Man Utd 3-2 Aston Villa: Rasmus Hojlund’s first Red Devils goal marks start of new era27 December 2023
He didn't know it at the time but, as Erik ten Hag looked across the home dressing room during the interval of his side's Premier League meeting with Aston Villa, the message he was about to deliver would be a symbolic one for Manchester United.
"I said at half-time: 'keep believing and we will win'."
With his team two goals down and their supporters mutinous, Ten Hag's words not only proved decisive to his team in their eventual thrilling victory, but were extra pertinent to Rasmus Hojlund as he scored the winner and served a reminder to the whole club about their eventual aims under new owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe.
There was added significance to this success because they did it in front of Sir Dave Brailsford - the Ineos head of sport who, along with former Juventus chief executive Jean-Claude Blanc, will take up a seat on the football club board when Ratcliffe's purchase is confirmed in six-to-eight weeks' time.
"I don't know. You'll have to ask them," said Ten Hag, when asked what Brailsford and his colleagues thought of the performance.
"I said before the game that we were competitive with Arsenal and competitive with Liverpool so if we play our best we can beat anyone."
'I had several talks with him... he had to believe'
At one point in the first half, when he tried and failed to reach a low Alejandro Garnacho cross, a home supporter, seated not far from Brailsford, who was on the back row of the directors box with United's interim chief executive Patrick Stewart, yelled in frustration at Hojlund: 'can't you make a decent run'.
The 20-year-old was in the middle of his 17th domestic game since a £64m move from Serie A outfit Atalanta. He was still to score and was looking less and less likely to break his duck.
But Ten Hag has never stopped believing in the Denmark striker. And Hojlund didn't allow his head to drop.
When Bruno Fernandes' 82nd-minute corner was stabbed in his direction by Villa skipper John McGinn after it had initially been flicked on by Jonny Evans, Hojlund reacted quickest, lashing the loose ball home from eight yards.
His relief was obvious as he raced to the corner flag before being submerged by team-mates. Even goalkeeper Andre Onana raced the length of the field to join in.
"I had several talks with him," recounted Ten Hag. "I pointed out he scored a lot for Denmark and scored in the Champions League, so that demonstrated ability. He had to believe in it.
"When strikers don't score it is always a problem but he has a strong character and a big personality, which is what a striker needs. When he keeps investing, the goals will come and he will score more."
Speaking on Match of the Day, former Newcastle forward Alan Shearer said the goal "could be a game changer" for Hojlund.
"He's had to put up with a lot, fairly at times and unfairly at times because of the lack of service," added Shearer.
"Going forward that could and should mean so much to him. We all talk about goals making the difference for forwards. That should be fantastic for him."
United 'looking forward' with new investment
The victory eases the personal pressure on Ten Hag at a time of massive change at Old Trafford.
Not long after the final whistle, three documents relating to Ratcliffe's purchase of 25% of the club were published on the club's website.
One of them contained a lengthy email sent by co-chairs Joel and Avram Glazer to United employees.
"We understand this process has taken time and has inevitably created some uncertainty for colleagues," it said. "But it has been important to conduct the strategic review thoroughly and to find the right partner to take us forward. Thank you for your patience.
"We are excited about the opportunity ahead and realistic about the hard work and commitment that it will require from everyone at Manchester United to help realise it. However, we know from more than 18 years' experience working with you, that we can count on your diligence, dedication, and ability."
For all the soothing words, many inside United feel the conclusion of the search for strategic alternatives has taken too long.
Brailsford did not comment and in a letter to fans groups before the game, Ratcliffe said he would not be making any public statements before the deal is complete, so his views on Ten Hag's future, the current state of the Dutchman's squad and where the bulk of the money needed to refurbish Old Trafford is going to come from will have to wait.
It is unlikely Ineos will be able to play any significant role in United's business during next month's transfer window.
But, still, Ten Hag welcomed their involvement and is convinced it can lead to significant improvement, on and off the pitch.
"We're looking forward," he said. "I think it is positive for the club they are stepping in. They have a lot of experience in sport at the highest level - F1, a cycling team, football clubs. They can only help us and support us to get our targets.
"We are looking forward. They want to work with us and we want to work with them."
This news item was provided by the BBC Sport - Football website - the original link is: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/67825330?at_medium=RSS&at_campaign=KARANGA