HERE IS THE THREAT FOR DEVILS
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.