When Ed Woodward leaves Manchester United’s Mayfair office for the last time over the next few months, he will hand over the operation of one of the world’s biggest football clubs to another alumni of the University of Bristol with limited knowledge of the sport’s inner functions.
Woodward will always be remembered as the man who had to appoint (and fire) four managers at Old Trafford and oversee a nine-year reign, with revenue continuing to rise while performance on the pitch plummeted.
The 50-year-old vice president is the man who proudly trumpeted in 2018 that “playing performance does not really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.” It really is a good job.
Now Woodward will say goodbye and hand over his files on how to run a football club to Richard Arnold. The debriefing should not take long. If Oxford University has Bullingdon Club, then it looks like the University of Bristol has Manchester United Football Club.
No one can argue with Woodwards and Arnold’s commercial success. They are excellent at what they do, and are clearly well qualified for these roles. But the question is whether they are well qualified to run a football club. That they are trying to plan a way forward for a club the size of United is remarkable.
This is a club built on brilliance and romance by Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, its two dominant managers, who trusted the youth and set their players free. It was overwhelming, entertaining and impossible to miss, and if the red half of Manchester were already in love, the rest of the world would also faint. Busby and Ferguson helped make United the biggest football club on the planet.
United were in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the Premier League boom years of the mid-1990s. They had a successful team, a young, marketable team and the vision of building a giant stadium with a club shop that was never empty, and more corporate facilities than other clubs.
But long-term success is never guaranteed. Just ask Liverpool from the 1980s. They ended a 30-year wait for a league title in 2020. It is almost inconceivable that United would reach that stage given their financial advantage, but when Liverpool had gone nine years after winning the league, they probably also thought that a 30-year drought was impossible.
The game has changed since then. The biggest clubs have a much stronger financial advantage, but the last nine years have been an exhibition from United on how to ensure that money is not a guarantee of winning trophies. United are generating countless riches through their commercial power, but have not even come close to winning the league since 2013. Why should that suddenly change now?
The problems are not just on the pitch. Old Trafford was ahead of its time in the mid-90s, but now it’s falling behind. Paint was licked this summer and the club has been proactive in installing barrier seats. They will be one of five clubs to try out for a secure position in the top two divisions in early January.
But the earth still needs more work. Corporate hospitality boxes can be improved, the fan experience can go up a notch. In many areas, Old Trafford is now falling behind in terms of new constructions such as those inhabited by Tottenham and Arsenal, as well as Liverpool, which are transforming Anfield under their American owners.
The Glazers promised better communication in the wake of the Superliga debacle in May, a failure that saw the castle storm. So far, Joel Glazer has been true to his word and participated in three fan forums, but words are the easy part. What the fans most of all want is a successful team and it continues to dodge Glazer.
The excitement over the firing of Ole Gunnar Solskjær is a sign of how the club is dominated by people without a plan for how to run a football club. They appointed Solskjær as permanent manager too soon, unnecessarily gave him a new appointment this summer and now waited too long to admit that it is over, crossing fingers and hiding behind the sofa as they hoped for a miracle. No other elite club in the Premier League is run in such a way.
United will insist that they remain one of the biggest clubs in the world, and they probably are at the moment. Every investor call includes a nod to the biggest club app in the world, a result of more than a billion people, or record-breaking social media interactions.
Unfortunately for United, none of these achievements come with a trophy. On the pitch, they are probably the most underperforming football club in the world.
Now Glazer is looking for a new manager. In a 146-word statement confirming the end of Solskjær’s tenure, United confirmed a plan to have Michael Carrick as interim manager before appointing an interim manager until the end of the season and then a permanent manager. That was hardly the opinion of a club with a coherent plan of success.
Despite all their financial success at United and their worldwide consequences, they need success on the pitch to sustain it. They can sell a good story, but it is much easier to build commercial revenue with a successful football team.
The decision on who will be United’s next permanent manager in 2022 is a decision the club simply cannot afford to make a mistake. There is a lot of debate about which of the four managers since Ferguson has been the most successful, but the short answer is none of them.
That pattern needs to change. In the Premier League, United look miles behind Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City, not only in terms of the quality of the football being played, but also the quality of the decisions that are made. If that pattern continues with yet another poor manager appointment, United may soon find themselves just one of the pack competing with Arsenal and Tottenham instead of challenging for titles.
It has been nine years of operation since the last days of the Ferguson era. United cannot afford to let it continue, on or off the pitch.