Bruno Fernandes was part way through a 13.8-kilometre run in 33-degree heat when he turned around and realised a man in his fifties was just behind him. Not just any 52-year-old, admittedly, but the Manchester United manager. It was an early sign of the iron resolve of Erik ten Hag, the man whose commitment to high standards extends to his own fitness. For Fernandes, who had considered his own future last season when he wondered if United’s ambitions extended beyond finishing fourth, it was a reassuring sight. Ten Hag was sharing the pain and sharing the blame after a terrible start to his reign.
United lost his first game in charge, 2-1 to Brighton. They lost his second, too, 4-0 to Brentford. Thomas Frank’s side had run 13.8 kilometres more than United. So Ten Hag cancelled his players’ day off, got them to run the ground they failed to cover in London and demonstrated he could do it himself.
“All of a sudden, you look backwards and you see your manager running with you,” Fernandes said. “When a manager does the punishment - because that’s what you have to call it, it was a punishment - it makes us feel he knows he was part of that bad result and he wants to make us understand we are together on this in a good way, in a bad way, in the good moments and in the bad moments. That shows that he’s a manager that takes the responsibility and not only makes the responsibility on the players. That was a good sign for us to understand that the discipline would be for everyone and not only for some of the players or some of the people.”
It was, he feels, the catalyst for change. United go into Saturday’s Manchester derby on a run of eight successive victories. Fernandes feels the turnaround began with Ten Hag’s first win, 2-1 against Liverpool, eight days after the former Ajax manager implemented his fitness regime on one of the hottest days of the year. “The discipline the manager brought to the club, to everyone has changed the mentality of the entire club, not even only the players,” Fernandes reflected.
A disciplinarian proved unafraid to drop his most in-form player when Marcus Rashford missed the start of a team meeting. “Everyone noticed that the manager was changing his first 11 because Marcus was late,” Fernandes said. “And at the same moment everyone felt like ‘we have to be here on time, that is the responsibility that we have. We have to do what the manager wants and that is not what the manager wants.’”
Rashford was the substitute who then became the match-winner at Wolves but Fernandes reflected: “That shows the manager gives the same respect to the ones who are not playing. Marcus did really well because he knew he was wrong. It is difficult to accept sometimes, but he accepted it, came on and decided the game for us.”
In 20 minutes, Fernandes uses the word “everyone” some 30 times. It seems a sign of a collectivism United lacked last season when they rarely looked united. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Cristiano Ronaldo goes unmentioned. Certainly United’s wretched 2021-22, their worst season in more than three decades, prompted Fernandes to ponder whether they shared his aims. He is arguably their best signing since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, but has not won any silverware at Old Trafford. Before signing a new deal in April, he went to director of football John Murtough and technical director Darren Fletcher with his concerns. His motives were not primarily financial. He sought reassurances theirs were not either.
“I had a conversation last year with the club when everyone knew that Ralf [Rangnick] was not the coach for the future and I said: ‘I want to be a solution for the club, I want to be helpful for the club, but I also want to know where we are going. Is there a plan, is there a future?’” Fernandes recalled.
“I said to the club: ‘Obviously money is important, no one can hide that, it’s always important to earn more and more and more in football or life, whatever job you do, you always want to have the best for yourself. But at that time, I’m on good money, I don’t want a new contract without knowing that we have a good future in the club. I want to know where we are going, I don’t need to know who the manager is, but I want to know just as a club, do you have a plan for the future? What are your thoughts on where we can go? What does the club want? Does the club want to achieve trophies or does the club want to build something to go to the Champions League?’”
They are questions that seemed to cut to the heart of the problems around United in recent years: there was money, in copious quantities, but was there a real strategy, or the excellence required to implement one? Fernandes’ frustration reflected many fans’ feelings. His ambitions extended beyond securing the Champions League cash.
“Because for me, that’s not enough and the club demands more,” he added. “The history of this club, the quality of the players we have, it demands more than just being here and fighting for fourth place. It demands trophies, it demands at least fighting for trophies.”
If Ten Hag has provided many of the answers the Portuguese was looking for, he enters his second Manchester derby having lost the first 6-3. But Fernandes feels an inferiority complex is gone; perhaps United sweated it out in August. “You go to every game and the feeling you have now is that we are no afraid to play against anyone,” he said. “In the past you could not see that.” And now he can see the brighter future he was looking for.