Manchester United’s Ban on Journalists Has Backfired, as Their Season Descends into Chaos

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Losing on the pitch, taking leave of their senses off it. If anything could quite capture the turmoil, panic and sheer irrationality at Manchester United, it was their decision yesterday to ban a number of journalists. Naturally, they missed their target and the point.

If this latest debacle serves as proof of anything it is that this is a once great club fumbling in the fog.

But we knew that already, just as we know there is disillusionment among the playing staff. We know because we hear it from sources at the club and beyond and have done for some time.

Those stories this week of a fractured dressing room, which prompted the ejection of toys and reporters from the Carrington pram, were new updates to an ongoing theme.

That they were delivered by credible and respected journalists means they can be safely trusted — the cohort includes reporters who have been around the club for many years.

Manchester United banned several major news outlets from attending Erik ten Hag’s press conference on Tuesday

Sky Sports chief reporter Solhekol has been banned

ESPN's Dawson is among the other journalists banned by United for their reporting

United did not allow either Sky Sports’ Kaveh Solhekol (left) or ESPN’s Rob Dawson (right) to attend Tuesday’s press conference, ahead of their match against Chelsea at Old Trafford

The club were angered when the journalists had failed to contact the club prior to publishing several stories

The club were angered when the journalists had failed to contact the club prior to publishing several stories

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They will know players, staff, agents and hangers-on and the journalists are well aware that United are not United.

That doesn’t make the club unique — look to a struggling team and you will find a tense mood and a few outliers. Look to a successful squad and you will see a player unhappy that he is not part of it.

That is natural. That is life in the furnace, in football and sport, in newspapers and broadcasters and life in general.

The ban was put in place by United's communications director Andrew Ward

The ban was put in place by United’s communications director Andrew Ward

But United’s manoeuvre in the face of journalistic criticism is very much the last refuge of the desperate. It is an act of paranoia. It is the wafer-thin armour of a club that wishes to evoke the muscular spirit of Sir Alex Ferguson — ‘youse are all f****** idiots’ — but their illusion left with him. It is the behaviour of a club no better at plugging leaks than manager Erik ten Hag is at stringing together wins this season.

His employer’s point in all of this is what we might consider insular territory. The nitty gritty. The weeds. It is interesting to journalists because it is part of daily life, but to the outside it was blissfully invisible, or it was until United made it public.

The crux of their gripe is that they were not approached for comment on stories, citing their need for an opportunity to ‘challenge or contextualise’. Often there is great merit in those discussions and occasionally there is a legal necessity, too.

But other times, and all journalists know this, it becomes a forum for the subject of enquiries to limit legitimate reporting. To muffle. To use those informal, background briefings to soften the edges of a story without putting a fingerprint on it.

Those exchanges can be valuable and informative, and there are many excellent, honest operators at many clubs, but anyone who believes full transparency is forthcoming in such conversations has a remarkable generosity of spirit. They will see presents under the tree this month and see only magic.

United’s truth is not one of an organisation that has been hounded and criticised beyond reasonable boundaries. Their truth is that this season has quickly unravelled into a shambles of their own making, factoring in the flip-flopping of the Mason Greenwood saga, the Jadon Sancho mutiny, the immovability of the Glazers and the dross we have seen on the field.

With six defeats in 14 Premier League games, they are in a mess. They are a club where the players can see what we see — backwards momentum from the promise of last season and no discernible playing style. There are no markers of progress.

That the men on the pitch are not unilaterally onboard was as good as confirmed by Ten Hag on Tuesday when he said: ‘I listen always to my players and I give them always opportunities to speak.

Sir Alex Ferguson had tried to ban several journalists from press conferences when he was Man United manager

Sir Alex Ferguson had tried to ban several journalists from press conferences when he was Man United manager

Reports this week had claimed that there were fractions within the Old Trafford dressing room

Reports this week had claimed that there were fractions within the Old Trafford dressing room 

United have endured a difficult start to the new season, with the club's hopes of qualifying for the Champions League hanging by a thin thread after their 3-3 draw to Galatasaray

United have endured a difficult start to the new season, with the club’s hopes of qualifying for the Champions League hanging by a thin thread after their 3-3 draw to Galatasaray 

‘If the players have a different opinion of course I will listen, but they haven’t told me that, or maybe one or two have. But in general, the majority, they want to play like this.’

It would perhaps be misguided to go in too hard on Ten Hag on this particular issue.

He has shown strong leadership at times — the Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo situations showed backbone — and his intolerance of poor discipline is another trait we usually commend. At United they need it.

But as a denial it was like so much else at the club — a swing and a miss in the act of United making themselves look foolish.

IT’S ALL KICKING OFF! 

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