Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho finally takes a leaf out of Real Madrid and Chelsea time by winning hearts and minds

English Premier League victory at Burnley ends with away supporters serenading his ‘red and white army’ but why has he not tried harder sooner?

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 September, 2018, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 September, 2018, 2:01pm

Jose Mourinho has finally started to use what could be a great ally for him at Manchester United – the fans who support his team at matches. After Sunday’s must win English Premier League game at Burnley he went over to the 2,000 travelling fans, climbed over a fence and gave his jacket to a delighted youngster. Those fans, who had been singing ‘“Jose Mourinho’s red and white army” and the Portuguese’s name, enjoyed his gesture.

What is not to like when a leader embraces, not competition winners, not staff from the many sponsors, the well-connected or the rich and famous, but the rank and file support?

It’s a surprise it took him so long in Manchester, but he was unsure when he first arrived in 2016. He didn’t think it was appropriate to go to fans because he felt it should be the players who receive the applause. When he first approached United fans at Selhurst Park in December 2016, he quickly saw they wanted to salute their manager, too.

Still, for a man who enjoyed such a close relationship with Real Madrid’s hard-to-please ultras that they went onto the pitch to present a plaque to him in his final game, it has taken a while to become truly comfortable with United fans. In Madrid, fans sang his name long after he had left the club, despite him not being considered a legendary manager.

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Mourinho won one league title and one Spanish Cup (against Barca) in three seasons, but fans warmed to him. They felt he’d do everything he could to stop a brilliant Barca, probably the greatest football team ever.

At United, his comments about fans were hit and miss, like he was slightly out of tune with fan culture because, well, he had other priorities.

He would rightly criticise the Old Trafford atmosphere, then decline a chance to speak to fans hoping to improve it. In July, he questioned why fans had bought tickets to a preseason friendly, then backtracked.

Things can be said on the spur of the moment, but a manager sets the tone and in preseason he cut an unhappy figure. Fans saw that and it didn’t give them hope. It also gave the media a story which has run and run.

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However, while his team have stumbled, Mourinho has found his feet. His position will be much stronger if he has the match-going fans with him, and his players will feel the benefit. Mourinho, like Alex Ferguson, is at his best when creating a “me against the world” mentality. He just needs to expand the “me” to us and include the fans who are more than willing to back him.

They see him under pressure, being attacked and want to support him when detractors round on him, when bookmakers talk of him being the hot favourite to win the “sack race” as they did last week after United lost a second consecutive game.

However much it galls, fans are realistic and know there are no quick fixes to overhauling the huge gap to Manchester City. Possible replacements will be mentioned, but they’d want time and to bring in their own men, just like David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho did.

Changes are sometime unavoidable, but they don’t make a club more stable and if it means a few leaner years and losing some fans who were attracted to glory and nothing more, is that such a bad thing?

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Mourinho has a big fight on his hands, but he’s winning hearts and minds, be it saluting the Stretford End, mixing with fans at an under-23 game at Old Trafford on Friday evening or going into the away end at Burnley.

You don’t always see it from his media persona, but he’s actually very personable in real life and can have a good humour about him. And him speaking to fans is far less contrived than the flurry of tweets urging unity issued by United’s players last week.

So what if it’s part charm offensive? Fans pay good money to be charmed and feel appreciated. It’s better than seeing the manager look defeated and unhappy with life.

Many journalists don’t like Mourinho and the feeling is likely mutual. Mourinho has made it abundantly clear he believes the media make darlings of less successful managers like Mauricio Pochettino or Jurgen Klopp, but there’s no great agenda against United. It’s just that United happen to be the biggest story in world football and the highs and lows are always exaggerated.

Mourinho’s side now go into a two-week international break and the negative headlines that have swamped United’s seasonwould have snowballed if there hadn’t been a comfortable victory at Burnley.

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Thanks to two goals from Romelu Lukaku – his first league brace since his United debut – Mourinho got his much-needed win. Another bonus was a first clean sheet of the season – though Burnley were surprisingly poor

Mourinho has some very good players at United, though the sum of their parts is often disappointing and this United side isn’t close to being considered vintage. He’s got a tough job but it’ll be a lot easier if he feels he has the solid support of the fans as he did at Burnley on Sunday.