José Mourinho and Manchester United fans: a healthy, vibrant relationship or something more dislocated? The question arises because of his criticism of supporters following the 1-0 win against Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford on Saturday. When Jonathan Moss, the referee, blew for full time Mourinho put a finger to his lips and gestured to the nearest camera.
The reason was the manager's unhappiness at fans booing Anthony Martial's introduction for Marcus Rashford and also for their muted backing of Romelu Lukaku. Mourinho could shush fans, inform the press that supporters need to "relax a little bit", and criticise to MUTV their treatment of Lukaku, because his team had just claimed a vital victory over a title rival. United and Tottenham entered the match level on 20 points, five behind Manchester City. By Saturday evening Mourinho's men retained the same deficit but Spurs were eight points behind following City's win at West Bromwich Albion.
Mourinho could also upbraid the fans because his decision to swap Martial for Rashford was sweetly vindicated by the Frenchman being the scorer of the 81st minute winner and Lukaku providing the flick-on for the goal.
The manager’s public utterances are often described as a diversionary tactic. This, though, can be an over-complicated reading of a someone whose every word and antic is exhaustively analysed.
Certainly on this occasion the questioning of the Rashford-substitution boos and Lukaku’s poor reception was not to deflect attention given United were victorious. So, the reason may be simple: Mourinho was being Mourinho, a man whose stance is that he has the right to have a say on everything – including his own team’s fans – just as they do about his team.
Rashford is a local boy, so is particularly adored by the home faithful. Jeers that accompanied his removal were understandable, especially as he was among United’s best performers. Mourinho acknowledged the point. “They [fans] pay the ticket they can do what they want,” he said.
“They can boo a player that doesn’t deserve to be booed, they can boo a player who is working like an animal, even though the game is not going in his direction. They can boo – they pay their tickets, they can boo the manager.”
Mourinho is a serial moaner about atmosphere, which further underlines how he is following form. After a 2-0 League Cup win over Hull City at Old Trafford in January, he compared the atmosphere to "the theatre". Liverpool were up next and the 54-year-old wanted their fiercest rival to be entering a cauldron.
Old Trafford is rarely a bear pit, though. Sometimes, maybe, but there is difficulty recalling a match-long vibe of heightened emotion and noise. Saturday offered an illustration. When a Lukaku header hit a post suddenly the stadium came alive – showing how sleepy it had become.
Old Trafford does generally boast a loyal crowd. It required a relative age before the support turned on David Moyes and Louis van Gaal during their unhappy tenures. So, considering United appear genuine title contenders for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Saturday's reaction was jarring – especially as the Stretford End had earlier been quick to regale Mourinho when their Spurs counterparts sang a ditty that abuses him.
A sense is that Mourinho’s request for fans to have more faith in him and his players is an apt move: all the Portuguese wants is for United to succeed, and the fans can be a telling factor in this.
After the dire 2-1 defeat at Huddersfield Town and 0-0 draw at Liverpool, the Spurs result has United back on track. As Nemanja Matic said: “We dropped points there and it was important for us to win again to show we want to fight for the title, that we have quality and I am happy we did it. It was a big result, against a great team. Tottenham, the last few years, play really good football, they have a great manager, the idea of their football is good.
“I think that the title, you win in the let’s say ‘small games’ but also if you want to be first you have to win games like this, especially when you play at home you cannot drop points. It’s important for us, it’s a lot of pressure on us but we managed to score and to win.”
United got their goal following the booed switch of Martial for Rashford. Mourinho is paid to make these decisions, and for them to work. Maybe Saturday will help to convince supporters to trust the way he works a little more. Guardian service