One of the most enduring visuals of last summer was of Ed Woodward holding José Mourinho’s arm while the pair talked after a game during United’s ill-fated 2018 America Tour. It appeared fraught. Woodward was aware of the cameras. Eye contact was minimal. Mourinho appeared eager to get away. The Portuguese had told the media earlier that he didn’t know where Mr Woodward was (“he’s on his summer holidays”) while also saying he did not know whether Mr Woodward was working on the team’s summer transfers.
The problem was obvious. United needed a centre half. They were linked with Leicester’s Harry Maguire and Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld but the transfer ticker was surprisingly inactive. Fred and Diogo Dalot were signed. Were United trying to do the Real Madrid tactic of coming in late for a player and forcing the selling teams’ hands?
In the dying embers of the transfer window, United were linked with a patchwork of names; from Kurt Zouma to Diego Godin to Michael Keane but as the window slammed shut, they were without a new centre half.
It was not the end of the story. That night, a number of stories emerged from “well-placed sources at United” indicating that Mourinho was not backed in the transfer window as he wished to sell Anthony Martial and was told that his transfer targets were “too old.”
Additional stories emerged that Manchester United would look to employ a Director of Football, in line with continental European practices to oversee the footballing direction of the club, to make signings in keeping with that overarching direction, and to ensure that future managerial changes need not be as catastrophic as the most recent changes at Old Trafford. This person would also ensure that a calamitous window such as that of summer 2018 would not be allowed to happen again.
It was insinuated that while José Mourinho’s input was appreciated in Manchester United transfer dealings, henceforth it would be the remit of the soon-to-be incoming Director of Football. In fact, when Mourinho spoke to the media on the eve of the Leicester game the next day, he used the term “head coach” when openly speculating about his own job description.
It was here when Ed Woodward made his first serious flaws of the season. Not only was he briefing the media against his own manager, but there is also a well-established belief that a board must either back or sack the manager. Ed Woodward did neither. He made Mourinho a lame duck manager not giving him his desired signings and then doubled down on this briefing the media. Mourinho should have been sacked in August if Ed Woodward decided then that he did not trust his judgement.
Instead it dragged on for four months and Manchester United were suddenly in a ‘new’ reboot while Liverpool and Manchester City were battling it out for the league title.
Manchester based journalist Andy Mitten has written on numerous occasions this year how various esteemed Director of Football candidates have offered their services to United only to be swiftly rebuffed.
Ten months on and Manchester United still lack a Director of Football, with “well placed sources at Manchester United” telling British newspapers this week that for another summer transfer window, Ed Woodward would be overseeing transfers. Despite talk last August, it appears that no serious efforts have been made to again avoid the disastrous window that went on in 2018.
When it came to sacking Mourinho in December, it had become necessary. While you could argue Mourinho should have been fired in August — given his conduct on the tour or the fact that Woodward did not back him — Ed Woodward did give him every chance to correct his wrongs during the season. It was also the first managerial sacking of the Woodward regime which was not leaked to the media.
The hiring of Solskjaer was not an atypical Woodward appointment — it avoided the brash, big names for which he is accustomed — and was seen as something more subtle, nuanced and a return to the old style of Manchester United. Was it a balanced football decision?
And for a period of time, it seemed that the Solskjaer appointment was inspired. Eight, nine, ten wins in a row. Manchester United were finally humming. Paul Pogba was on fire and Chevrolet were finally getting some good press. PSG suffered another embarrassing Champions League defeat and Manchester United were back.
Then rumours started to swirl in mid-March that Solskjaer would be made permanent manager – and few could argue with that – but the strangeness was that it might happen as early as the March international window. United still had a double header with Barcelona in the Champions League to come, along with tricky Premier League games with Chelsea, Manchester City, and Everton. Champions League qualification was far from certain.
It prompted many questions: why make Solskjaer permanent manager in March as opposed to June? Why the hurry? Why risk derailing the season with a tricky set of fixtures approaching and potentially create a second lame duck manager in the same season?
Sadly, this is exactly what happened.
The metrics for the Interim vs. Permanent Manager status for Solskjaer make painful reading. Manchester United under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer only lost two games before his permanent appointment and only managed to win three games after. United were knocked out of the Champions League by Barcelona and finished outside the top four.
