CHRIS WHEELER: New manager, new season, new hope… then the match began! Even by the wretched standards Man United have been setting over the past decade, this was a real kick in the guts
Erik ten Hag marched back towards the tunnel, too angry and probably too embarrassed to raise his head towards the stands as the boos rang out around Old Trafford at half-time yesterday.
At least his decision to switch the home and away dug-outs here over the summer meant the walk of shame was a few metres shorter.
Forty-five minutes earlier, he had emerged into the afternoon sunshine to a carnival atmosphere. New manager, new season, new hope. A couple of new signings in the Manchester United line-up too.
If Erik ten Hag didn’t realise the size of the job at Manchester United, he does now
A carnival atmosphere quickly turned into a nightmare as United’s crumbled in the season opener against Brighton
Ten Hag was given a standing ovation and reciprocated with a wave to the crowd and a handshake for United’s mascot Fred the Red.
It is hard to put into words just how much the mood changed in the first half. Even by the wretched standards United have been setting over the past decade, this was quite the reality check.
One would have thought the fans would be used to it by now after so many false dawns. Yet each new managerial appointment seems to breathe new belief into this club, even though they must have an inkling of what happens next.
It usually takes a little longer than one half of football for the bubble to burst though. Of the seven previous managers — permanent, interim and caretaker — who have followed Sir Alex Ferguson into the job, only Louis van Gaal had lost his first match in charge. Maybe it is a Dutch thing.
Ferguson also lost his opening game, so let’s not rush to judgement just yet. Still, this must have felt like a kick to the guts for Ten Hag.
It’s still early days for Ten Hag but this defeat must have felt like a kick in the guts for him
By the time, he made the return journey down the touchline at the interval, United were two goals down and well on their way to defeat. The new manager had taken the bold decision to leave Cristiano Ronaldo on the bench and you could not blame him.
He had an obligation to put his trust in the players who had completed a full pre-season and gone on tour to Thailand and Australia. Ronaldo cannot pick himself.
But if the Portugal star and his agent Jorge Mendes wanted a demonstration of why he is justified in asking to leave a club they clearly feel cannot match his ambitions this season, then it was all in evidence at Old Trafford yesterday.
The decision to play Christian Eriksen as a false nine did not work but, then again, neither did Ronaldo’s arrival in the 52nd minute to mixture of cheers and boos.
Brighton scored a scruffy own goal to make things interesting but no grandstand finish came from it.
Ten Hag sent on another substitute, Donny van de Beek, with a handwritten note for captain Harry Maguire, and goodness knows what it said.
Cristiano Ronaldo started on the bench, but ten Hag praised his impact after his introduction
Three more replacements — Anthony Elanga, Tyrell Malacia and Alejandro Garnacho — followed at the death but Brighton could not have seen out the game more comfortably.
At the final whistle, Ten Hag strode on to the pitch to thank the match officials before turning towards the tunnel one more time.
He glanced over his shoulder at Ronaldo — who was standing with his hands on his hips in that familiar pose he does when United lose.
The one that says: ‘Whatever’s going wrong here isn’t my fault.’
If Ten Hag did not already appreciate the task he has taken on, he does now.