While Liverpool supporters were bouncing around Wembley expressing their joy before their team’s 3-2 FA Cup semi-final victory over Manchester City, about 1,000 United diehards were marching at Old Trafford. They remained outside the game against Norwich City until the 17th minute to protest against the Glazers’ 17 years of ownership. They did not like what they saw once they took up their seats. Norwich, rock bottom of the Premier League, were the equal of the hosts for long periods and it took a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick to give United the points in the 3-2 win.
It was not much consolation as a warm-up for Anfield. Ralf Rangnick’s team are chasing the top four. Liverpool are hunting down a quadruple.
Demonstrations against the Glazers are nothing new. They were bubbling away 15 years ago, when Liverpool fans were conducting their own protests against George Gillett and Tom Hicks. Liverpool got lucky when their leveraged-buyout Americans ran out of money. The Glazers milked United – and continue to do so – and managed to hang on.
Things went quiet at Old Trafford as Alex Ferguson brought home five titles and a Champions League trophy. The only conclusion can be that most fans were happy enough with the Glazers as long as they were delivering silverware.
But make no mistake, the root of United’s malaise is down to the owners. Their way of doing things has fundamental flaws. Ferguson’s genius carried them through the first half of their tenure. The decline since then has been down to the Americans and their lieutenants as much as the players and managers.
Jurgen Klopp’s experience when United attempted to recruit him eight years ago illustrates what is wrong at Old Trafford. Ed Woodward, the deeply unimpressive former executive vice-chairman, tried to sell the job to the German by describing the environment as being like “an adult version of Disneyland.” Klopp, a man who knows the smell of bulls**t when it reaches his nostrils, found the notion offputting. Little more than a year later he took up his position at Anfield.
Football needs hard realism, not Magic Kingdom superficiality. Last summer, United signed Jadon Sancho for £73 million from Borussia Dortmund. It made sense to buy the talented 21-year-old winger, whose room for improvement appeared boundless.
Yet, in a move that only made sense in a world where fantastical dreams come true, the club could not resist bringing Ronaldo back to Old Trafford. The fans celebrated the return of the 36-year-old, who became the instant centre of attention on and off the pitch. Any illusion of coherent planning went out the window.
So here United are, an outside bet for the top four and so dysfunctional that their last two results have been a 1-0 defeat to the worst Everton side of the 21st century and a somewhat fortunate victory over doomed Norwich.
Not so long ago United inspired fear and spite when they arrived at Anfield. No Kopite is in terror of them tonight. It’s much worse than that. Liverpool fans are laughing at United rather than loathing them.
Money will not cure Old Trafford’s ills. They have spent more than City over the past five seasons. Nor will a new manager, at least not in the short term.
Erik ten Hag will be saddled with a handful of unsellable players on big wages. That will make it difficult to change the dressing-room culture. United have slipped down the pecking order for transfer targets, too. City and Liverpool are much more attractive destinations. There is no quick route to competitiveness.
The fans are right to place this at the door of the Glazers. Being correct is no consolation.
The last time United played Liverpool they were torn apart. Klopp’s team won 5-0 at Old Trafford and it could have been a bigger margin. Another humiliation tonight will deepen the gloom and anger across the fanbase.
The most painful thing for United supporters in the away end is that it is inconceivable that their club can compete with Liverpool and City without a protracted overhaul and a complete change of mindset in the boardroom.
The closest they can come to Klopp’s team is in their imagination.