There is a storm brewing on the red side of Manchester. A tempestuous concoction of disappointing results, off-field issues and a club in flux has led to pressure being heaped on Manchester United’s manager Marc Skinner in recent weeks by a section of the team’s famously vocal supporters. “Skinner Out” signs have been increasingly visible in stadiums and chants on the same lines have become more audible as fans express their frustration at their title hopes and, perhaps more significantly, their European ambitions dwindling to a faint flicker.
It is a story emblematic of modern-day football, one that illustrates how fast things can change in an unforgiving sport. Just over seven months ago, while problems were building around player contracts, there could be little fault found with Skinner in terms of United’s on-pitch performance. Last season, his second, he guided his side to runners-up in the WSL, their best finish, and Champions League qualification. This time last year United were top, playing an engaging brand of attacking football while displaying a resilience that challenged the traditional hierarchy. They pushed Chelsea all the way and lost only twice, missing out by two points on the final day in a season where they possessed the division’s meanest defence and second-best attack, while also reaching a first FA Cup final.
This season, that positivity has waned. Having lost three games, they sit 10 points off the top and seven off European qualification. The sight of Chloe Kelly and the Manchester City team celebrating on the Old Trafford pitch after winning the derby in November will have irked the most loyal supporter. Defeat by Liverpool a month later deepened the wound and an abject performance last weekend at Stamford Bridge has increased the noise.
It is difficult to pinpoint one reason for the downturn. While some of the fault clearly lies at Skinner’s door, not all of it has been within his control. It has been a turbulent year for United as a club with a series of negative headlines and a sale process adding to the disquiet. That ended last month with Sir Jim Ratcliffe buying a minority share. He has taken control of football operations and has met Skinner and the team, and there is hope among the club and supporters that things will begin to settle.
Within the women’s team there have been notable issues in the transfer market. The departures of Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo for free shone a light on a club being slow to react and history appears to be repeating itself with the protracted saga around Mary Earps’s status. The England goalkeeper’s contract is up at the end of the season and rumours have been swirling since a record bid was reportedly made by Arsenal. Although United recruited in the summer, especially in attacking areas, a lack of quality cover has been evident, and they have yet to make a move this window. Skinner has made a public plea about the need for the club to invest to keep up.
Where Skinner is accountable is around on-pitch decisions. He has become known as a manager unwilling to rotate, even when things are not working. Fans have become more and more irritated at this lack of adaptability, and it has resulted in players departing. Vilde Bøe Risa and Martha Thomas are two of those who left because of lack of opportunity, and both are experiencing a change of fortunes in new environments.
There are tactical flaws appearing as well and a disconnect between what he wants and what the players are achieving. Last weekend, the cameras panned to moments of tension on the sideline with the game plan lacking the guile to outfox Emma Hayes. The departure of the assistant coach Martin Ho, highly regarded across the women’s game, to Brann in July was a blow and he has proved difficult to replace.
United supporters have never been afraid to express their discontent and it is hard to ignore this upsurge in noise. It is a situation less seen in the women’s game, although pressure on managers is increasing as the visibility and popularity grow.
Which is not to say it never happened in the past. Shelley Kerr was the recipient of significant fan ire during her tenure at Arsenal from 2013 to 2014 after a poor run left them behind in the title race and out of the Champions League and League Cup. However, that happened in an era before coverage and social media became a strong tool for vocalising opinions.
In Kerr’s case, it was her decision to go and in fact she left on a high, winning the FA Cup against Everton in her final game. It could still be the case for Skinner, whose contract is up in the summer and whose team still have the FA Cup and League Cup to fight for. “Conversations are ongoing,” Skinner has said regarding his future and few expect Ratcliffe and his company Ineos to act before the end of the season. That, though, will do little to lessen the unhappiness among the fanbase if Skinner struggles to steady the ship.