On July 17th 2013, Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman of the then Premier League champions, Manchester United, left the club’s tour in Australia early. He did so, we were told, to ‘attend to urgent transfer business.’ And so began the Ed Woodward Show.
The newspapers were awash with rumours. Cesc Fàbregas, Gareth Bale and Thiago Alcântara were all on Woodward’s radar, with eye-watering sums touted and war-chests, the likes of which we’d never seen before, being readied. Still reeling from the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, and with Wayne Rooney seemingly on his way to Chelsea, fans giddily speculated on how this shiny new team would look once Woodward had fulfilled his promises and landed such an array of talent.
We all know what happened next, of course. Fàbregas went to Chelsea, Bale signed for Real Madrid and Thiago joined Bayern Munich. Meanwhile United bought an overpriced Marouane Fellaini, leaving their fans feeling like a kid at the funfair who finally knocks over that last coconut only to be handed a stuffed toy with one eye and much of its stitching coming loose.
United were champions, though, and riding high on world sports’ rich-lists, with sponsors falling over each other to get involved and put their name to this famous and lucrative brand. Plus, Woodward had helped to convince Rooney to stay and that was like a new signing, right?
Wrong. Rooney was on the wane and United had chosen the wrong man to replace Ferguson. Performances plummeted on the pitch and it was clear almost immediately that Moyes was a dead man walking. The Ed Woodward Show wasn’t going well.
What do you do when a show is flopping? Well, in a right-thinking, considered way, you reflect on your mistakes and work hard to right them. Or you add some glitz and sparkle in the hope that no one notices, or at least forgets. Cue the tragically transparent distraction of flying Juan Mata into Carrington in a helicopter, as if he was a hero from an action film come to rescue this increasingly ludicrous club. Only he wasn’t a hero, he was just a footballer. And, what’s more, he was a footballer United simply didn’t need.
Woodward, however, appeared to acquire a taste for the overpriced misfit and, once Moyes was bustled out of the door, busied himself scouring Europe for more, like a magpie who continues to steal shiny metal objects despite them weighing down its nest. A Radamel Falcao here, and Ángel Di María there, perhaps an Alexis Sánchez for good measure… oh dear, the branch has snapped.
Still, “Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” Woodward insisted to shareholders in May 2018. Only it does, as Deloitte’s most recent figures will attest. The fact that Manchester City and, worse still, Liverpool have been so far ahead of United in footballing terms in recent years is one thing, but now they are breathing down United’s necks financially too. It will have made grim reading for the Glazers. So grim that even the millions they have already taken out of the club for themselves might not soften the blow.
It’s hard to fathom that Woodward himself believed what he was saying to those shareholders. After all, he’s not an idiot. But if he’s not an idiot, does that mean he’s simply lying? It’s an interesting question and, over these last six and a half years, the evidence has been stacking up.
Woodward insisted to supporters’ groups long ago that the words ‘Football Club’ would be restored to the club’s crest. We’re still waiting. No doubt it seems a trifling matter to such a busy man and, goodness knows, the crest scans better without those troublesome words cluttering it up. Still, why say it if you have no intention of going through with it?
Then there’s the mysterious case of the Director of Football. Why, there was so much talk of one being scouted that fans, who really should know better by now, took Woodward at his word and looked forward to some semblance of sanity being restored to football matters at last. Yet, over a year on, there is no Director of Football in sight and Woodward has spoken openly of Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Mike Phelan having the club’s transfer policy under control. Perhaps they do, but it’s hard to shake the sense of a man lurching from one position to the next depending on what he feels the fans want to hear.
Speaking of which, remember when Woodward admitted to investors that the rampant transfer speculation that swirls around United, like rubbish in the wind, during every transfer window, is good for the club? And that the club likes to, shall we say, encourage such rumours? Not lying, perhaps, but a little grubby at the very least.
Woodward is not the only person to blame, of course. United is a huge club and a huge business, with many hands on the tiller. Yet he is the face of the operation and doesn’t help himself when he makes such brash claims as the one about United being able to “do things in the transfer market that other clubs can only dream of.”
Such boasting is unbecoming even if you can back it up, which Woodward can’t. His record speaks for itself and, given his admission earlier this season that “it’s hard enough to get three players done in a transfer window,” and “to get six or seven done is extremely difficult if you are getting proper talent,” while all about him were doing just that, his boasting looks like little more than the brash self-aggrandising of a show-off of little substance.
He tells investors, shareholders and fans what they want to hear, even if it means contradicting himself. But fans have an emotional attachment to United that investors and shareholders don’t, and it increasingly feels like the club manipulate this to their advantage. Whether it’s leaking transfer rumours to the media or promising improvement in the way the club is run, sending fans into an online feeding frenzy and driving online traffic to the all-important club app can often feel like a bigger priority than what’s going on on the pitch.
Solskjær has spoken of a cultural reboot being needed when he took over from José Mourinho in December 2018. He certainly appears to have made a good start with his players, who show spirit, determination and pride in what they’re doing. As for those at the top of the club, it’s difficult to imagine them changing their spots so readily. They have shown how classless and crass they are again and again, not least when they sacked Louis Van Gaal via his FA Cup-winning press-conference. Rumours of contact being made with Mauricio Pochettino, behind Solskjær’s back, have now surfaced and, whatever your feelings about the Norwegian’s suitability for his current role, it all feels a bit unsavoury and amateurish.
Whether Woodward really did leave Australia all those years ago because he truly believed he was on the verge of signing some of world football’s leading lights, we cannot know for sure. The more time that passes, however, the less his assurances wash. A man who once oozed self-confidence, he now seems like a blagger with all the cunning of Baldrick from Blackadder.
The Ed Woodward Show appears to have been all style and no substance, the leading character a chancer who has been found out. Perhaps it’s time to switch off the lights, send home the orchestra and shut the curtains, for there are few remaining in the audience who believe this particular performance is anything more than a farce.
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