“No one said it would be easy,” sang a lovesick Sheryl Crow on her album, Tuesday Night Music Club, back in the nineties. It’s probably a sentiment Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman, Ed Woodward, can get behind, when he looks back on the last six and a half years. No one said it would be easy to replace the most successful manager in the club’s history. Then again, surely it shouldn’t have been this hard. Surely it didn’t need to go so wrong.
But wrong it has gone. Horribly wrong. Managers have come and gone, players have been bought and sold, and careers have been derailed due to the trauma of being associated with this ailing club, that ravenously chews up talent before spitting it back out on to a raging fire lit with wads of wasted money and tattered dreams.
It’s been another grim week for United, in a long and ever-growing line of grim weeks and months and years. A harrowing defeat to Manchester City, whose record at Old Trafford in recent times would have been unimaginable not so long ago, has awoken the hounds of hell, who have been howling outside Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s office door ever since.
Fans, at times like this, naturally grasp for someone to blame, pointing fingers at the manager, the players, the gods, knowing only too well that this is a club in need of urgent surgery that is still trying to book an appointment with the GP.
Where to start when the problems are stacked so high they’re blocking out the light needed to make a proper assessment? It can be overwhelming to look back on the countless catastrophic decisions made since the Glazer family took charge of United, in a deal that plunged the club into crippling debt. They must thank their lucky stars every day that Sir Alex Ferguson stuck around for as long as he did, singlehandedly ensuring continued success in the face of brutal spending cuts. It meant that Woodward could milk the brand for all it was worth, while his employers greedily sucked it dry.
All United fans wished Ferguson could live forever. The Glazers must have assumed he would, failing as they did to give the slightest thought to who would succeed him, arrogantly believing that the club was too big to fall from its place at the pinnacle of English football.
Planning is not their strong point, so David Moyes was given the gig, then dispensed with as soon as Champions League qualification became mathematically impossible. It had been abundantly clear from Moyes’ first day in office that he was hopelessly and irretrievably out of his depth. As the weeks and months passed, a lot of us warned that the dismantling job he was doing could set United back years. Sacking him sooner would have been the right thing to do but, alas, while Champions League qualification remained possible, it would have meant costly pay-offs, and Woodward just couldn’t have that.
“Still, never mind, we tried the Scottish guy and he didn’t work, now let’s give the headmaster with a trophy-winning pedigree a shot.”
Enter Louis Van Gaal.
He had succeeded at other big clubs so would surely succeed at United. Especially if he was given a load of money to throw at the problem, not that anyone was panicking.
The trouble is, by this point United was sick. Really sick. And the sickness was spreading. Players were becoming infected with a kind of morose inability to do even the basic things well. New signings were not immune and it wasn’t long before everything began to collapse. A top-four finish once again became an impossibility, and the writing was on the wall for Van Gaal. He was sacked with a trophy in his hand. The right decision, taken too late, and with a good dose of crass indignity thrown in for good measure.
“Well, what a shame that didn’t work out. Still, José Mourinho guarantees success.”
Except he doesn’t. Not anymore. And particularly if you don’t give him any money to spend after finishing second, but still an embarrassingly long way behind City. That kind of thing is liable to make him angry. And you don’t want to make him angry.
Enter Ole Gunnar Solskjær.
“But only for a bit, just while we get our shit together and figure out what on earth we do next. Hang on, he’s doing pretty well. Yep, he’s our man. And he’s cheap as chips. Let’s keep him.”
Only then Solskjær, like Mourinho before him, asks for some money. There’s talk of rebuilds and getting rid of deadwood. But even deadwood needs to be replaced. More money. Why not take so long to get Solskjaer’s main transfer target in, and the bad apples out, that there’s no time left to buy anyone else?
“A plan so dastardly it might just work!”
Only now it’s January and United’s squad isn’t fit for purpose, which means Solskjær, under immense pressure to get results, has run his best players into the ground. What’s he to do? Come out of retirement himself? See if Michael Carrick fancies a game?
Solskjær talked about the need for patience, the likelihood of pain along the way. We all listened and nodded sagely. After all, it took Jurgen Klopp a couple of years to get Liverpool playing the way he wanted, Pep Guardiola struggled in his first season at City – and they’d been preparing the ground for him for years. Hell, even Fergie needed time and was nearly sacked and look how things turned out for him! Yes, we understand, Ole! We’ll be patient!
Yet patience isn’t something football fans are known for, so it didn’t take long for a lot of them to dust off the old ‘#[insert name here]Out’ hashtag and begin thinking about plane banners again.
Mauricio Pochettino, a man famous for excellent coaching and top-four finishes, became available, which didn’t help. Lots of United fans fancy him for the job and he certainly seems to tick a lot of Woodward’s boxes. Actually, Woodward’s only got one box – ‘Good at getting into the top four with barely any money to spend? Tick.’
Then again, Pochettino’s never won a trophy. Not that trophies are a proper gauge of success. No, it’s dividends and bank balances and valuations that are the real barometers of where this club’s at. He’s also been known to get a little bolshy when he isn’t given the funds he wants to refresh his squad, which doesn’t go down well with Woodward – just ask Mourinho.
Plus, he’d be inheriting the same problems Solskjær is dealing with, the same problems he inherited from Mourinho. The Paul Pogba saga would still rumble on. The squad would still be in need of huge investment that wouldn’t be forthcoming. Average players on big wages would still be on the books with very few, if any, suitors. The transfer policy would still be an omnishambles. The disease that turns good players into bad would almost certainly remain. And the pressure, once a few games didn’t go as planned, would erupt in an explosion of “Told you so’s” on the part of those that didn’t want him and “He just needs more time’s” on the part of those that did.
Perhaps Pochettino, as many have suggested, would improve the players he was forced to work with. But hasn’t Solskjær done that already? Hasn’t Marcus Rashford improved this season? Hasn’t Fred been transformed? Hasn’t Scott McTominay gone up a level? Isn’t Anthony Martial having his best season at the club? Solskjær gets criticism when things go wrong, so it’s only fair to point out what he gets right.
The first half against City on Tuesday night was an ordeal. Then again, only three weeks earlier, with a fit McTominay, a fit Harry Maguire and a fit Martial, Solskjær’s United undid Guardiola’s City and should have gone in at halftime more than two goals ahead. And how many teams could have lived with City, in that form, in that system, in that mood, on Tuesday evening? How many managers could have sent Phil Jones out in defence against Kevin De Bruyne and Raheem Sterling, and Fred and Andreas Perreira out in midfield against Bernardo Silva and Rodri, and had the slightest sliver of hope?
Solskjær knew, as we all did, that this squad was only ever a couple of injuries away from potential disaster and, sure enough, the burden of so many games, for so few players, in so little time, has pushed the squad beyond breaking point.
Now we will see whether Woodward is true to his word and really does believe in a manager who, if he can find a way of returning this club to the top, in the face of so many obstacles put in his way by his employers, would potentially be there for decades. Or will he just give up on him, should he fail to qualify for that all-important Champions League, and go back to the drawing board, if there is one?
“It’s obvious the trouble we’re in,” sang Sheryl Crow, on that same lovesick song. It’s obvious the trouble United are in. And it’s obvious what the solution is. But the solution probably means being taken over by men who dismember their enemies. Talk about being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. How on earth did it ever come to this?
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