The last Manchester United player to leave the Old Trafford pitch was Casemiro. He waved to the crowd to thank them for their support. Erik ten Hag, the manager, had already departed the scene, and in ordinary circumstances that would have been the cue for everyone to start heading away.
Yet these were not ordinary circumstances.
Banners were being unfurled. The mood was changing and, on all four sides of the ground, people were getting into position. Nobody of their shared mindset was leaving. Not yet, anyway.
Maybe it sums up the modern United that, on the day their crowd staged a sit-in protest against the club’s owners, the supporters were put through all sorts of contrasting emotions.
They had seen their team go two goals down, inside four minutes, to a side who had the worst away record in the top four divisions of English football last season. They had heard the cries of “Olé!” from the end housing Nottingham Forest’s exultant supporters. Another Saturday afternoon was turning into an ordeal before a comeback was set in motion and the game turned upside down.
Even then, it ended with an anxious home crowd whistling for referee Stuart Attwell to blow for full-time against opponents who, now losing 3-2 and down to 10 men for the final 25 minutes or so, were pushing forward in the hope there might be one final twist.
And so, as Ten Hag arrived for his post-match interviews in a media suite lined with pictures of better times for United, a sizeable number of their fans were getting in place outside for the first protest of this nature witnessed at Old Trafford in its 113 years of existence.
“Now is a window of opportunity,” read the call to arms from The 1958, the fans’ organisation that had choreographed this protest against the Glazer family. “Now is a time to be counted. Now is a time to make a difference. History, dignity, integrity … they stole it all.”
These are not the words that would usually be associated with a happy result for the 20-time champions of England and an afternoon of high drama and incident that finished with their manager pumping his fists towards the crowd in celebration.
But it would be missing the point entirely to think the outcome of one match was going to prevent thousands of people making their views clear about something that has been an issue for approaching 20 years.
Today’s protest had been planned over several weeks. It lasted an hour and the objectives were clear.
“We need to make the brand as toxic as we can,” explained The 1958’s Matt (The group decided in its infancy not to be identified by full names). “People need to know this fanbase isn’t happy. We have tried our best to do that, legally and peacefully, and when the fans are angry that’s when they are most likely to try to do something about it.”
These supporters have been angry for longer than they would probably wish to remember. They have been angry, furious even, about the mountains of debt that have been accrued under the Glazers’ ownership since 2005, the arrogant silence from the top of the club and everything that came out two years ago during the plans for a breakaway European Super League.
In the process, they have also seen neighbours Manchester City change the global football landscape. In the 10 years since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement as their manager, United have not put together a single lasting or meaningful Premier League title challenge. Close analysis of their latest win would show, yet again, why it would be a considerable leap of faith to believe this team ought to have genuine aspirations of ending that drought.
Don’t fall into the trap, however, of thinking that this is the reason why the volume has been turned up against the Glazers and why, amid unprecedented scenes, large swathes of fans from all over the stadium started migrating towards the Stretford End at full-time against Forest to find strength in numbers.
The protests — most notably, the green-and-gold movement — have been going on since the Glazers took control. Even when United were accumulating more and more trophies under Ferguson, reaching Champions League finals and playing at a substantially higher level than today’s team are capable of, the backdrop has been anti-Glazer activity.
To a younger generation of United fans, it is all they have really known.
A huge banner stretched along the railings of Sir Matt Busby Way outside the ground carried the words: “Fight Greed, Fight for United, Fight Glazer.” Inside Old Trafford, there was another: “We Want our Club Back — Some Things are Worth Fighting For.”
The first chant of the afternoon was directed towards the owners. There were green and gold balloons, as a throwback to the times on Ferguson’s watch when United’s supporters abandoned their traditional red and white colours. And the latest editorial of Red News, United’s oldest fanzine, went in two-footed on the U.S.-based band of siblings.
“A plumb of toxicity surrounds everything they touch,” it read. “It is a radioactive cloud of bulls*** and inertia that engulfs everything like quicksand.”
Red News, to put it in context, has been a part of matchdays at Old Trafford for 36 years, and for over half that time it has been campaigning against the family of Americans at the top of the club.
Its latest edition showed a cartoon of Manchester City’s chairman, Khaldoon Al Mubarak, meeting Avram Glazer at Wembley before last season’s FA Cup final.
“I’m worried you might leave,” says Khaldoon’s speech bubble, shaking his rival’s hand.
“Don’t worry,” Glazer assures him, “we’ve already ruined United.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Ten Hag had a different take.
“They are entitled to have that opinion,” he said, when asked about the post-match protests. “But you can also see the fans and the team have a very strong bond.
“Throughout my time here, it has got stronger and stronger. Today, even again, we made it stronger because it was a magnificent comeback helped by the (crowd’s) support. It’s very good to see the fight and spirit between us.”
Asked about his own relationship with the Glazers, Ten Hag toed the party line again. “At United,” he said, “we work on togetherness through the whole club.”
It felt like a bit of a copout given that, as United’s manager answered these questions, a series of mutinous chants could be heard coming from outside.
How many people were involved in Saturday’s demonstration? It was difficult to be sure when, to begin with, everyone was spread out across a vast 74,000-capacity stadium.
The spin doctors employed by United might prefer to say that nine-tenths of the 73,595 crowd did not get involved. Most people’s estimates put the number of protestors at from 5,000 to 7,000 and, if you don’t think that is wildly impressive, don’t forget how many once-loyal United fans chose the ultimate form of protest in 2005 and turned their backs on the club entirely.
Against that background, The 1958 has not even been in operation for two years.
“A lot of the more vocal and militant fans went with FC United of Manchester,” says Matt, recalling the formation of the breakaway club, now playing in the seventh tier of English football after beginning at level 10. “I would never knock or discredit the guys who decided they wanted to be in control of their own club. I applaud them, commend them, but the upshot of that is it has left a massive hole and plays completely into the Glazers’ hands.
“The club have sold those season tickets and a vocal, militant piece of the fanbase has disappeared.”
As for the Glazers themselves, who knows what they were thinking? Did they ask to be kept informed? Did they care that — forgetting, for one moment, the result against Forest — nobody could describe this as a contented scene? Or at this stage, are they just used to it?
What is very clear, judging by some of the protest banners on Saturday, is that the supporters want a full sale and a clean break when, or if, the Glazers finally get around to selling all or part of the club. Nobody can be clear when that decision is going to be made. And, though this will always be an awkward subject, you have to wonder what Ferguson must have been thinking from his seat in a directors’ box, where there are only rare appearances from the people in question.
On matchday, the stadium is dotted with banners proclaiming Ferguson’s achievements over 26 years managing the club. His place in history is as solid as the foundations of Old Trafford itself and, as always, there was warm applause when he appeared on the pitch for a pre-match presentation.
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Equally, it has not been forgotten by everyone that he championed the Glazers and railed against the protestors who warned that their takeover would not end happily.
Barney Chilton, editor of Red News, has not forgotten:
“We are occasionally told they (the Glazers) are ‘great owners’ by men, often legends, who might be skewed as being part of that very rare group of people who actually got money from them,” he says. “Those of us whose money has been fleeced by them know differently.”
(Top photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Daniel Taylor is a senior writer for The Athletic and a four-time Football Journalist of the Year, as well as being named Sports Feature Writer of the Year in 2022. He was previously the chief football writer for The Guardian and The Observer and spent nearly 20 years working for the two titles. Daniel has written five books on the sport. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DTathletic