The headline on the Real Madrid website reads ‘Exchange of gifts between Florentino Perez and Ed Woodward‘. It was July 2017 and Madrid and Manchester United were involved in a pre-season friendly at the Levi’s Stadium in San Jose, the perfect setting for a surreptitious rendezvous.
Away from prying eyes in Manchester, Madrid or London, it is inconceivable to think Woodward and Perez did not discuss a possible breakaway league. The gallery on the Madrid website features five photos and, in two of them, Perez is joined by Charlie Stillitano.
During the Manchester Evening News’s virtual morning conference on Monday, the news editor asked if anyone outside the dirty dozen of clubs thought the Super League was a good idea. The first – and only – port of call would have been Stillitano, the long-time American friend of Sir Alex Ferguson‘s and who appeared to voice his support for the Super League on Twitter on Sunday night.
Stillitano’s Relevent Sports have hosted the International Champions Cup, the pre-season tournament that induces European clubs to travel to all corners of the globe to play each other. The clubs have accepted the dollar and the mileage, whatever the wear and tear their players endure during taxing pre-seasons. Louis van Gaal derided United’s 2014 schedule in the United States before he had even coached them.
A year after Perez and Woodward posed for the Madrid photographer, they had breakfast together in Miami. Again, United and Madrid were playing each other on American turf. Again, it is inconceivable that Perez and Woodward did not discuss the ramifications of the European competition revamps, or a possible breakaway league. Other business was addressed.
It was in Miami Woodward was filmed hurriedly catching up with Jose Mourinho in the mixed zone, deep in the bowels of the Hard Rock Stadium. Mourinho had unloaded three days earlier in Ann Arbor, rounding on Antonio Valencia, Anthony Martial, United’s relegated youngsters and how Alexis Sanchez would feel about sharing the same pitch as them, the sub-standard of the game against Liverpool and the ‘baseball’ referee.
Woodward actually interviewed United’s incumbent director of communications in Miami and asked him how he would specifically deal with Mourinho’s sound bites. United media staff in Ann Arbor had tried to pull Mourinho’s interview with MUTV but the producers back in England beamed it to viewers.
This was a summer where United were supposed to be gearing up for a title tilt. They had finished second in the Premier League and were runners up in the FA Cup. Woodward felt the trajectory was positive.
Mourinho, backed with a new contract in January, was deserted in July and sacked in December. He demanded a centre-back and a right winger and got neither. Liverpool, fourth in 2017-18, had shattered transfer records for a defender and a goalkeeper and were pipped to the title by City. They got there the next year.
Woodward had been unreachable for much of the 2018 tour and only arrived for the last leg in Florida. While he should have been securing a commanding centre half to reinforce United’s spine and challenge City, he was cosying up to Perez and gearing up to counter-brief Mourinho.
Four games into the season, a banner was flown over Turf Moor that read ‘Ed Woodward a specialist in failure!’. The next month, amid a report Mourinho was to be sacked that weekend, the United supporters in the J Stand sang: “Jose’s right, the board is s—e.”
David Gill was deeply unpopular with many United matchgoers for getting into bed with the Glazers and confronted over his treachery more than once in person. Gill at least got out while United did not have a Twitter account.
Woodward had read half-a-dozen books prior to appointing Mourinho in 2016 yet they were not on the same page in the Portuguese’s last six months. Mourinho knew before Woodward’s meeting with Diego Godin’s representative and sister that the trip was a waste of time, that the then-Atletico Madrid captain had no intention of moving to Manchester as deadline day loomed.
Mourinho felt Woodward ‘took the p–s’ and ‘s–t himself’ over the prospect of dealing with the Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, who telephoned about the possible availability of Martial and Juan Mata. Mourinho admired Toby Alderweireld but discounted him as a realistic target on account of Woodward’s refusal to deal with Levy – or sell Martial. Intermediaries continued discussions until the penultimate day of the 2018 summer transfer window.
The previous year, Woodward’s masterplan to sign Ivan Perisic was to delay a bid until deadline day and force Inter Milan to sell for a cut-price fee, rather than the €50m they demanded. Mourinho reminded Woodward it would be more logical to stop haggling and sign Perisic so he could join United’s pre-season tour of the States. An ashen-faced Perisic instead boarded Inter’s plane to China.
In the last weeks of the 2019 window, Woodward was on holiday with his wife in Marbella as negotiations for Harry Maguire became protracted. United eventually bought Maguire for £80m – just £5m more than Leicester were demanding in 2018, when Mourinho deemed him an acceptable signing.
Ultimately, Woodward is the common denominator in eight years largely of failure at United AD (after dominance). The club have spent £941.4m on transfer fees on Woodward’s watch and have an FA Cup, a League Cup and the Europa League to show for it. Five of the last seven seasons have ended trophyless.
The defunct fanzine RedIssue dubbed Woodward an ‘imposter’ on his first deadline day in 2013, the word used deliberately after lawyers, claiming they were acting on United’s behalf, attempted to finalise the transfer of Ander Herrera.
Herrera transfer collapse – imposter picture exclusive: pic.twitter.com/271qn3Xqbx
— Red Issue (@RedIssue)
Woodward had already departed the pre-season tour in Australia for ‘urgent transfer business’. Whatever his mode of transport, he was lost at sea looking for Cesc Fabregas. David Moyes felt more resentful towards Woodward than any of the mutineering players after he was jettisoned 10 months into a six-year contract.
There was the infamous flight to Barcelona in 2015 to touch base with Neymar’s camp and the insistence on posing with club-record signing Angel di Maria, a talent whose body was in Manchester but head was in Paris.
A viral meme from the 2014 summer window – still United’s most extravagant – was a photoshopped image of Woodward presenting Louis van Gaal with a Tia Maria and a Coke. “I asked for Di Maria and Koke,” Van Gaal’s speech bubble reads.
Woodward was more communicative with supporters than Gill, attending or, over the last year, dialling in on fans’ forums. He was like one of the Beatles at Charles de Gaulle airport the morning after United’s remarkable recovery against Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League, holding off giddy fans demanding he appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on a permanent basis.
Supporters appreciated Woodward’s presence at the Manchesterplatz memorial commemorating the Munich air disaster on the morning of United’s quarter-final with Bayern in 2014. Twice he agreed to be interviewed by RedIssue’s caustic editor and twice he reneged. Twice he spoke to the more diplomatic United We Stand and twice he had sit-downs with MUTV.
“We are represented in more countries now than McDonald’s. Stats like that, I love,” he bragged, shoving his foot into his mouth. United’s current director of communications changed the script for conference calls so Woodward would address football matters and Richard Arnold now provides an update on the app rating.
Woodward’s fan engagement was marred last Friday when Woodward failed to dial into the most recent fans’ forum, two days before the seismic Super League announcement. He had also fobbed off the Uefa president Alexander Ceferin.
United have completed their restructure and Woodward finally appointed a football director in John Murtough in March. Woodward once liked the image of being viewed as United’s director of football but took a step back from recruitment in 2019 and Matt Judge occupies a more prominent role in external and internal deals as the director of football negotiations.
Woodward has seldom been at Old Trafford this season and his attendance for the 3-3 draw with Everton on February 6 was his first home game since United were trounced 6-1 by Tottenham on October 4.
As Woodward was driven out onto John Gilbert Way that night, intrepid fans held aloft a ‘Woodward out Glazer out’ banner. Now he is out.