Instead of giving his players Tuesday off as part of the careful preparation for Saturday’s FA Cup final against Crystal Palace, Louis van Gaal was at Old Trafford where he took to the microphone after Manchester United beat Bournemouth 3-1 in the re-arranged game after the farce of Sunday’s abandonment.
There were some boos from fans in the half-empty stands before he spoke, but then he thanked them for their unconditional support and many applauded him. In polls among fans, there’s consistently almost no appetite for Van Gaal staying, yet in real life at matches, the mood is different.
The Dutchman has suffered almost no dissent and been afforded an easy ride given the lack of goals and mediocre possession-heavy, penetration-free football. Then again, what use would it serve booing, jeering and protesting against a manager days before the club’s first FA Cup final appearance since losing 1-0 to Chelsea nine years ago?
The psychology between the fans and Van Gaal is interesting. The Dutchman genuinely believes that he has them on side, but despite the public front, even he knows that he’ll be extremely lucky to be in charge next season.
He was asked the question by journalists after the Bournemouth game and answered that he would be in charge. What else could a man with a year left on his contract say? He can hardly sack himself.
Van Gaal invited his closest Dutch friends to Manchester for Sunday’s game, friends who think his two years at United have been the most stressful of his career.
They don’t like to see their friend suffer, they’ll defend him to the hilt and blame injuries, luck and the state of the club when he arrived in 2014, but while these are legitimate points, Van Gaal’s tenure has underwhelmed.
He’s also spent a fortune on players who’ve been hit and miss so far. The club stuck with him through this season when the media were sacking him most weeks. They’ve given him ample time – 101 competitive matches – to get things right. But he’s failed to do it.
On Sunday night when he took visiting friends to his favourite Chinese restaurant in Manchester, his stress was compounded by rivals Manchester City’s 1-1 draw at Swansea. It meant that United missed out on a top-four finish for only the second time in 25 years. And David Moyes didn’t get a second chance.
Van Gaal knows that his Crystal Palace counterpart and Eagles’ cult hero Alan Pardew has been preparing for the Cup final for three weeks now. He’s said to be very confident of avenging Palace’s 1990 FA Cup final replay defeat at the hands of the Red Devils, a game Pardew (below) played in.
United, on the other hand, have spent the last three weeks chasing down a fourth-placed finish (to eventually end up fifth). The plan was to focus on a first FA Cup win (since beating Millwall 3-0 at the Millenium Stadium in 2004) after the last day of the season. But Tuesday’s re-arranged game -where they got all three points to enter next season’s Europa League group stage – blew that plan apart and only added to the pressure.
There were other negatives LVG had to deal with, including a story that his side’s best player David de Gea will leave if the Dutch manager stayed. De Gea’s agent is Jorge Mendes, who also looks after Jose Mourinho. The former Chelsea manager has long wanted the United job. The conspiracy theorists weren’t long in joining the dots.
Though Mourinho has been contacted and his record is respected there are concern from some at United that some of his previous behaviour is unbecoming for someone who could be United manager.
They worry about the risk of a repeat of the problems he’s caused at every club he’s managed. They worry about his record with youth players, about whether he’d use clients from his own agent. Yet it’s a catch 22 situation. Who else do United turn to?
Mourinho is the fans’ favourite as they just want to see their team winning trophies again. Almost everything else is secondary having been spoilt on success for two decades.
The Portuguese has an excellent track record, of quickly righting wrongs, of turning Chelsea and Inter Milan into European champions and briefly stopping Pep Guardiola’s brilliant Barça. But he has baggage, loads of it. Mourinho knows that.
He’s aware there’s resistance to him and that he’d have to be more humble if he’s to manage United. He also has his own reputation to restore. Going to war with everyone isn’t going to do that.
United’s top officials have no illusions about Van Gaal’s lack of achievement. They recognise that the football hasn’t been entertaining enough, that there haven’t been enough goals and that the recruitment has been patchy.
But they also pride themselves on sticking by their man, as they did with Sir Alex Ferguson when United fans and the media turned against him three years into his reign, before the FA Cup win over Palace turned the tide.
There are several figures at the club who would like Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino to take over, but he’s happy where he is. For now.
Ryan Giggs is massively popular among staff and players, who think he’s ready to be boss. Giggs also thinks he’s ready to do a job he’s been promised, but his lack of experience is an issue for the decision makers. But, as Giggs might point out, the considerable experience of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal has hardly worked wonders at Old Trafford.
United don’t want to lose Giggs, but is he ready to be manager? Nobody knows. The idea that he should go away and earn his managerial stripes before returning to Old Trafford has logic, but in reality it doesn’t work like that. There’s little support from fans for Giggs to be manager.
While the football-savvy Sirs on United’s board, Ferguson and Bobby Charlton, have some influence, along with former CEO David Gill, United’s decision-making power base is tiny and consists of Ed Woodward, and the Glazer brothers Avi and Joel.
Nobody, apart from them, knows exactly who they have in mind as United’s next manager. Not even Ferguson, Giggs, Charlton, Gill, Van Gaal or any of the players know who’ll be in charge next term.
Expect the managerial talk to ratchet up yet again after the FA Cup final, though United want to be calling the shots, not the media. That has been true since December and Woodward has regrets about the way David Moyes was sacked, when the media found out before the manager. It’s not the way United like to be seen to do business.
The 1990 FA Cup replay win rescued Ferguson and he went on to lift 35 trophies with United. The circumstances are different now. Van Gaal is much older and there’s little evidence that his changes have had the desired effect.
The team have finished lower this season than last. There has been a regression, though Van Gaal can win his first trophy in England and United’s first silverware for three years on Saturday.
Another FA Cup win is being taken very seriously by United fans, as it would give them a joint-record 12th win in the competition with Arsenal.
What could follow the hangover of a trophy win, is the headache of what to do with the man who delivered it.