meant he couldn’t have Rashford 10 on his back. It’s not always easy to turn your back on your football club even if you don’t like the way it’s run.
For some, Joel Glazer’s decision to attend a virtual fans’ forum on June 4 is a sign of progress, but there are concerns the event will be heavily sanitised, with the club asking for questions well in advance.
Hundreds of fans who were central to the anti-Glazer protest before the Liverpool game are preparing to give up time and money to follow the team to Gdansk for the Europa League final. With Poland on the UK government’s list of amber countries under their “traffic light” system of foreign travel, supporters making the trip will have to spend hundreds of pounds of COVID-19 tests on top of the cost of flights and accommodation. Around 2,000 United fans have secured tickets, but many more are expected to make the trip, which is costing some as much as $2,900 (£2,000). Many fans will only be in the country for 24 hours, but will still be required to quarantine at home for 10 days upon their return to Manchester.
Being locked inside for more than a week will be palatable if there’s a European trophy to celebrate, while victory at Stadion Miejski on Wednesday night will also put more credit in the bank for Solskjaer as he looks to take United another step forward next season.
There is a feeling among fans that the Glazers are only willing to invest heavily in the squad once United have fallen out of the Champions League, but Solskjaer has already started to pressure the money men. Players like Jadon Sancho, Raphael Varane and Harry Kane are on his wishlist, but they will not come cheap.
“We’re planning as we normally do, we have [been], it’s not like ‘oh it’s the end of the season and let’s see what we do… that’s an ongoing process and I hope that we’re going to strengthen with a few,” said Solskjaer a week before the final. “[We definitely need] two or three players… to challenge higher up in the table. We’re still too far behind to think it is just going to come by itself.”
Even in the most important week of the season, the push for a better future continues. While Solskjaer aims to improve the team on the pitch, the fans are still hopeful of forcing change off it.