Ten Hag realism should strengthen not weaken his Man United claim

Dave Tickner
Reported Man Utd target Erik Ten Hag arriving to a match

Erik ten Hag knows Manchester United is going to be a long-term project. This should strengthen not weaken his claim on the job, but plenty appear unwilling to see reality and face those awkward questions.


Literally any time Manchester United do anything these days, I find myself thinking of Michael Spicer’s “This is Manchester United Football Club” bit.

Though better known for his ‘Room Next Door’ skits where a near-constant stream of source material from Tory MPs who are both cartoonishly stupid and evil has kept him busy since the start of the first lockdown, I still think the Manchester United bit is his most perceptive.

Sure, the Room Next Door is a brilliantly clever idea expertly executed, but it’s also just a tiny bit too popular with the sort of person who considers words like ‘wankpuffin’ or ‘shitgibbon’ to be the very height of wit and who watches a Led By Donkeys Line of Duty parody and instead of cringing out a lung thinks ‘Haha! I’d like to see Boris wriggle out of this one!’.

We’ve gone off topic. Manchester United, that’s what we’re here to talk about. Manchester United Football club. Man United. Anyway, in the Manchester United bit, Spicer plays a Generic Pundit whose entire assessment of goings on at Old Trafford is to just say “This is Manchester United Football Club we’re talking about” in increasingly exasperated and disbelieving tones. There is no actual analysis, just an implicit view that things shouldn’t be as they currently are, because it’s Manchester United.

It works so well because you hear real-life pundits do this all the time.

Here’s the thing, though. It’s increasingly evident that it’s not just the lazy punditocracy that thinks this way. There are a lot of people around Manchester United who think the same way. That Manchester United should be successful purely because “This is Manchester United Football Club we’re talking about”.

And there appears to be a widespread reluctance to talk honestly about where the club is and what is needed to make things right and how long that might take.

United have already missed the chance to appoint Antonio Conte as manager, choosing not to pursue the available and willing Italian over a perception that he would ask the sort of awkward questions and make the sort of embarrassing fuss that you never got with nice, pliant, grateful Ole.

It looks like Manchester United are probably not definitely going to go for Erik ten Hag, but there’s an air of reluctance and suspicion emanating from the club about it all. Talk that he didn’t blow people away in interviews and most of all that he sees returning Manchester United to their ‘rightful’ place as a long-term project.

Watching the toing and froing over the suitability of Ten Hag or Mauricio Pochettino over the last couple of weeks has been a reminder that 2022 Manchester United would have turned their noses up at 2015 Jurgen Klopp. Who is this clown who has had some success at a lesser league but is now coming in to a huge European giant of a club and insisting it might take a few years to make them great again? Begone, you bespectacled toothy fraud.

It’s faintly absurd to watch a club that handed the job to Solskjaer and left him to it for three years now be unconvinced by the merits of Conte, Ten Hag or Pochettino. The cult of United is a powerful one but the case of Liverpool under Klopp really is an instructive one. He was already one of the most highly regarded coaches in Europe when he took the Liverpool job. He is now considered undoubtedly one of the very best in the world. It took him three years to make Liverpool half-decent and another 12 months to make them great.

There is nothing about United currently that suggests they have any reason to expect to be able to shortcut that process. You can debate for eternity about whether Ten Hag or Pochettino or Conte or whoever is or would be the best possible candidate for United, but you can’t pretend none of them are suitably qualified or experienced. Certainly not for a club that appointed Solskjaer on a current of vibes and nostalgia.

Yes, United need to get this next appointment right whether that is Ten Hag or not. But a big part of that will mean accepting reality as it now exists: Manchester United may well finish seventh this season; they will almost certainly not be in the Champions League; they are a mile away from the current top two.

Like Klopp at Liverpool, they will have to wade through some often disingenuous sh*t before they get to where they want to be. Even then they may not make it. But Ten Hag – if it is indeed to be him – will have to be backed and supported through those times.

There is no silver bullet for Manchester United. There can be rapid improvement but there will not be an overnight transformation. Getting them back to the top is going to take time, and Ten Hag’s acknowledgement of this should strengthen not weaken his credentials.

It shows he is aware of the job at hand and its scale. No manager is fixing this mess in a single summer, even if this is Manchester United Football Club we’re talking about.