Manchester United open the Premier League season at home to Leicester City on Friday night and it still feels somewhat surreal that the visitors have won the title more recently than the hosts.
Optimism is in short supply amongst the Old Trafford faithful and should Jose Mourinho follow his usual third season pattern, there is a chance he will not be in charge come May.
While pre-season friendlies do not necessarily prove much one way or another, it is safe to say United have been abysmal in their recent friendlies and showed no signs of the attacking, progressive football the fans have traditionally demanded.
The situation with Anthony Martial, one of the club’s most exciting young players, has seen supporters divided in their loyalties with some backing the player and others the manager. Rarely has the word “United” felt more ironic.
The club’s fans, generally speaking, have lost interest in the England team over the years. There are a number of reasons for this, most notably the disgusting treatment United players received while on national duty during the period in which they played for the most successful club in the country.
Something changed this summer, however, as Gareth Southgate’s side reached a World Cup semi-final and many a dormant England fan was reinvigorated. It was a tournament full of optimism, in stark contrast to the mood in and around Old Trafford in recent weeks.
With their rivals having strengthened over the summer, not least Liverpool and Manchester City, Mourinho’s team will need to start the season well.
The first three matches, against Leicester, Brighton and Spurs, are by no means foregone conclusions and the atmosphere could turn toxic pretty fast if results go against United and their most despised rivals start the season with a bang.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Spurs as well as the aforementioned rivals are all reasons to be fearful.
United finished last season in second place but without a serious title challenge and an embarrassing Champions League exit that stands as the nadir of Mourinho’s time at the helm.
Some of his disciples will claim the manager can do no wrong and that he’s the victim of some kind of media agenda but the atmosphere inside the ground on a matchday tells its own story.
Without a serious title push or Champions League run this season, it would feel more and more as though the club is entering the kind of wilderness years Liverpool endured during the 1990s.
The Old Trafford giants haven’t come close to winning the league since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 having won 13 titles during his time in charge. Five years could easily become ten and the danger of sliding into irrelevance becomes a very real one.
Mourinho has undoubtedly steadied the ship after the disastrous double whammy of David Moyes and Louis van Gaal but now is the time to push on. The Portuguese is not being helped by a stubborn board with little interest in achieving more than Champions League qualification but, for the fans, more is expected this term.
*Odds are subject to change.