Ed Woodward’s departure from Manchester United has led to many reflections on his time as executive vice chairman.
Many of these reflections appeared simultaneously across various news platforms when it was announced that he would be leaving his role on February 1st. These articles carried insight and musings from Manchester United sources or those who recalled comments made by Ed Woodward internally, many of which sounded strikingly similar.
But that is the way when a colossus leaves the stage, the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes, and so on.
There are plenty who scramble, on those occasions, to share their thoughts, emotions and reflections. So it was as Ed Woodward left Manchester United. Friends, observers and insiders have been willing to talk about the good times and the bad.
Woodward has let it be known that things would have been different if, shortly after he had succeeded David Gill, United’s manager Alex Ferguson hadn’t announced he was retiring.
“Well-placed United sources say Woodward was so horrified he began to doubt whether he still wanted the job,” the Daily Mail reported of the moment Ferguson, who had been manager for nearly 27 years, let it be known he was leaving.
“Ferguson, on the way to winning United their 13th Premier League title, was a genius from whom Woodward had intended to learn. Now he was on his own.”
For well placed sources to say that Woodward was horrified that a 71-year-old man was intending to retire would suggest that whatever forward planning he had engaged in before taking the job wasn’t very thorough.
The tone of the many pieces that appeared to mark the announcement accepted that many mistakes had been made during Woodward’s time but the fact that there appeared to be a coordinated approach to marking the departure of a mediocre executive vice chairman suggested that many mistakes will also continue to be made.
They include the idea that a story can be told to contextualise these failures, that if sources close to Ed Woodward talk openly about all that happened over the past nine years, the accomplishments will also come into view.
Woodward may have privately felt that it was important not to be buffeted by the day-to-day bulletins that scream of a club in crisis when they are moving forward but it is also true that talking up the progress (or at least sources close to Woodward talking up the progress) can come across as cloth-eared when Manchester United continue to seem adrift.
Woodward departs with United even further from the top of the table than they were under David Moyes and with signs of progress under Ralf Rangnick impossible to discern, unless the widespread disgruntlement of players considered not good enough for the club is a sign of progress (it may well be).
There have been reports from sources different to the sources close to Ed Woodward’s thinking that many players at the club are unhappy with elements of Rangnick’s approach.
This would seem to confirm the wisdom in United’s reluctance to approach Antonio Conte as they had reservations about how his intensity and micromanaging would go down with the squad.
But these reservations are also an indication that the recruitment which had been identified as a problem at United, and which they feel has improved significantly, is still an issue. A squad which can’t handle direction more advanced or more thorough than that provided by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is not a valuable squad.
It may be that, as United mimic the decline and fall of Liverpool from 1990 to 2015, they have entered the Roy Hodgson era with the appointment of a football intellectual and technocrat who is tone deaf to his surroundings.
So it is a bold and daring move to allow the story to be told of Manchester United’s long journey back from the wilderness when they still seem to be in the wilderness.
The sources close to Woodward see it differently. There are now structures in place to ensure that the most important issue at a club – recruitment – is better. But yet the drift continues and what happens with Woodward’s successor Richard Arnold remains to be seen.
Football clubs are, still, hierarchical places where people – internal and external – are drawn toward the sources of power, especially those who have the power to make the decisions to spend money.
Ferguson shaped Manchester United for a generation but the problem is that Ed Woodward did too for the past eight years. He became the most important figure at the club and the decision of sources close to him to speak freely as Woodward departs suggest that some people never grasped how limiting that was. Like Ferguson, they believed in power and control, and they either hung on to it or relinquished it reluctantly.
A United source told the Mail when reflecting on the appointment of Mourinho:
“The idea with Jose was we would swallow the pill, not get everything we wanted, put up with the chaos but at the same time get this monkey off our back and win the league. We knew that the tightened, paranoid environment Jose creates at clubs can only last for a while. It cannot survive. We knew what we were getting. But we thought he would win us the league first before it exploded.”
Instead Mourinho departed, leaving a toxic club which was so damaged it felt the solution was Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
This was not delegation or confident management but fear. The fear of Ferguson departing was understandable. The fear of talking to Chelsea during the negotiations to sign Juan Mata in case they persuaded Woodward to sell Wayne Rooney to them was less so.
His successor Richard Arnold is said to be content that the football side of the business is managed by the football people now at the club but that situation must be viewed as fluid.
Woodward is said to view the next managerial appointment as a critical one, but, just as the next two weeks are always critical for NPHET, the next managerial appointment is always a critical one for a club, especially a club which has continued to get it wrong.
Rangnick will be part of that selection process, no matter how his time as interim manager unfolds, a structure that suggests that there is very little faith in any one area of the club to make the right decision.
This could create its own issues if the team Rangnick manages continues to struggle, yet he is the man choosing the next manager. If it didn’t work when Alex Ferguson did it, what makes Woodward and Arnold think it will when Rangnick does it?
if things don’t improve will Rangnick have those executive privileges taken away or will United persist with a plan which was, no matter how good it is, simply their latest change of direction of the Woodward era.
It all suggests bureaucracy rather than delegation, a process which is designed to provide cover rather than to give. the best chance of success.
But even in that dysfunction, there is always someone with power or more power than everyone else.
The greatest indictment of Woodward is that during an era dominated by great managers he has failed to find one to managed the most famous club in English football. More importantly, in an era when the great managers like Guardiola and Klopp, and the impressive second rank coaches like Antonio Conte and Mauricio Pochettino, were available to be hired, United managed to miss out on all of them.
That is not a coincidence or a consequence of bad timing, it is a consequence of a certain approach and a certain fear.
Without the presence of a coach like that, United’s power will reside somewhere else, once with Woodward and now with Arnold. While it does, Manchester United are still as likely to be horrified and unprepared for whatever events in football come their way.