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Ed Woodward is creating a double-sided legacy at Manchester United

Unprecedented off-field growth has coincided with misguided and directionless sporting decisions

Hull City v Manchester United - Premier League Photo by Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

There’s an argument for Ed Woodward as the epitome of the modern businessman; that savvy, upwardly mobile high achiever who has reached the summit of the business world. The one-time physics graduate found himself at JP Morgan in 1999 as a senior investment banker before later advising the Super Bowl winning Glazer family through their takeover of Manchester United. That takeover was a leveraged buyout for which Woodward has been credited. It is unclear if the move was Woodward’s idea, but since his arrival in Manchester he has been responsible for transforming the business side of the football club.

Woodward joined Manchester United after the takeover, initially in the area of financial planning before moving into commercial and media operations in 2007. It was in this role where Woodward really excelled, driving Manchester United’s marketing and marketing receipts into new areas and greater profits. It was Woodward’s proficiency in this role which enabled him to take over from David Gill as Chief Executive in 2013.

It’s not the entire story however. There’s another argument. That Woodward might indeed be a savvy businessman, but many of those in the Trafford Bar would argue that he’s a Johnny Big Balls who knows nothing about football. He hasn’t done much to help that image either. At least Martin Edwards’ family had been steeped in United. Woodward speaks like a man who understands little about the average football fan.

Woodward has cosied up to journalists, giving them scoops only for Manchester United to end up looking foolish. Woodward’s triumphs have been forgotten though his failures never will; the botched signing of Cesc Fabregas, overpaying for Marouane Fellaini and having the Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp claim he was put off by Woodward’s suggestion that United was “Disneyland for adults.”

United were given the run around by Sergio Ramos, Diego Godin and Antoine Griezmann as pawns in their own contract negotiations. Woodward never saw that coming. A real football man would’ve known Ramos wouldn’t leave Madrid. The appointments of big name managers like Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho still hang heavy around the neck of Woodward, as do the badly handled sackings of David Moyes and Van Gaal. Woodward has found the Johnny Big Balls reputation hard to shake; that view that he is the type of man who couldn’t cut it on the Stretford End and has probably never even been in the Tollgate.

He couldn’t pick Gerry Daly out of a line-up.

But there is a bigger picture if you can put the biased football fan aside. Despite his failings, Woodward has transformed Manchester United. You could even say he has transformed the football landscape and maybe even more than many genuine football men ever did. He threw out the Alex Ferguson/David Gill handbook and brought an apparently modern financial perspective to the club. Ferguson had supposedly opted to be financially frugal from most of his final years at United, castigating the expensive signings of others (such as Alexis Sánchez to Barcelona or Lucas Moura to Paris Saint-Germain) as a demonstration of the world gone mad, and there being no value in the market.

No value in the market.

Ed Woodward never respected the sentiment. It seemed that Ferguson and Gill had been intent on paying off the £500m debt that the Glazers had hung around the neck of the club to finance their take over. Ferguson had opened the door for the Glazers and might have felt a guilt about the debt. Woodward never did.

The Glazers never had the money, you know. They bought the club on the back of the money that the club would make. They then made the club pay off the cost of them owning it. To some observers it was equal measures genius and criminal. To the fans, it was daylight robbery, and perhaps by his association to the takeover, it is emblematic of why the fans will never accept Ed Woodward.

In his second season as Chief Executive, ‘Woodward Economics’ began in earnest. Fiscal prudence be damned, no value in the market was shelved and the mantra was suddenly you gotta spend money to make money. It was the Real Madrid perspective; sign the players and they will make the money back in shirt sales. It was the Johnny Big Balls strategy on steroids. Florentino Perez in Manchester. Madrid had openly derided the £25m that they paid United for David Beckham as something they could make back in shirt sales in a week and now Woodward operated in the same way.

The strange thing is that Woodward Economics actually worked. During this time, Manchester United became a commercial behemoth. Not just in terms of English or European football, but sport globally. The value of the sterling did help. Woodward and United studied foreign markets and foreign sports to become one of the biggest teams on the planet.

Manchester United were more valuable than Barcelona and Real Madrid and were up there with the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. Again, the value of the sterling helped but it was Manchester United’s commercial wing dividing up every single market and franchising every element of their sponsorship that allowed the club to become so phenomenally wealthy. Ed Woodward’s star had never been so high and many were marvelling at the dichotomy in Manchester; this amazingly successful commercial entity that failed to find success on the pitch.

While you can criticise Woodward as the man who failed to sign a central midfielder in his first window and then got conned by an injured Falcao in his second, his financial creativity allowed Manchester United to traverse rocky waters in terms of footballing output to still remain a world leader.

The problem was that the on-field performances were not reflecting a successful club. Manchester United were a team in turmoil. Woodward claimed in a conference call that results on the pitch did not impact on finances. This didn’t help his popularity with the fans. On-field performance is all that matters to the fans. Manchester City fans have proven their ability to turn a blind eye to the source of the finances at the Etihad. Finances don’t matter to the fans once they can afford their mega signings.

Woodward was missing the point. The fans understood that being the most valuable sports team in the world never mattered to the New York Yankees and it never helped their cause on the field either.

Woodward’s commercial victories were lauded. Manchester United gave the perspective of unrivalled growth in the past decade; but the view is not entirely true. Their financial revenue has decreased in the past three Deloitte Football Money League reviews. Based on figures released last week, Manchester United’s revenue has dropped for a third successive year (£689m in 2017, £676m in 2018 and £666m in 2019 for figures based on the 2017-2018 season). The decrease in sterling has hardly helped Manchester United as they are now merely the third richest football team in the world. Not so long ago, Manchester United were teetering on the brink of a $5 billion valuation but the collapse of the sterling, coupled with the misadventures of Mourinho have once again made that vision a pipe dream.

Woodward has paved the way but now every other team is now copying his tactics for commercial growth. Other teams are now catching up. Woodward’s ingenuity was useful for its time and his financial acumen kept a failing Manchester United in the game, but he will never be celebrated or lauded by the fans for that.

The failings of Ed Woodward, namely the football side of things, need to finally pick up and create a more balanced club. The Solskjaer appointment went against type for Woodward. It wasn’t the Johnny Big Balls move but it was a signal that he is beginning to understand the way Manchester United work as a football team. It was an appointment for the fans more than the money men. If Woodward has proved anything in his career, he has proved an ability to adapt and improve.

Ed Woodward has it all to do as Manchester United move ahead. He must decide the next manager of Manchester United, and whether that will be Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Mauricio Pochettino. His gut will tell him Pochettino because that’s the type of flash signing or appointment he likes, but Solskjaer might be the no brainer appointment that Manchester United need. Woodward needs to start getting the footballing decisions correct and the next choice for manager will tell how much he has learned. It is a decision which will dictate the next era of Manchester United and whether Woodward is merely a commercial whizz kid, or a savvy business operator that has earned his stripes running the world’s greatest sports team.