At the picnic benches behind the Stretford End where fans enjoy a pre-game bite the atmosphere is as serene as Erik ten Hag’s perma-calm media persona before Manchester United’s kick-off against Arsenal.

The manager has remained unruffled despite the 24/7 speculation about his job, yet in the next few weeks his future will be decided by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the Ineos chairman’s key lieutenant, Sir Dave Brailsford, and the acting chief executive, Jean Claude-Blanc.

“Different clowns, same circus,” was one senior staff member’s dismissive take when Ratcliffe swept into United as the minority owner and football policy chief.

Ratcliffe is certainly no clown and as he compiles the pros and cons of whether Ten Hag should be the highest-profile employee to feel his axe he will tune into the mood music of United’s most vital constituency: the supporters.

For Ten Hag the notes are harmonious and discordant – a mix of should-he-stay-or-should-he-go. John Cox is 74, goes to every home match, sits behind the directors’ seats, and first watched his team in 1960. He has had enough.

“I would let Ten Hag leave at the end of this season because of the performances basically not being good enough,” Cox says. “These are probably the worst I’ve ever seen in my lifetime watching United. We’re going to probably lose 16 games in this league season [13 pre-Arsenal], the worst Premier League performance ever. So that should be just enough for the sack. We’ve sacked [David] Moyes and other managers for far less than this.

“The football’s been dreadful – there’s nothing more to say about that; the tactics seem to be all over the show. Example: why does he allow [Bruno] Fernandes to charge down the goalkeeper when he’s a midfielder, and then wonder why we’re having 16-20 shots against us every game when Fernandes is up the other end chasing down the goalie?

“Sometimes we’re long ball – eg, against Burnley – or playing out from the back and losing goals, and I don’t see any tactical nous from the guy. He is probably a very nice man, but his persona’s not what he should be for a United manager. He’s not José Mourinho on the line – he doesn’t cut a figure that demands respect from other managers.”

The nice guy view is borne out by the phone call Ten Hag made recently to an executive in the commercial department to offer thanks for help in a matter, and the sense is that the Dutchman unlike, say, Mourinho during his tenure, is well liked within the club.

Adam Robertson, 42, whose first game at Old Trafford was a 1-1 in 1991 against Liverpool, feels Ten Hag should be given a chance under the new structure headed by Ratcliffe.

“My view is that we keep him as there are clearly still significant issues that need clearing up before bringing in a new manager,” he says. “I don’t feel he is to blame for the current mess and if a new manager comes in the same thing [may] happen.”

Alejandro Garnacho presses forward for Manchester United but they never looked likely to equalise against Arsenal. Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images

After Lord Coe, the head of the taskforce that will regenerate Old Trafford, is given a tour of the stadium, Ten Hag sends out a latest patched-up XI to face Arsenal. Impressive displays follow from Sofyan Amrabat (first league start since 17 December) and Amad Diallo (first league start of the season). Rasmus Højlund misses an early chance created by Scott McTominay (the captain because Fernandes is injured, along with Luke Shaw, Lisandro Martínez, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelöf, and Marcus Rashford), United concede to Leandro Trossard on 20 minutes, and, although they match the Gunners throughout, never look like equalising.

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Yet no one turns on Ten Hag. The match-going United enthusiast is, as a rule, loyal and on 57 minutes The Red Army section in the right corner of the Stretford End starts to sing the “going on the piss with Georgie Best” ditty (to the tune of Spirit in the Sky) which builds in volume and spreads until on the hour the whole stadium (travelling fans apart) are in unison – a heartening show of unity for Ten Hag and his players.

Darren Stannage, 47, whose first trip to United was in Alex Ferguson’s first season in 1986, is one of those in the 3,000-plus Red Army seats. “I’ve had a few interesting discussions with lots of United fans and the feeling is that the structure’s got to be right before we look at the manager,” he says. “People, for example, would take José back under the right structure and right backing. We probably got rid of the managers without the structure being there.

“So I think most would like to see Ten Hag stay under the new structure because even today it’s not there: [the new sporting director] Dan Ashworth’s not in. So any new manager coming in would quite be working with the structure that Ineos want. It should be say to Ten Hag: ‘Look, Erik, by Christmas, we’ve got to be close to the top four, we’ve got to be in the [Carabao Cup] and take it from there.’”

Rain pours down inside Old Trafford at full-time on Sunday. Photograph: Matt West/Shutterstock

Towards the end the song has become “We love United, we do” and though their team lose the fans, as a mass, have backed Ten Hag throughout. Later, as the Manchester skies open and the leaky Old Trafford roof floods, Stannage is in The Bishop Blaize, a stronghold United hostelry.

“People are quite happy,” he says. “Well, not happy with the performance but we aren’t very good as a team, the players are not very good. Arsenal were probably there for the taking today but players weren’t good enough. I’ve talked to a lot of people, asking: ‘What would you do with the manager?’ And many say: ‘Give him the structure, don’t let him buy the players all on his own accord.’

“But [then] again one of my mates looked at the league table [United are eighth] and went: ‘Well based on that, nine home defeats this season, he’s got to go.’ So there’s such a mix.”



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