On Thursday I ran a poll asking a hypothetical question: if you could somehow get rid of either Jose Mourinho or the online group known as Martial F.C., which would you go for?
The question arose in response to the latest online clamour over Anthony Martial, who had departed Manchester United’s pre-season tour early to be at the birth of his child. Mourinho, following his side’s 4-1 defeat to Liverpool in Michigan, demanded the Frenchman came back three days after ‘Swan’ was born. Martial responded on Twitter, noting he had remained with his partner because she had encountered post-natal difficulties.
Cue the online rage. To some, Mourinho was an insensitive curmudgeon, failing to recognise – despite being a father himself – that perhaps the youngster needed to be by his fiance’s side for a bit longer. Others slated Martial for going AWOL, calling for him to be fined by the club.
A total of 1,884 people voted in the poll. This was the result.
To me, the outcome is close to the point of being revealing. The question, it seems, strikes at the very heart of an online climate in which the presence of nuance seems to be giving way to a hostile, ‘either-or’ environment among supporters, where explosions can erupt at any minute, a kind of toxic electricity endlessly writhing around on your screen. It shows United fans to be quite literally split down the middle.
What is this split, exactly? The duopoly is this: you are either a Mourinho fan-boy or a member of Martial F.C. Nope, I’m sorry, you are not allowed to be neither, or both. That is not how social media works, I’m afraid. Rules are rules. Pick a side and fight for your god damn life, because this is 2018, folks.
So, what is a Mourinho fan boy? What is Martial F.C.? Let us start with the latter.
Firstly, it must be established that liking Martial as a player – as so many do – is by no means enough to qualify you for Martial F.C. Implicit in the name itself is more than that: a sense of allegiance, of rallying behind and against something. Martial F.C. is a punk rock movement of sorts. It is a middle finger to the status quo, to the dryness of Mourinho’s football and all that comes with it.
Martial F.C., above all, cherishes the glossiness and the raw vibrant potential Martial has come to embody through being presented as at odds with Mourinho, who to them symbolises a world of dogma and cynicism and Ashley Young. They are the antithesis, the opposition, the counter-culture.
A Mourinho fan-boy, by contrast, is not so clearly defined. Mourinho fan boys don’t even have to like their manager all that much. These are the people who, while hardly enamoured with Mourinho, hate Martial F.C. much, much more. They are the 48%. To simply stay silent while others scream, much like the ‘silent majority’ in politics, distances you from Martial F.C. culture and paints you in a more conservative light: as someone happy with the second place and a cup final, who trusts Jose’s experience, who perhaps prefers the more industrious Marcus Rashford to the skilful but ‘sulky’ Martial.
Martial F.C. considers itself voguish, modern, and sees the other side as banal, reactionary. Mourinho fan-boys consider themselves to be realists, proper fans, and view the other side as zealots, charlatans, insurgents. This is the state of play among United fans online, which accounts for a large portion of the club’s global support.
Why is this happening? Where does it stem from? A simple explanation could be boredom: people tend to enjoy conflict, something to get angry about, and when the World Cup is over and no new signings are arriving and pre-season is a weird, tepid affair, United fans essentially just like to turn themselves loose against each other, Lord of the Flies style.
But there is more to it than that, I think. Had United won the league last season – or even just had an ostensibly “good” campaign – you sense the climate among supporters would have a different smell to it altogether.
Perhaps it has something to do with Mourinho being the longest serving manager at this club since Sir Alex Ferguson. Supporters were able to hit the restart button following David Moyes and Louis van Gaal. The Mourinho era, on the other hand, is very gingerly moving forward. We are in uncharted territory here. The old is slowly dying and the new is yet to be born; now is the time for monsters.
Online rage is structured horizontally insofar as anyone can be its victim and perpetrator, but its source usually stems from something in particular. In the case of United fans: Mourinho.
The 55-year-old has a history of pitting one against the other. At Real Madrid he distanced himself from the senior bloc of players including Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo, presenting them as traitors to the team for their apparent mutiny. This naturally split fans down the middle. It became a question of who you trusted more.
Something similar happened at Chelsea with Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas. In the aftermath of defeat to Leicester in December 2015, he attacked his team for not following instructions, thereby laying out clearly to the public an atmosphere of division, of disjunction, of all out war, perhaps.
Slowly, and by degrees, this is happening at Old Trafford. Mourinho kept largely quiet in his first season – aside from the odd attack on Luke Shaw – but in his second campaign, especially towards the end, his views towards particular players became known.
There are players he trusts, and those he doesn’t. Nemanja Matic, Romelu Lukaku, Scott McTominay, Antonio Valencia, Alexis Sanchez and Young belong to the former; others like Martial, Shaw, Paul Pogba, Henrikh Mkhitaryan, and even Eric Bailly have become associated with the latter. ‘Mourinho’s doghouse’ has become a well-known term.
As we have affirmed, such a habit splits supporters down the middle. Most managers hide their feelings about players. Mourinho doesn’t. Mourinho can’t. You can see it in his face and sense it in his tone whether he likes a player or not.
In response, we pick a side – mainly because the two sides have become so clearly defined ahead of Mourinho’s third season.
Duality seems to be encoded in everything Mourinho does. One week you win at the Ethiad and lose to West Bromwich Albion at home the next; one week you praise Shaw as one of the best full-backs around and for the next few weeks he’s in the doghouse. Dinner with Mourinho would be a tense affair, for sure. I bet he could go from jovially opening wine to pulling a cheese knife on you in minutes. As the Gennaro Gattuso quote goes: “Sometimes good, sometimes shit!”
Ultimately, you are either with or against Mourinho and the choices he makes. That goes for supporters as much as it does players. The 55-year-old does not leave much space for ambivalence.
In a sense, then, we have all become a little bit Mourinho-esque: seeing dark, twisted conspiracies where there aren’t any, branding people as part of one category or the other, squabbling for the sake of squabbling, doing anything to make your voice stand out from the rest, essentially just descending further and further into gloom and chaos and paranoia.
And if we are to follow the Mourinho trend into its third season, as it looks like we will, an implosion doesn’t feel very far away – regardless of which way you voted.