David Sneyd: 'United struggling not to become divided'
Supporters at Old Trafford are increasingly on edge with boardroom decisions and player commitment under scrutiny
Walk briskly from Old Trafford's Stretford End, over the railway bridge, alongside the mix of red brick terraced and semi-detached houses, and it should take you roughly four minutes to reach the Bishop Blaize pub. It heaves with Manchester United supporters for hours before kick-off and seems to have a permanent queue of punters from far and wide.
Directly across the road is an unofficial merchandise stall manned by Sian – she'd prefer not to say how long she has been stationed here – while a little further down is The Railway Club.
It's £2 in and if you think of causing trouble you will have Bob to deal with. He's the pensioner bouncer with a white fedora, red waistcoat, tie and socks all with a Manchester United crest. Only his smile shines brighter than his gleaming red brogues.
Inside, three local women sit by the end of a covered snooker table sharing a bottle of white wine – canvas prints of Eric Cantona's kung fu kick and Alex Ferguson hang above them – while Francis and Alice, a husband and wife from Singapore visiting their daughter in England, stand at the other end having decided against spending £300 each to a tout for a match ticket.
Nearby, the boot of a grey hatchback is popped and a dozen or so brown boxes are piled up. They contain copies of the fanzine United We Stand, and the head of operations is Ant – a very formal title for a job he has volunteered to do for the last decade.
Several different sellers arrive to collect their boxes and head for their various patches surrounding Old Trafford. All bases are covered, as they have been over the past 30 years since the football journalist, and United supporter, Andy Mitten, founded the fanzine.
"What we try and do is gauge the mood by talking to people, we're at games, we travel, we meet people, we're always there," Mitten says.
"Manchester United are on a knife-edge right now. If the season starts well, with young players impressing and others working hard, then fans will think it is great, that Solskjaer is doing it the right way and the club have learned from the mistakes of buying overpriced mercenaries. If it doesn't there will be real-life dissent, not just online where people can hide behind social media."
The toxic nature of it has come to the fore with numerous examples of racist abuse directed at Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, most prominently on Twitter.
The 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Saturday, in which Rashford missed a penalty, was the catalyst for even more and it led to Pogba taking to his own social media accounts to rally against those who preach hate.
Outlets like 'United We Stand', and the other long-standing fanzine, 'Red News', are a crucial barometer of what is happening on the ground, the fight for the soul of the club and the issues which matter to match-going supporter, as opposed to the Twitter troll.
The 'United We Stand' podcast is also the most popular for supporters, averaging 21,000 downloads, but it is by no means a place Pogba and Rashford will find sanctuary from criticism. Like the pages of the fanzine, the commentary can be witheringly acerbic.
"I don't agree with everything on the podcast or in the mag," Mitten says. "But I have no problem printing it, I'm not going to get blown off course by bluster online."
On the opening day of the Premier League season, when United faced Chelsea, the mood on the ground was a mixture of anticipation and lingering resentment towards the players at the manner in which they downed tools for the final few months of the previous campaign - culminating in a turgid defeat to relegated Cardiff City on the final afternoon.
Mitten summed it up on the cover of the summer edition with the tagline 'No More Heroes Anymore' emblazoned across it.
"I think we'll win every game," Phil Walsh, a season ticket holder in his 60s who sits behind the goal in the East Stand, says. "And I think we'll lose every game," his son, Philip, who sits alongside him, adds.
'United We Stand' has been available in Eason since 1998, 10 per cent of its total readership - both in print and the recently introduced digital sub - is on the island of Ireland while Dublin has the third-highest number of listeners of the podcast behind Manchester and London.
Luke Byrne, the former Shamrock Rovers full-back now with Shelbourne, is one of those. "I love it, I absolutely love it," he says.
"I have a red box in my wardrobe at home overflowing with copies of 'UWS', my dad started me on it and got a subscription. I listen to every podcast. It's real, there is pure honesty there, you feel like you're there listening to them when they're on the side of the street before and after. When you can't get over as much as you would like it feels like the next best thing sometimes."
Byrne fell foul of some at Rovers by being so open, one club official reprimanding him for expressing his allegiances to United, while St Patrick's Athletic defender Dave Webster is another who has no qualms about travelling over to games, both home and away. Like so many others, he started with his father and is now part of a group of between 30-40 from Dublin who share tickets.
"I love it, it's part of who I am since I grew up and that's not going to change," he insists, although with his first child due at the of this month he is willing to take a brief sabbatical.
"Ah, hopefully I'll manage to get over after Christmas," Webster adds with a laugh. What the mood will be around Old Trafford is anyone's guess after a win, draw and defeat from their first three games.
"It's unprecedented really not knowing how it will go," Mitten continues. "It's fascinating because being brilliant became boring. You knew that Manchester United would win 17 out of 19 home games and a lot of fans became spoilt rotten by that success."
Mediocrity is bringing out the worst online but, on the front line, 'United We Stand' continues to thrive.