Andy Mitten column: Manchester United were beginning to find form and identity – now training is off as staff work from home

The four Manchester United fans at the train station inside Vienna airport on Friday afternoon cut less cheerful figures than a day earlier. On Thursday, they’d received texts saying they’d receive £350 compensation from Manchester United for their trip to a game which would be played behind closed doors.

On Friday, they found out that football was being suspended and that Austria had closed its border with Slovakia – and with that their flights back to Manchester from Bratislava had gone. The fans scrambled to get home as flights were cut around Europe and they were about to take a train four hours north to Munich in the hope of getting back. It’ll be a good story to tell to a future generation when this mess has subsided. 

Nobody has much idea about what happens next, when United or any football team will play another game. There are assumptions that it’ll be a month or two, just as there was an assumption that the First World War would last a month or two or that the Second was only a phoney war because little happened in the first eight months. At least people knew where the enemy was then.   

There’s the example of China which is starting to get back to work, according to the New York Times, after a two month hiatus. Factories are reopening, offices starting to fill. But the resumption of sports isn’t a priority. The jokes among United fans about Liverpool not winning the league still have currency, but there’s a strain as people realise the severity of the situation.

At United, most staff are working from home while the players were still scheduled to train as normal at Carrington until Monday’s UK government announcement. They didn’t and don’t know when they’ll be putting their boots on in earnest again. It takes six weeks to reach full fitness level and 10 days to lose it if they do nothing. None have tested positive for coronavirus. The players are mostly away from their families, who are living in other countries, too. It’s a difficult situation. 

Paul Pogba was set for full training, but for what? The consensus was that he’d need to play club football to be part of France’s Euro 2020 plans. UEFA and the Premier League meet this week to discuss what happens next, but how can they predict what is to happen? 

Like the rest of the stock market, United’s value has tanked and the market value of the club is a billion dollars less than the  $3.3 billion quoted at the start of the year. The club cannot perform its primary function of playing football matches. 

Such numbers don’t really concern fans unless there’s to be a change of ownership and that’s not on the agenda, but what of the fans? Long before it made money, football provided a structure and focus in life, an escape from the grind for the masses. 

Hardcore fans like those on the platform in Vienna plan ahead with military preparation with deadlines to apply for away games, transport and hotels. It’s a huge part of their life, an all-consuming hobby that means much to millions. Friendships form around going to football, social lives can become a football way of life. And then it all stops like now. We knew what was coming, but did we really? It’s only a week since United fans were buzzing after beating Manchester City, with little thought given to coronavirus.

Football was played in both world wars as a way of lifting the spirits of the public and crowds were allowed to attend rather than holding the dreaded behind closed doors matches. LASK on Thursday night felt like a fraudulent event. My uncle Charlie guested for Chelsea for two years during WW2 and played at Stamford Bridge when German buzz bombs flew over the stadium. The 30,000 crowd cheered when they didn’t land on the ground and disrupt the game.

Football is only football. It will carry on at some point but it’s a shame that United stopped after their best run of form in a year. It was much needed, but in the 11 games since the January defeat to Burnley, United won eight, drew three and boasted nine clean sheets. They scored an astonishing 29 goals and conceded only two, though most of the goals were against inferior opponents in cup matches.

Solskjaer has now been in charge for 76 matches since he took over from Jose Mourinho in December 2018. He’s won 40, drawn 17 and lost 19. United have scored 130 and conceded 73. The Norwegian’s team have picked up an average of 1.80 points per game.

His record is almost identical to Sir Alex Ferguson’s after the Scot’s first 76 games at United. Fergie won 39, drew 21 and lost 16 times. 

By the time he left, Fergie’s points per game had gone above two per match for the 1,500 games he was in charge at United. No other United manager has achieved such an average. Sir Matt Busby was 1.74 across his entire time at the club. Jose Mourinho was the second-best of the postwar managers with 1.97, while Van Gaal’s record is almost the same as Solskjaer’s. David Moyes’ was lower with 1.74 points per game. Solskjaer’s team are averaging more goals per game than Moyes, Van Gaal or Mourinho’s sides.

Nobody is satisfied with where United are at, but there’s a basis here to build on, a reason for optimism despite United being 5th in the league. Their run in, if it ever happens, is more favourable than rivals, their form better too and Bruno Fernandes, an inspired signing so far, deserved his player of the month award for the Premier League. Things were looking better than they had in a year, but United, and football, will be back.

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