“Sit In Protest After Forest,” reads the top line on a flier being handed out on Sir Matt Busby Way. “18 Years. £2bn removed. £1bn wasted. United fans demand a resolution to 18 years of ignorance and silence. Join us, stand with us, fight with us. Stay in your seat.”

The man handing them out close to a 20-metre banner that read “Fight Greed. Fight For United. Fight Glazer” is one of the main members of The 1958, an underground protest collective. The Nottingham Forest game this weekend will be United’s second at home of the season and a sit-in is a new form of protest against the Glazer family and the lack of any clarity as to who will own Manchester United in the future, nine months after the club announced a ‘strategic review’.

A few thousand fans have regularly marched to Old Trafford in protest before games and there have been anti-Glazer chants and flags at almost every game, home and away, but the Glazers remain in control, as uncommunicative and unpopular as ever. Critics cite the irony of protesting against the Glazers while paying money to them to enter Old Trafford, and planned fan walkouts during matches have failed to attract significant numbers. Protests with fans entering well after kick-off have barely impacted on yet another full house, but a peaceful sit-in wouldn’t involve fans missing any football and it will be interesting to see the uptake from the 70,000 United fans inside Old Trafford on Saturday.

“We didn’t think we were going to have to roll into this season doing this,” the leafleteer tells The Athletic on the evening of last week’s Premier League match against Wolves. The 1958 speak only on condition of anonymity. “We thought we’d have received a statement from the owners about what’s going on, but we’re not surprised. They’ve not spoken to fans in 18 years so why are they going to start now? We want a resolution. And we want every United fan to sit with us for 60 minutes after the Forest game. The club have always said they will respect a peaceful protest from the fans.”

(Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

The reasons there’s little love for The Glazers are well known by now.

“The highly leveraged buyout. The debts. The money they’ve taken out of the club. The lack of communication — we feel like match-going fans are the at the bottom of the rung in terms of priorities. Our protest is the chance for the match-going fans to show how they feel. They could put a timeline on how long a sale process may take, but they don’t. They’re making the moves that they’re going to sell — there’s more competence in the football structure and they’ve stopped taking dividends. But are they going to sell?”

Further down Sir Matt Busby Way, closer to the stadium and on a row of terraced houses where a gable end has been painted red and white with the image of United and England women’s goalkeeper Mary Earps under the slogan ‘Welcome to Manchester’, is the headquarters of MUST, Manchester United’s Supporters Trust.

“It has been 265 days since the Glazers announced they would be doing a strategic review but we’re no closer to understanding what the outcome of that is,” JD Deitch, the chair of MUST, tells The Athletic. “We’re led to believe that there are two main bidders, but we have no idea whether the Glazers have any intention to sell or not. The club is in need of investment, certainly for the stadium, and there’s this cloud hanging over. We’ve likened it to a hostage situation. The Glazers need to pull their fingers out, one way or another.

“It’s clear they need to go and clear that United needs investment by them going and selling the club.”

Right on time, the clouds burst in northern England’s high summer and soak thousands of United fans making their way towards the stadium, a river of Lowryesque humanity marching through streams of August rain. An estimated 60,000 fans enter Old Trafford along Sir Matt Busby Way.

It’s a time of tension for United fans. Optimism for Erik ten Hag’s work as manager is tempered not only by frustration over the ownership situation, but also displeasure around the Mason Greenwood saga. By the Trinity statue of 1960s legends George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, around 150 fans from The 1958 hold up banners reading, “Love United, Hate Glazers”, “60 MIN SIT IN AFTER FOREST. WE WANT GLAZERS OUT”, “SELL THE CLUB” and “WE WANT OUR CLUB BACK”. They also let off green and yellow flares, the colours symbolising the protests since 2010. TV cameras crews and photographers get the footage they need, it’ll be a lead item on BBC News the following day.

(Andy Mitten/The Athletic)

The varying demographics of United’s vast global fanbase are evident on the forecourt. Fans, mainly visitors for a one-off game rather than season ticket holders, are prime customers for the half and half matchday scarves being peeled off the arms of Mancunian street grafters. A half United/Wolves scarf is barely contentious, a half United/City or United/Liverpool one is abhorrent to long-standing fans, but there’s clearly a market for them.

The television journalists and their cameras then move across to a smaller group of fans forming a different protest against Greenwood being allowed to play for United again. It’s a divisive issue and feelings are running high. There’s a flag that reads, “FEMALE FANS DEMAND NO GREENWOOD RETURN. END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN”. And in the middle is the old badge with Manchester United Football Club on it.

A new group called Female Fans Against Greenwood’s Return has been formed by longstanding United fans.

“Today, we female fans of Manchester United are demanding that the club abide by their duty of care towards female fans and employees and demonstrates a zero-tolerance approach towards acts of violence against women by refusing to bring Mason Greenwood back to the squad,” begins their statement. In one poll by the United We Stand fanzine, 75 per cent of fans are against Greenwood returning to play for United again. Elsewhere online, the numbers can be very different. It wasn’t until the following Monday that the club would finally perform a U-turn and announce Greenwood would not represent Manchester United again.

Thousands mingle, dodging the puddles as kick-off approaches. Smart, suited males and women in heels and summer dresses cover their heads with their hands as they make their way towards some of Old Trafford’s 9,000 executive seats where they’ll be wined and dined. Families group for photos in front of the illuminated Manchester United sign above 20-metre-high images of Bruno Fernandes, Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford, United’s three most marketable stars. They’re wearing the new white third kit.

The anti-Glazer protest flags are then taken into the Stretford End and unfurled in the Red Army section above the tunnel where the players enter the pitch for maximum exposure. The group is now 6,000 strong, with 5,500 of them season ticket holders. Just over 3,000 of them can fit into the Stretford End, a figure likely to be increased next season when an executive section in the middle of the stand is made into general admission tickets. United have supported fan initiatives, ticket prices have been held or barely increased for over a decade, and drink prices are cheap compared to other stadiums, but everything is clouded by the continued Glazer ownership.

Protest flags are unfurled as the teams walk out, before eyes settle on the actual football and the impressive performance of the visiting Wolves side. Opposite the Stretford End, a huge pitch side stand flag reads: “And it’s glory and honour the great man he said. There’s nothing on earth like being a red.”

The great man is Matt Busby. What on earth would he make of what Manchester United has become?

(Top photo: Visionhaus/Getty Images)