HERE IS THE THREAT FOR DEVILS

The Star (Kenya) - - Sports International -

here will come a time, of course, when fail­ure af­fects the brand. Not the club, nec­es­sar­ily. Manch­ester United will al­ways be big, and prob­a­bly the big­gest. But the com­mer­cial en­tity, the money ma­chine that pow­ers it all: that must be fed by reg­u­lar suc­cess and United know it.

A se­nior ex­ec­u­tive said as much, pri­vately, a year ago. He reck­oned United could af­ford one more year with­out a ti­tle or out of the Cham­pi­ons League, be­fore it had an im­pact. And that is now this year.

So the stakes are high for Jose Mour­inho. Not so high that he is in dan­ger of los­ing his job, be­cause Manch­ester United can­not con­tinue work­ing through man­agers on close to a yearly ba­sis; but high in terms of tar­gets, ex­pec­ta­tion and, long term, avail­able funds and bud­gets.

The for­eign mar­ket is huge for United: but the for­eign mar­ket is fickle. It moves with the times, re­sponds to events. Not like Sun­day’s 3-1 win at Swansea. Ma­jor events. The visit of Barcelona in the Cham­pi­ons League.

At Manch­ester Air­port on Tues­day morn­ing, there were a lot of blue shirts milling about in the ar­rivals hall, a lot of fans who would not have con­sid­ered watch­ing Manch­ester City 10 years ago. City had no pro­file be­yond these shores back then. That was once true of Chelsea, too.

Two week­ends ago, I was in Chicago. I woke up on Satur­day morn­ing, and Sun­der­land were play­ing Arse­nal. I watched it in bed. Then there was a choice be­tween Tot­ten­ham ver­sus Le­ices­ter and Manch­ester United ver­sus Burn­ley. I watched the first half of Tot­ten­ham, the sec­ond half of United. Then it was time for Crys­tal Palace ver­sus Liver­pool. And I could have seen the lot with­out emerg­ing from the du­vet.

And that’s how easy it is to be a Manch­ester United fan in Amer­ica, Asia or Aus­tralia. It’s a click. And if you can click on, then you can click off, too.

There isn’t the in­vest­ment of go­ing to a game, queu­ing in the rain, putting time and ef­fort into fol­low­ing your team. And many of the Pre­mier League’s big for­eign mar­kets have a fran­chise cul­ture, too.

Teams move cities - Oak­land Raiders of the NFL look likely to bridge a 400mile gap to be­come the Las Ve­gas Raiders soon - so fans are used to hav­ing their al­le­giances changed, or at least chal­lenged. Amer­ica is also a big place.

A Manch­ester United fan liv­ing in Lon­don can get up for the game in two hours by train. It’s a lit­tle dif­fer­ent for the sup­porter of the Seat­tle Mariners liv­ing in New York.

When the pop­u­lar­ity of La Liga grew in Bri­tain, fans be­gan talk­ing of hav­ing a “Span­ish team”. They meant Real Madrid or Barcelona. Those pledg­ing loy­alty to Osasuna, not so much. New fans go with the win­ners.

The rea­son Liver­pool have sig­nif­i­cant sup­port among Bri­tish Asians is that their suc­cess co­in­cided with times of mass im­mi­gra­tion. You come to a new coun­try, you want to feel pos­i­tive, you want to feel you be­long, that you are with the win­ning side. So you fol­low the best team. That was Liver­pool.

Yet, over time, Liver­pool stopped be­ing the best team. They still have huge sup­port abroad - in Septem­ber 2015, Visit Bri­tain said 99,000 for­eign fans had at­tended An­field in the past year - but those num­bers are dwarfed by Manch­ester United now, and even Arse­nal.

That is the con­cern for United. Not that they will stop be­ing the big­gest English club, be­cause it is hard to imag­ine that hap­pen­ing, even with a decade or more of un­der­achieve­ment. Fi­nan­cially, United re­main in­cred­i­bly strong.

One of the rea­sons United paid through the nose for Paul Pogba was a de­sire to as­sert their power in the trans­fer mar­ket again.

Fans ex­pect Manch­ester United to buy stars; but they ex­pect suc­cess, too. They ex­pect the Cham­pi­ons League, they ex­pect the ti­tle. And they know what they have to do if these glo­ries are not forth­com­ing.

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