Sunday 22 April 2018

Mockery at Old Trafford is surely a tipping point for hapless Louis van Gaal

Louis van Gaal's Manchester United edged past Sheffield United
Louis van Gaal's Manchester United edged past Sheffield United

Tim Rich

On Monday afternoon, Louis van Gaal will give a press conference in the Jimmy Murphy Building, a part of the Carrington training complex named after the man who took a Manchester United side ruined by death and tragedy to an FA Cup final.

That a team composed of the men who had survived and been scarred by the Munich disaster, supported by youth-team footballers and players drafted in from Bishop Auckland, should have completed the 1957-58 season was one thing. That they should have fought their way through to Wembley was quite another.

Matt Busby’s assistant was not a man to give press conferences, but it is unlikely Murphy would have stressed how difficult it is to break down a lower-league team when they put 10 men behind the ball as Van Gaal did after the turgid 1-0 win over Sheffield United on Saturday night.

Old Trafford has seen some lows this season – the goalless draw against PSV Eindhoven, the 2-1 defeat to Norwich – but this was the nadir. When, in the 66th minute of a desperate match, Memphis Depay loosed off United’s first shot in anger, which struck the advertising boards on the Stretford End, the whole ground echoed to jeers and laughter. Football clubs, like dictatorships, can stand being hated, but not being mocked.

United may have reached a tipping point. Tickets for Old Trafford are now very easy to come by. Failure to qualify for the Champions League in 2013-14 wiped out the club’s profits in 2015 and United cannot afford a repetition.

Also, if Paul Scholes’ views, that the football Van Gaal purveys is alien to Manchester United, are anything like those of his friend Ryan Giggs, then there is a deep gulf between United’s manager and his assistant.

The club’s shirt manufacturer, Adidas, has already expressed its disquiet and as the rain pounded down on Old Trafford on Saturday, you wondered if the club’s official snack partner, Mister Potato (very big in Malaysia), might issue a statement. There is a serious point to this. The club may not have won a trophy since Alex Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 but it has expanded its sponsorship revenue to £159m. However, if you ask for millions, your product had better be good because if every Chevrolet is as bland and unresponsive and every mouthful of Nissin noodles as tasteless as Manchester United’s football, there will be trouble.

For the 10th successive home match, the team walked off to the strains of “Glory, Glory Man United” at half-time without having scored a goal. Their last before the interval, scored against Wolfsburg on 30 September, had been a penalty.

Eleven years ago, after a goalless draw against Exeter at Old Trafford, Ferguson had apologised to those who had paid to watch and remarked: “In my 18 years at the club, this was the worst performance in the FA Cup – ever.” United went on to reach the final.

Van Gaal did not go that far, although he acknowledged his side had needed width to break down Sheffield United and that Juan Mata and Matteo Darmian had been utterly unable to provide it. Significantly, when asked how he felt when Marouane Fellaini had been jeered as he was substituted, Van Gaal said that this kind of pressure comes with playing at Old Trafford “and the same is true when you manage Manchester United”.

It was an acknowledgement that his walkout from a press conference just before the Boxing Day defeat at Stoke – “How do you think my wife feels, how do you think my children or my grandchildren feel? Enjoy your mince pies” – had been wrong. It had given the impression Van Gaal could not cope – and Van Gaal always believes he can cope. Now, however, even he must wonder.

Independent News Service

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