When Jose Mourinho was sacked by Manchester United we were 6th in the table and 19 points behind Liverpool. Sadly, it wasn’t even the distance between us and first place that was so alarming, but how close we were to the teams below us.
We had won just seven out of 17 games and were on 26 points. Wolves were below us on 25 points, then West Ham, Watford and Everton on 24, Bournemouth 23, Leicester 22 and Bournemouth 21. We were a couple of weeks away from being in the bottom half of the table, having won one of our last six league games, losing three.
In our first 10 league games with then interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskaer, we won eight and drew two. One draw was a 0-0 against Liverpool and the other was 2-2 against Burnley, when, with three minutes left to play, we were losing 2-0.
There was no need to give Solskjaer the permanent job during that season, with the board seemingly swept away in the same wave as fans, and when our form took a dip in the final weeks of the campaign you had to wonder whether it was the right decision. The sensible move would have been to wait until the summer, evaluate the season, look at who else was available and then make a judgement. But we know all too well that our owners don’t have it in them to behave sensibly.
Over the past two years, there have been several occasions when the appointment has been questioned, often hyped by a media who know they have to write about United for clicks and sales, and some of the criticism our manager has faced has been unfair.
If you’re a glass half full kind of person, you’ll look at the fact we reached three semi-finals while climbing up three positions in the league as clear progress. Despite the extra games in cup competitions, we proved to be the best of the rest during a campaign where Liverpool and City sadly dominated. If you’re half empty, you’ll argue Solskjaer doesn’t instil the mentality required to clear the final hurdle and haven’t progressed during his two years in charge. Jose Mourinho won two trophies in his first year, sacrificing our league finish as a result, then finished 2nd, a whopping 19 points City, in his final full season.
While people could widely recognise that Solskjaer did well take us from 6th to 3rd last season, the supporters, pundits and journalists who had lingering doubts over the Norwegian loved United’s start to the 2020-21 campaign. It was quickly swept under the rug that we’d gone without any pre-season preparation, something clubs have relied upon for decades, and our slow start was blamed solely on the manager. Widely derided as a “PE teacher” on social media, while other newbies to Premier League management like Marco Bielsa, Frank Lampard and Mikel Arteta were largely hailed, it was only a few weeks ago that the media claimed Solskjaer had lost the dressing room and should be sacked.
Bielsa was outthought by Solskjaer and was battered 6-2 at Old Trafford this month. Lampard’s team are currently four points behind despite playing a game more and Arteta’s side are 10 points behind with a game more played. That’s before we consider that Solskjaer’s side beat both Pep and Frank’s sides on three occasions last season.
United’s performance in the Champions League didn’t do much to support the argument Solskjaer was in the right job. After surprising victories against PSG and RB Leipzig it looked as though he was set up perfectly for progression in to the next round. But we fucked it up. I suppose this is what happens when you have a massively inexperienced manager learning on the job. But that doesn’t mean that vastly experienced managers can’t fall to the same fate against much worse clubs.
In 2005-06, United finished bottom of a Champions League group which contained Villarreal (who finished 7th in La Liga that season), Benfica (who finished 3rd in Portugal) and Lille (who finished 3rd in Ligue 1). Of course, Sir Alex Ferguson had done more than enough to deserve patience and so this isn’t a comparison of the job the two managers have done. Nobody will get close to Fergie in football management in general, let alone at United, but even the very best of all-time can get it wrong, so Ole shouldn’t be written off for finishing 3rd in a group that contains last year’s finalists and semi-finalists. Solskjaer should have beaten the Turkish side in that third game. The amateur nation of Demba Ba’s goal will be remembered forever and the manager has to take accountability. But most players at U-13 level would have prevented that first goal.
However, whichever side of the fence you’ve been on up until this point, it’s hard to deny that Solskjaer is getting it right this season, even without a pre-season. Our final game of 2020, a 1-0 win over Wolves, saw us climb up to 2nd in the league, just two points behind current champions Liverpool. Leicester, having played a game more, are one point behind, as are Everton on the same games. If United win their game in hand, we’re on the same points as Jurgen Klopp’s side.
Before this season, I’ve never had to hear too much about the opinions of football fans who only exist on social media. I’m not suggesting that if you’ve never been to Old Trafford you’re not a fan. I get there are plenty of people around the world who get themselves out of bed at all sorts of ridiculous times to watch United play on streams or foreign channels. People setting an alarm for 4am to watch the football David Moyes, Louis van Gaal or Jose Mourinho oversaw deserve a medal. I’ve had to do it on a few occasions, when on holiday during the summer for the start of the season, and have the upmost respect for reds who live their lives like this.
That said, there are so many bizarre people online, who dedicate their lives to an #OleOut campaign that I just can’t fathom. When the ground was open, I didn’t see their immediate post-match reactions to our games. Maybe they’ve always been there, hoping to see the team they “support” lose (so that Mauricio Pochettino or some other manager who’s never, ever won a single trophy in their career can take over) but maybe their voices have become amplified during a strange period for football. From talking to the fans who sit around me in the ground, who are talkative on the concourse or drink where I do before kick-off, I’ve never heard anything like the staunchly critical takes on Ole you get online, and you have to remember the last time I was around these people was when we were 5th in the league, three points behind Chelsea and five points behind Leicester (who had a game in hand).
I’ve oft been criticised for giving more time and support to academy graduates when they were struggling. If someone is shit, I won’t say otherwise just because they came up through the ranks, but if someone shows potential and is one of our own I’m not so quick to get on their back. I know there are plenty of fans like me, and each to their own, but I never understand how fans have more patience for an expensive signing who couldn’t give a shit less about the club than someone who has grown up dreaming of scoring in front of the Stretford End.
The same logic applies to Solskjaer for me. One of the best moments of my life, and certainly the best moment following football, came when Solskjaer poked the ball over the line against Bayern Munich at the Nou Camp in 1999. If we lost all the time, if we were always beaten by our rivals, if the players looked unhappy or if the football was boring, I wouldn’t defend him just because he won us the European Cup. Just like I don’t indefinitely defend academy graduates who show they’re not good enough. But for as long as Ole shows promise, I’ll support him.
2020 has been a very strange year. It’s been tough. Football has often been a distraction and a highlight as time moves by slowly. Solskjaer is not a world-class manager. He has a CV that means no other big club would have looked twice at him before United appointed him permanently. But in 2020, he’s done a fantastic job for us. We’ve beaten teams that we hate, we’ve climbed up in the table, we’ve picked up more points per game than any other in the Premier League, and the players look like they want to be here. Sadly, in a way that we didn’t witness under Fergie, we’ve seen our lads down tools for previous managers. That hasn’t happened here. They want to play for this club and they want to play for Ole. We’ve seen Bruno Fernandes storm his way in to being arguably the most important player in the league. Marcus Rashford has done amazing things, on and off the field. Edinson Cavani has been gifted the most iconic chant of all time as he looks to be a great presence in the dressing room for us. We got behind so often and yet still play to the final whistle and go on to win when no one would’ve backed us to.
But whatever happens in 2021, United are in a better position, both in terms of the football we play and the unity in the squad, than we’ve ever been post-Fergie. We have to win a trophy next year and continue to do well in the league. But this has been a good year on the pitch for United fans, whatever the press or social media would have you believe, and we are right to hope and believe that next year will be even better.