As Jose Mourinho vanishes in a cloud of sulphur, and as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer takes control of Manchester United’s first team affairs, it is perhaps time to look afresh at the man behind the managers. Ed Woodward, executive vice-chairman. Perhaps that weird title should have been the first clue.
It is often assumed that Woodward is, in some fundamental way, a bit dull. He’s a former accountant and investment banker, and his presence at the helm of United’s operations is, on the surface, an extension of the money business. And money men are dull, right? They’re certainly not football people, whatever that might mean.
Yet the world of high finance has done fascinatingly terrifying things to the world we live in. And it is becoming clear that Woodward, for his part, is overseeing a grand strangeness at United. Having been given almost total operational autonomy at one of the world’s biggest football clubs, he is conducting a series of malignant experiments into the very stuff of management.
United are his laboratory. The Premier League is the innocent village at the bottom of the hill. And he’ll show them. He’ll show them all.
Consider: David Moyes, Woodward’s first big experiment. Where others have sought to discover proof of managerial ability in the obvious places — a haul of trophies, say, or a record of innovation and style — Woodward knew better. If the greatest of all the managers was a flinty Scotsman, then if the qualities of “flintiness” and “Scottishness” could be isolated …
Turned out to be nonsense, of course. But it was an early statement of maverick intent from Woodward. Here is a man who doesn’t just think outside the box; he sets it on fire.
Consider: Louis van Gaal. Or, “Ed Woodward: reanimator”. It’s an interesting question, to be sure: what happens when you take a veteran coach and noted obsessive technical ideologue, one of the maven priests of Dutch football, and let him loose on a squad that contains Chris Smalling.
It turns out the answer wasn’t half as interesting, sadly, but it did give us one of the great substitutions. Where were you, when Nick Powell came on for Juan Mata? Woodward was standing on top of a castle, cackling as the lightning cracked around him.
Consider: Jose Mourinho. Here we see Woodward investigating the potential for management to operate as a kind of healing therapy. The premise, it seems, was to see if the size of the Manchester United job, the heavy weight of all that expectation and history and money, could press together the cracks in Mourinho’s soul.
Yes, he’d failed at Chelsea. Yes, he’d turned a talented squad into a bickering sack of rats. And yes, he’d been dismissed, and rightly so. But lightening a man’s burdens is such predictable thinking. Tired convention, ripe for disruption. Give him a heavier burden! The way out is through!
The way out was not through.
And now, Solskjaer. Here we see the football manager not as subject to be healed, but as healer. He comes to the club to make everybody else feel better; to lay hands on the trembling fanbase, to soothe away the kinks and knots. Never mind the multiple calamities of his time at Cardiff; never mind the myriad complexities of United’s bruised and fractured dressing room. Never mind, you know, the football.
Weaponised niceness. A large injection of getting the club. The spirit of ‘99. Let’s see how the cadaver responds to that. Pull the switch, Igor!
So United jerk back into something like life, as the still-warm corpse of the last project cools in pieces on the ground. There will be press conferences. There will be statements of intent. There will even be a few games of football at some point, though good luck predicting how they’ll go.
And above it all, English football’s Dr Moreau adjusts his large, expensive scarf, and smiles, as another monstrous hybrid goes lurching out into the world.