EPL TALK: Manchester United must give Asian fans hope - any hint will be enough

Manchester United's Hannibal Mejbri (right) poses with a fan ahead of a training session in Bangkok.
Manchester United's Hannibal Mejbri (right) poses with a fan ahead of a training session in Bangkok. (PHOTO: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

THE beaming citizens of Bangkok are making up their own Field of Dreams. Manchester United haven’t built it. And still, they come.

They’re coming in their thousands, turning up outside the airport, the hotel, the training session and for the pre-season friendly against Liverpool today (12 July). The Theatre of Dreams has been a ghoulish affair for some time, but few got the memo in Thailand.

Blind devotion endures, for the brand, the name, the jersey and the squad. The last one is obviously the most complicated, considering the current squad spent most of last season sticking pins into their own voodoo dolls, self-deflating more times than a punctured airbed.

And still, their Asian followers wait in the unforgiving sunshine for a glimpse of something, anything, to suggest that the Manchester United of 2022 are not destined to become every other Liverpool after Kenny Dalglish and before Jurgen Klopp (with brief interludes of success under Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez of course.)

They are just looking for a reason to believe.

In truth, Asian supporters may not even need that. In a quirky twist of fate, United’s devotees are finally getting the chance to demonstrate their loyalty to a flagging cause, as if their side’s awful form at least allows them to prove, once and for all, that the bandwagon tag is unmerited.

There is no bandwagon to jump on, just a pile of rusted parts with a new, eager mechanic, Erik ten Hag, waiting for new tools to arrive.

So far, he’s been handed one Tyrell Malacia and tasked with putting something together on the Asian tour, which is like being asked to put a prestige car back together with three steering wheels and no engine.

At 22, Malacia arrives with youth, speed and a decent report card, but he’s a left-back, joining fellow left-backs Luke Shaw and Alex Telles. The Dutch defender is also – at the time of writing – ten Hag’s only confirmed signing. Christian Eriksen may complete contract formalities to allow the maverick to feature in the Asian tour, but as it stands, the new United looks a lot like the old one.

So the Bangkok friendly against Liverpool can promise only what those sweltering fans are currently hoping for outside the hotel lobby. A glimpse. A flash of something hopeful, from the manager, the style of play, the personnel, anything to suggest that the latest change in the dugout might be a definitive one.

Manchester United's players training in Bangkok as manager Erik ten Hag (left) watches on.
Manchester United's players training in Bangkok as manager Erik ten Hag (left) watches on. (PHOTO: Reuters/Chalinee Thirasupa)

Ironically, ten Hag’s most positive contribution might be the non-involvement of his star turn. The spectre of Cristiano Ronaldo threatens to haunt the new manager with every missed sitter and loaded, post-match question. Imagine the open goals that await in sweaty interviews in the coming days.

Did United miss Ronaldo today? Where are the goals going to come from? Is Ronaldo’s absence proving to be a distraction? Will he return to the first XI?

Every mention directs eyeballs to webpages. Every question underlines the incomparable power of the Ronaldo brand in a PR battle that ten Hag cannot win. So he must be prepared to lose this particular battle to win the war for United.

The handy thing about the history of restless United superstars is it tends to repeat itself. In 2013, the Red Devils also headed to Asia with a new manager and an unsettled Wayne Rooney, angling for a move through the usual media leaks.

But David Moyes tried to be all things to all people. Decisive. Contradictory. Firm. Uncertain. As Rooney picked up an injury on that tour, Moyes vacillated between supporting his disgruntled striker and emphasising that no forward was bigger than the club, leaving Rooney confused and angry. Rooney outlasted Moyes at Manchester United.

Such days must be gone. While Ronaldo does retain the marketing clout to dictate the terms of his autumnal career, ten Hag can sidestep a debilitating – and unwinnable – PR circus altogether by not engaging. Focus on Malacia. Confirm the signing of Eriksen. Dangle the carrot of further transfers in the coming days. Barcelona’s Frenkie de Jong may or may not arrive, but he’s a handy decoy against the branding colossus lying on a sunbed in Portugal.

But ten Hag can be proactive in areas within his control. During United’s 16-day tour across Bangkok, Melbourne and Perth, the Red Devils should be motivated to behave less like petulant teenagers in a science class trying to get their relief teacher sacked.

Bruno Fernandes already has the number eight tattooed on his arm. Now it’s emblazoned across his back, thanks to Juan Mata’s departure, the squad number the playmaker has long coveted. Now he can earn it.

A unique identity crisis consumed him for most of last season. United’s best footballer found himself playing in the shadow of the best footballer his country has ever produced. The Portuguese forward had passed an early test to be anointed Old Trafford’s new king, only to turn into a subservient king’s tester, bowing to every Ronaldo request.

But that particular beast of burden isn’t stalking Fernandes’ hotel suite this week. It’s play time again.

Scott McTominay also has an incentive to impress the new boss, considering Eriksen’s pending arrival and ten Hag’s persistent pursuit of de Jong, while the bedraggled forwards must sheepishly acknowledge that their struggles only strengthen Ronaldo’s position.

Someone, somehow, has to start compensating for the gorging Ronaldo, who still feasted on 24 goals in 38 appearances last season, dominating United’s penalty box like tourists at their first cruise buffet.

The result against Liverpool might be inconsequential. The goals and their suppliers are not. Ten Hag has promised to give youth a chance, but it’s not so much a Class of 92 as it is a Class of No-One Else. He’ll give them the pre-season tour. And then he’ll go shopping.

The new manager’s basic demand is actually in-sync with old fans in Bangkok. Show me something. Like kids getting to grips with their first pencils, produce discernible shapes. Hint at the beginnings of a structure, a plan, a philosophy, anything above and beyond the interminable game of pin the donkey that played out last season.

The new manager’s basic demand is actually in-sync with old fans in Bangkok. Show me something. Like kids getting to grips with their first pencils, produce discernible shapes.

Asian fans will show up either way. They’ve proved that already, establishing their proud credentials as non-bandwagon jumpers by sticking with a club that managed to concede more league goals than Burnley last season (and Burnley were relegated.)

Like Liverpool before Klopp, the nostalgic allure of yesterday’s riches was enough to keep the candles flickering through the obvious absence of light, hope and triumph.

And like Liverpool after Klopp, it’s time for United to slowly repay the faith.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 26 books.

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