The worst element of Solskjaer’s permanent appointment is that — like many of Woodward’s other mistakes — it was an unforced error.
While the permanent appointment could be seen as mere optics, it was catastrophic how much the club’s season nosedived and supporters are left wondering whether the players might have been more ‘hungry’ had the appointment waited; or whether the summer transfer window would have been more productive were United in the hunt for an elite manager such as Mauricio Pochettino or Massimiliano Allegri - leading figures who appear to be open to moves this summer.
The worst case scenario happened and Manchester United are currently in ‘reboot’ mode again; with morale at an all-time low and supporters almost expecting to see another ‘reboot’ in eighteen months’ time.
Perhaps the most glaring problem with Ed Woodward’s tenure at Manchester United is that he is failing to identify the deficiencies of his regime and suitably correct them. It seemed last summer that Woodward had identified a weakness in his management structure - footballing direction and signings - and was setting measures in place to prevent that from ever happening again. Yet this has not happened.
For a smart businessman, this is a dereliction of duty. For all the talk about Ed Woodward, the commercial guru, there is little point in Woodward having turned Manchester United into a money-making-machine for a small length of time there only to piss it all into the pockets of Alexis Sánchez, Mino Raiola, and Jorge Mendes. Manchester United have smashed commercial revenue earnings, yet clubs on far smaller profit margins are spending their money in a far more savvy manner.
Manchester United have now passed the half decade mark of Woodward’s leadership, and for all the money earned, it has accounted for nothing. Wolves are a far better run team than Manchester United in 2019; not to mention Manchester City, Liverpool, and Tottenham.
So comes the question: what now? Manchester United are still making money and the Glazers seem happy, so what is going to happen? Why would the Glazers remove Woodward when he continues to make money for the club? What harm if they are not winning? Money is better than winning.
There is a new philosophy at United this summer. Young, British, and hungry. But we’ve had this before. We had multiple reboots. Are we really happy with a reboot of Anfield circa 1995?
Regardless of Manchester United’s fortunes this season, it is obvious that the mismanagement of the club needs to be addressed. The green and gold campaign against the Glazers in 2008 failed and perhaps only emboldened the Glazers. It lacked an edge and at that point, Manchester United were a winning side.
Ed Woodward has repeatedly failed as Manchester United Chief Executive and it is high time that a more competent person was leading the football club.
To think of this as a critique or a season review of Ed Woodward at Manchester United in isolation is useless and ultimately goes nowhere. Fodder for the comment boards. Think of this more as a warning, an early call to arms. Be prepared. Manchester United and their supporters are currently on the precipice of ambivalence, and something drastic needs to be done.
“I’m only one supporter, what can I do?”
Everybody reading this is only one supporter who cares about the club. Like the collective strength of a team can be greater than the sum of its individual constituent parts, the Manchester United fan base might need to rally and defend their team, for they care about the team far more than the people currently running the club.
It might seem insignificant but it can have an effect. In 2018, Irish rugby player Paddy Jackson was acquitted of rape in a case dubbed The Belfast Rape Trial. Despite being acquitted, Whatsapp messages had emerged during the trial in which Jackson and his friends spoke negatively about women. This left a sour taste left in the mouths of many supporters, resulted in sponsors being petitioned and Jackson’s contract being cancelled with his club Ulster and the player being forced to leave the country.
Jackson signed for French team Perpignan after his trial but last week was reported to be signing for London Irish, a team sponsored by Irish drinks company Diageo. Diageo have since announced that they would be re-evaluating their twenty-five-year partnership with London Irish and similarly, it now seems that London Irish are rethinking their signing of Paddy Jackson.
Ed Woodward has had his time leading Manchester United and should the Glazers be unwilling to remove him from his role as Chief Executive, the supporters should be prepared to take action. The supporters cannot continue to accept this level of mediocrity at Old Trafford.
There may come a time where Manchester United fans need to come together, don their camouflage, develop a militia and dig figurative trenches across from Adidas, Chevrolet, Aon, and Kohler, letting these organisations – the only people whose opinions matter to the Glazer family - know that Manchester United supporters will not be conned into buying their products so long as they are being conned with a fraudulent excuse for a football club.