Everyone knows that when a spin doctor becomes the story, the game is usually up. So what happens when the spin doctor becomes the story before the story has even begun? Well, Manchester United are currently doing their best to find out.
It should probably come as no surprise, given what a farce United have become in recent years, that in hiring someone to improve their public image, they further tarnished their public image. Such is the way of things at the club these days. Still, the speed with which things started to unravel after the appointment of Neil Ashton, he of The Sun, The Daily Mail and the now-defunct News of the World fame, is rather impressive.
You’d think that a man as savvy as Ashton, who you presume has been around the block enough times to have picked up a thing or two, would realise that the best strategy when setting about polishing a turd would be to do so quietly. But no. Instead of shuffling in through the back door and diligently carrying out his brief, Ashton immediately announced his arrival with more fanfare than you would imagine seeing at a Liverpool victory parade.
Suddenly there were stories everywhere you looked about what a terrific job United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, has been doing over the last six and a half years. We must have missed something. For journalists were now falling over themselves to praise the ex-banker, who was responsible for brokering the deal that saw the club fall into the hands of the reviled Glazers. Woodward, it turns out, is not the bumbling buffoon he’s portrayed to be, but a misunderstood genius – the executive vice-chairman equivalent of Picasso.
As for those fans who sing nasty songs about him, well, they’re little more than thugs. Each and every one of them would like nothing more than to chop him up into little pieces, or throw him on a bonfire with his employers.
Who could possibly have seen this coming? Well, everyone actually. For it’s a tale as old as time. Football fans who should know their place being portrayed as beer-swilling criminals who barely manage to win their daily fight against the animal urges within. It’s hardly groundbreaking stuff. Indeed, The Sun have a bit of history when it comes to that particular narrative.
This image was given further credence by an angry mob turning up at one of Woodward’s houses and flinging flares over the walls on Tuesday night. And it says a lot that, almost immediately, conspiracy theories were doing the rounds that this was all an act staged by Ashton in order to evoke sympathy for Woodward and revulsion towards United’s fanbase. It’s difficult to imagine the trust between the two sinking any lower.
Most fans, of course, do not visit the homes of their football club’s employees wearing hoods in the dead of night. Still, it’s all too easy to tar them with the same brush, rather than accepting that they are genuinely distressed, at their wits’ end, horrified by the rot that is eating away at their club from the inside out. They see their stadium crumbling like a Greek temple and they despair at the accusations from rival fans and those in the media – who should, and surely do, know better – that they are simply a bit peeved about being in fifth place.
As for Woodward, we were told that he ‘played a huge part’ in bringing Bruno Fernandes to the club. Presumably, in much the same way one’s milkman plays a huge part in delivering one’s milk. It being his job.
That quote gave us all a good laugh, but you begin to wonder whether Woodward is now the Boris Johnson figure at United, with Ashton playing the role of Dominic Cummings. Johnson, after all, spent the entirety of the recent general election campaign embroiled in one gaffe after another, insulting and offending huge swathes of people at every turn, and hiding in fridges. We all thought such a blundering fool could never become prime minister. And yet, with Cummings in the background, targeting just the right audience with just the right material, he did.
Perhaps Ashton, lurking in plain sight and sending all this claptrap out into the ether on a daily basis, is not directing it at those of us who see ourselves as clued-up. Perhaps he is going for the more easily persuaded among us, who believes all the spin with a knowing nod and gets behind the club as a good fan should. Indeed, there have even been a few Twitter accounts set up in recent days that appear to trawl the social media site for tweets criticising Woodward and refuting every word. Now, where have we seen that before?
It’s all rather tiresome and, for those of us who just want to watch a bit of football and experience the ups and downs that doing so brings, all rather seedy. A football club should not need a spin doctor, and nor should an executive vice-chairman. The fact that United and Woodward felt the need to hire Ashton is a damning indictment on their shambolic running of the club in recent years, and a clear sign of how little regard they have for the intelligence of fans.
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