‘That is one of the things I wanted to bring back’ – what Erik ten Hag told Manchester United fans at Carrington
From High Peak to Hyderabad, 26 Manchester United fans from supporters’ clubs are crammed into the press conference room of the Jimmy Murphy Centre at Carrington on Wednesday.
The setting is familiar: lights, cameras, chairs lined out in rows of three on either side in anticipation of a press conference, only this time the seats are occupied by the fans.
Erik ten Hag strides into the room and takes his usual seat, accompanied by a press officer. He fields 11 questions from a scheduled 12 (one fan arrived late for the event) over 20 minutes ahead of stepping onto the grass for the final training session for the Aston Villa League Cup tie.
United only moved into their Carrington training complex 23 years ago but Ten Hag “smells football” at the vast base. Given United were beaten badly at Villa Park on Sunday, Ten Hag is enthusiastic and relishes the interaction.
Ten Hag has already analysed the 3-1 reverse at Villa Park and echoes what he said at his post-match debrief: “We made it quite clear in our analysis it’s not acceptable, it’s never acceptable.
“We have to deliver, we have to deliver every game and that is the culture that has to be here. It’s not good, we can’t change that anymore but, clear, we want a reaction from the team tomorrow.”
It is not a grilling akin to the prime minister fielding questions from opposition MPs; United have a list of the questions submitted and Ten Hag has had time to rehearse, should he have done so. It is a convivial atmosphere and every supporter expresses gratitude for their invite.
Kallum Nolan from the Middleton supporters’ club begins his question by thanking Ten Hag for “instilling a proper fighting spirit back in our club”. United supporters chanted “You’re not fit to wear” the shirt home and away last season, a chant never aired by United matchgoers. Its most recent airing was during the generational nadir at Brentford in August.
It is not a coincidence Ten Hag delivers his lengthiest answer to the supporter: “First of all, I want to emphasise, if you’re talking about the spirit, there is one thing that I notice here, when you see the history of Manchester United, Manchester United won in the history a lot of titles, a lot of trophies and it was always by team spirit and fighting spirit.
“Manchester United also had fabulous offensive players, I know they were the most creative and really recognisable players that fans could really identify but, after all, it’s the spirit, the team spirit, the team fighting, that was the base and that is in the culture of Manchester United. That is one of the things I wanted to bring back and we are in the right direction.
“Sometimes, you have a setback like Sunday and we are definitely not happy with the performance and I feel responsible. When I see my team on Sunday, that is not Manchester United. I know they are not robots but we have to demand they bring it every game on the pitch as often as possible, it has to be really often, it has to be in that way.”
“Magnificent,” Ten Hag purrs when asked about the support. “Magnificent. The atmosphere, what we see in the moment at Old Trafford is magnificent, the fight, I think you feel it, I think it strengthens the squad, I think it also feeds the opponents how difficult it is to get points and we have to build that and to construct that further on, that process, the togetherness between fans and players, the team, because I think it’s a weapon.
“Away, always so many fans that support us and you see the connection between the players and the teams. I think the best example was Chelsea at Stamford Bridge after our equaliser, how we celebrated together, the players with the fans, there was real togetherness there.”
There are supporters present from Belgium, Scandinavia, Atlanta, Kerala and Mumbai. The Scandinavian supporter greets Ten Hag in Dutch. “I know all the Scandinavians are really good [at] Dutch!” Ten Hag laughs. “You see, the first lessons you took are very good!”
He asks about Ten Hag’s tenure as he approaches six months since his introduction to the press at Old Trafford. “I knew from the start it’s an exciting process but also a difficult process because I think Manchester United was far away from the standards what we need to be top, so we work the last five months and the process, as you see, it goes up and down.
“Sometimes you have to swallow bad performances, defeats, to get better, to get lessons, to also sometimes that you are conscious of the fact you are not where you want to be and you have to work really hard. And when I say really hard work, there is the base but you need a good planning strategy to get there. But I think we are in the right direction but there has to come much more.”
Ten Hag has been spotted cycling in Hale but he seldom ventures into Manchester city centre: “I can never go into the city because they don’t give me rest! Always media, clicks (he mimics a photographer) and photos, they don’t give me the opportunity to be there! I am only at the Carrington training ground.” He half-jokes he lives at Carrington but unwinds by jogging and golfing. Ten Hag speaks effusively about the pub culture and the bucolic Cheshire countryside.
In the hallway outside, Ten Hag pauses to reflect on his engagement and how reconnecting with supporters was a part of his strategy.
“I think it’s nice to do it in this way, to make a connection with the fans, you give the opportunity to get close to Manchester United, I think that’s important for a club.
“It (reconnecting) was definitely one of our plans, part of the plan, that you need a connection. Manchester United is that big in the world, you have to make commitment, you have to make engagement, you have to build a togetherness because also you want to act like this on the pitch as well and the team, and the team around the team has to understand that.
“And everyone around Manchester United has to understand that the fans who are there for us, come to us to see us, so you play football for your fans and we have to be really aware of it.”
Does he speak with many he bumps into? “Yeah, of course, they speak with me, we have nice conversations. Of course, I get all the good advisors, like from you!”