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United Fans' banner is a sign of times

YOU CAN say what you like about Manchester United, although not, apparently, inside Old Trafford. As a peculiar and muted match neared what amounted to its climax, supporters in the Stretford End unfurled a banner that read: "Love United, Hate Glazer".

As soon as it appeared, orange-clad stewards were scrambling to bundle it up and usher it away. It felt like a snapshot of a club veering towards a fork in the road.

Alex Ferguson's team remain second in the table, a point behind Chelsea, having played a game more, but momentum is proving fickle. In their past eight games they have put 15 goals past Burnley, Wigan Athletic, Hull City and Wolverhampton Wanderers, lost to Aston Villa, Fulham and Leeds United, and drawn with Birmingham City.

It is an uncertain sequence, epitomised by a win over Burnley that offered snippets of alacrity and leaden defending, amid renewed concerns about the club's status off the field, where talk of glory and transfers is overshadowed by bond issues, debt consolidation and talk of selling the training ground. As Burnley keeper Brian Jensen, a lifelong United fan, put it: "It is a really strange season."


Jensen, an active participant when United lost 1-0 at Turf Moor last August, saw his team-mates muster and miss "three good chances to score before they took the lead". As the advantage was grasped and extended in the final third of the game, when Burnley's resilience dissipated, dissent towards United's American owners rippled down from the stands.

On the pitch, Ferguson has been hampered by injuries and suspensions -- Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Owen Hargreaves, Darren Fletcher and Ryan Giggs were among the illustrious absentees on Saturday -- and Dimitar Berbatov, who opened the scoring in adroit fashion, may require surgery on a lingering knee injury. Ferguson confirmed that a decision will be taken today.

None of it amounts to ideal preparation for a 13-day period in which United play a two-legged Carling Cup semi-final against Manchester City and Premier League matches against Hull and Arsenal.

"It was a funny game," Ferguson said. "We were very frivolous with our chances and they had breakaways when they were through on the keeper. It could have been embarrassing."

With Brian Laws marshalling events from the dugout for the first time, Burnley maintained their attacking policy, with Steven Fletcher and David Nugent wasting opportunities created on the break. The prevailing mood of the stadium, before militancy sneaked its way in, was deeply edgy, among players and supporters.

United's frailties were clear. "We felt that if we counter-attacked with pace, it has been evident in recent weeks that United have found that an issue," Laws said. "I've watched a few DVDs of their games and using good pace in the right areas has caused them problems. And it showed again today. At the moment what is surprising people is that they have been so open in recent weeks."

If Burnley can notice it, then so can others. While united have not dropped a point from any league match in which they have gone ahead, their attitude is more that of a bully than a champion: four of their five defeats have been suffered against sides in the top half of the division.

Goals from Wayne Rooney and, on his home debut as a substitute, Mame Biram Diouf resulted in a scoreline that Ferguson stated "might be a bit unfair on them but I don't think it is unjustly unfair". That mixed message was appropriate, although, at the other end of the pitch, the manager is hoping that the return of Edwin van der Sar will provide reassurance. "He was magnificent, unbelievable, what a performance," Ferguson said.

Burnley were spirited and unfortunate, but one point from 11 away fixtures is unsustainable. "We loosened the reins and got a bit gung-ho," Laws said.

"It's something I'd like to change within the team; that's how we are going to survive in this division."

© The Times, London