Thursday 18 January 2018

Stephen Hunt: Fans will always look for a convenient scapegoat

Marouane Fellaini has shown it's possible to win supporters back
Marouane Fellaini has shown it's possible to win supporters back
Stephen Hunt

Stephen Hunt

When I romanticise the story, I see myself like John McClane in Die Hard 2 during the scene where the air traffic controller tells him, "You're the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time" and McClane replies: "Story of my life."

It was during an unhappy spell at Wolves. We were losing at home to Watford and the club was in a mess. We were in the bottom three in the Championship and on our way to a second successive relegation. So when I say I intervened, I did but I couldn't say it made a whole lot of difference, as if Bruce Willis went to all that trouble and the terrorists got away and the planes went down anyway. Anyway, sometimes you've got to take a stand.

I was coming back from injury and I got taken off after an hour (for once the cliché "called ashore" might be apt. I was out there on stormy seas and dry land beckoned). As I came off, the crowd booed. I hadn't known this before in my career so maybe that's what encouraged me to respond.

Some players go through a whole career with the crowd on their backs and the brief times that they don't is a temporary respite. I've been lucky I suppose, although I think the supporters of the clubs I've played for knew I always gave everything.

I showed some restraint coming off when they started to boo. I wanted to react but I did nothing. Later, though, I talked to the press and said the crowd weren't helping, that we needed them behind us if things were to change.

It's always a risk when you criticise supporters because you are singling yourself out. We then had a team meeting with the chairman. He said a few things I didn't agree with and I felt I had to do something. I had already questioned the fans so I might as well query my boss as well. I stood up and said the players were trying and he needed to understand that.

Wolves were a club trying to correct some past mistakes and it was probably too late to make any difference when I said my bit.

When the supporters turned on me, I was just a convenient scapegoat and sometimes the fans need one of those. They take a player and exaggerate his contribution or his lack of a contribution. Everything he does is wrong and it's very hard to recover from.

I've seen it in teams we've played. I remember beating West Ham 6-0 when I was at Reading. I scored my first Premier League goal that day but I remember other moments almost as clearly. You could hear how the West Ham fans had turned on their players. It gave us confidence because you know that every mistake is destroying whatever little bit of confidence your opponents have. You become more eager to close them down, you start hunting in packs, everybody has a spring in their step because the other side are playing with lead in their boots.

You could see the same happened to teams when they played Manchester United last season and you could see that the man who was being made the scapegoat was Marouane Fellaini. I look at what he went through last year and I think I understand but I'm not sure I really can fully grasp it. Professionals like to think they know how other professionals feel but maybe it's different at Manchester United.

To play for Manchester United - the biggest club in the world - is to understand that everything you do will be scrutinised by fans around the world. When things are going wrong, as they were for him and for David Moyes last season, it's something that must be hard to forget about.

Fellaini played as if it was always on his mind. He represented everything that was wrong with what Moyes was doing to the club. Moyes wanted a team to be direct and to put in crosses and Fellaini was seen as the man brought in to deliver that and, in doing so, violate all that was sacred about Manchester United. Fellaini could do no right and it clearly got to him.

I'm amazed at how he has fought back this season, especially as I don't think he is the type of midfielder you would expect to see in a Manchester United midfield.

In recent months, he has played as he once did for Moyes, but at Everton not United. Fellaini has been helped by the backing he has received from Louis van Gaal. This is critical. It has helped that he's not Van Gaal's player so the supporters don't think he's simply justifying one of his own signings but instead begin to see some merit in him.

The way Manchester United have used him has been straightforward. It was significant last week that in the absence of Michael Carrick, Wayne Rooney dropped into midfield. Fellaini is a midfielder but a manager like Van Gaal would never think of asking him to drop deep and start off play. He's not equipped for that which is why I don't think he has a long-term future at United but, for now, he is their most effective player, a man who gets things done and is in the right place at the right time.

At the moment, Manchester United need that more than anything.

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