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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Manchester United boss Skinner under pressure – but Ratcliffe takeover fuels belief

“If you never want pressure, never come to Manchester United,” said manager Marc Skinner. The pressure, however, has cranked up a notch.

“We want Skinner out,” was chanted by some Manchester United fans in the 95th minute as their team trailed 3-1 to Chelsea on Sunday. The chant, accompanied by a singular white placard with the words ‘Skinner Out’ on, was not deafening but could certainly be heard among the 20,473 spectators at Stamford Bridge. It is not the first time fans have made their feelings known this month.

Manchester United have never beaten Chelsea and the 3-1 defeat was reminiscent of their previous encounters: one-dimensional, passive and toothless.

United failed to put Chelsea under pressure in the first half and gave the hosts too much time. Chelsea were braver and comfortable on the ball. It was ironic that Lauren James, who moved from United in the summer of 2021, dealt killer blows with her hat-trick. Although Skinner maintained his team took the game to the WSL champions in the second half, the damage was already done.

United are 10 points off Chelsea and have lost three of their 11 games this season — no team has ever won the WSL with more than two defeats. The league title looks out of reach and Skinner is in the firing line.

Skinner at full time after his side’s defeat against Chelsea (Charlotte Tattersall – MUFC/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Overall, fans seem divided on their opinion of the manager whose contract expires this summer. There are rumblings of discontent from a section of vociferous supporters who question the predictability of his tactics and his starting XI, while Michael Kallback’s tweets have not gone unnoticed. Kallback is the agent of former United players Martha Thomas and Vilde Boe Risa, who left in the summer.

“That’s what happens in a non-toxic environment,” he wrote in regards to Boe Risa winning a player of the month award for December and a Guardian article in which Thomas said she “wasn’t enjoying my football (with United)” and that her improved form was down to “playing under someone that I know believes in me”. Meanwhile, Ivana Fuso, who left the club for Championship side Birmingham City in September, told She Kicks magazine: “It felt like what I was doing was never enough.”

Skinner said the team’s environment was “absolutely the opposite of that” when asked about Kallback’s remarks and maintained the club do a “good job” of supporting players. He remains focused on the task at hand and insisted he would not be fazed by the fans’ negativity.

“There’s a lot in this job that could pull you down,” he said. “This game is about opinions and it’s healthy. I have no doubt what I’m going to achieve with this team. I’m not going to let it drip into my psyche.”

Other fans, however, believe it is United’s structure which is at fault.

“The problem isn’t with the manager,” United fan Samantha Corkhill tells The Athletic. “It’s the fact there’s no investment in the women’s team and all our good players are leaving or wanting to leave. When we do go out and buy people, it’s not what we want. We want better players. It has to start with investment.”

United made the most money of any English women’s team during the 2021-22 season, according to Deloitte’s Football Money League report. They generated a revenue of €6million (£5.2m; $6.5m) and that was without qualifying for the Champions League, yet they allowed their best players Ona Batlle and Alessia Russo to leave for free.

It could be the same story for Mary Earps this summer. The club were not proactive in trying to replace Batlle and Russo and have never filled that void of quality. To close the gap on their rivals, they need a deeper squad — United named five outfield substitutions on Sunday — full of quality and experienced international leaders.

“If you’re interested in this huge project of Manchester United, we’re ready for you,” said Skinner after the 2-1 win over Manchester City in late May, but United went to market too late and have been playing catch-up ever since. They completed most of their business late in the summer transfer window, forcing them into reactive and short-term moves.

United have not prioritised a clear, long-term footballing strategy. They have a head of player recruitment, Harvey Bussell, but do not have any scouts and are hiring a head of football negotiations for the women’s and academy teams to assist Matt Hargreaves, the director of football negotiations.

One source close to the club, who wishes to remain anonymous to protect their position, is supportive of Skinner and feels the women’s team is on track having established themselves as a top-four team after five years of existence.

INEOS, owned by Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who has bought 25 per cent of United to gain sporting control and is investing $300m into the club, will be pivotal to the women’s team’s future.

Although United cannot make any official decisions until INEOS receives approval from the Premier League to complete the deal (likely mid-February), it has named the women’s team in its legal filings and is believed to be as committed to the women’s side as it is the men’s team. The club recognises the women’s team, which has been financially hamstrung in the past, as a relatively small investment for a potentially significant upturn.

Ratcliffe’s aim, communicated to club staff, is to have the most successful Manchester United as a whole and his priority is success on the pitch as opposed to making money. That is said to apply to men’s and women’s football.

Manchester United’s dejected players at full time (Charlotte Tattersall – MUFC/Manchester United via Getty Images)

It is clear INEOS is already making its presence felt with the appointment of CEO Omar Berrada from Manchester City, a move led by Joel and Avram Glazer in consultation with Ratcliffe. A member of the WSL and Women’s Championship working group, Berrada was instrumental in ensuring City’s women’s team received the highest level of facilities. That bodes well for United’s women’s team, who moved from temporary portable cabins into their new multi-million-pound base at Carrington at the start of this season.

During his first visit to Carrington training ground, Ratcliffe met some women’s players and Skinner has met with Sir Dave Brailsford twice. The former mastermind of cycling’s Team Sky will be in charge of elite football performance and will conduct an audit of both men’s and women’s teams’ structure and personnel.

“There’s a really positive injection of energy, quality and brains,” said Skinner when asked about INEOS. “It’s going to be positive steps forward for everyone involved.”

Given Brailsford will want to undertake a review of existing operations before implementing changes, it seems unlikely Skinner’s job is at risk in the immediate short-term.

The priority is to stabilise the men’s side and it would be unrealistic to put women’s football at the top of the list given competing priorities. The investment available is finite and only time will tell how serious the club’s ambitions are for their women’s team.

 (Top photo: Bradley Collyer/PA Images via Getty Images)

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