Manchester United & The Filleting of Louis Van Gaal

by | May 24, 2016

We’re all detectives this morning, trying to figure out who is leaking stories from Old Trafford. Within an hour of the end of Saturday evening’s FA Cup final, the news that Louis Van Gaal’s time as the manager of Manchester United was coming to an end became public knowledge, followed nanoseconds later by the unofficial confirmation that Jose Mourinho would be replacing him. Since then, the first half of this story has come to be officially confirmed, and it’s likely that the second part will be in the next couple of days. The British press, which has been openly cheerleading for Mourinho as the new Manchester United manager since more or less the moment that he left Stamford Bridge in December, has got the appointment that it has given the distinct impression of demanding. And Jorge Mendes, the agent widely ascribed to be the source of most of the stories linking the manager with the club, has presumably got what he wanted as well.

Mourinho, of course, gives good copy and salivating hacks who, one suspects, would sooner football gave up on these time consuming “matches” altogether and became a full-time soap opera instead, are already preparing their readership with details of when these long-awaited press conferences will be taking place. Mourinho vs Guardiola? July 25th, Beijing. Mourinho vs Ranieri? August 6th, London. The gift that never stops giving “controversy” is already grinding into gear, and if the early signs are anything to go by, it’s going to be a very long summer indeed, with every player in Europe likely to be linked to Manchester United over the next couple of months or so – there’s a list of Mendes’ clients here, by the way, should you wish to keep track of how many of them ended up in anonymously sourced stories in the gutter press over the next three months or so – even though any new signings will be playing Europa League football whilst having to deal with Mourinho’s foibles at the same time.

The press has been deflecting negative attention from itself over the timing of the leaking of story released on Saturday by stating that it has a duty to report the stories that are fed to it. Whether this means that they should have been covered in the frosting of barely-contained glee is, of course, highly debatable to say the least, but there is an element of truth to what they say. If we work to the assumption that these stories were being fed to them, then, who were doing the feeding? The principle of protecting anonymous sources is a noble one, but less so when this anonymity is used to push an agenda into what is understood to be news journalism. Whoever was pushing these stories to them wasn’t doing so anonymously because they were in any immediate personal danger from doing so, so why is this cloak of anonymity still considered an acceptable way to percolate gossip into the narrative of a story?

The National Union of Journalists’ Code of Conduct – and reading it can have a tendency to make one wonder whether anybody in the press actually takes any notice of it other than when it specifically suits them – says nothing on the matter other than that journalists should “Protect” the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work”. In the United States of America, however, the issue of anonymous sources is dealt with in somewhat more detail than this by the Society of Professional Journalists, which concludes that two matters should be forefront when addressing whether sources should be used anonymously:

1. Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.

2. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

It’s widely believed that the source of this ongoing slew of stories has been either somebody from within Manchester United itself, or (somebody working on behalf of) Jorge Mendes. The case for believing that it may have been the former was strengthened by lurid stories emerging across several different newspapers this morning advertising “the inside story” on what had been going on behind closed doors at the club. With a particular leaning towards a story concerning the length to which players would go to avoid reading emails from Van Gaal – which one would ordinarily expect to reflect badly upon them rather than him, were it not for the fact that this doesn’t fit with the “put him in the corner and stick a dunce’s cap on him” narrative that the press have been pursuing for months – this was, at least a story that came from within the club. The constant Mourinho rumours, however, may have been something different, but we have no way of knowing for sure.

The treatment of Louis Van Gaal by both Manchester United and the media in this country has been shabby, to say the least. The club may well argue that it didn’t comment on the leaks that were dripping on a constant basis from Mendes and those acting on his behalf because there was no comment to be made at that time, but this is an unbalanced reading of events. If the situation at the club was that bad, it could have sacked him earlier in the season, or it could have issued a statement supporting him. Instead, it remained silent and allowed a vacuum of silence to grow into which a rumour industry was built. Van Gaal’s time at Old Trafford could hardly be described as a runaway success (although the legions of clubs who have never finished as high as fifth in table table and have never won the FA Cup may well disagree on this), but his treatment by just about everybody was poor, in particular over the course of his last couple of days in charge of the club, when there didn’t seem to be anybody whatsoever who would treat him with so much as a modicum of respect or decency, apparently because winning silver trinkets and getting that exclusive are just so damn important.

Manchester United has expended a lot of energy expounding “The United Way”, a self-created mythology that sought to create a sense of otherness in comparison with other clubs. That, with it’s inbuilt sense of superiority, is now dead, if it ever really existed in the first place. This club, however, isn’t the only to do this. One could look to Liverpool, Celtic, West Ham United or Tottenham Hotspur as other clubs which seek to promote this sense of otherness. They are, however, little more than mythology, usually used to fuel nostalgia when things aren’t going so well on the pitch in the present. The United Way will be put on the back-burner at Old Trafford for so long as Jose Mourinho is winning football matches. If or when that grinds to a halt, though, we can expect it to be dusted down and issued forth again as a subsidiary reason to get rid of him, rip up the book, and start again. And the media, who were rewarded handsomely in page views when Mourinho left Chelsea at the end of last year and have been again for his imminent appointment at Old Trafford, will be there, pushing the headlines that will focus the most eyeballs, and claiming that they knew that this would be a disaster all along, whether it did turn out to be a disaster or not.