If the Stretford End was packed on Sunday a Manchester United matchgoer might have unfurled a bedsheet that read ‘Seven years of excuses and it’s still c–p. Ta ra Ed’.
Unable to air their anger at the match, some United supporters congregated on John Gilbert Way with a banner that read ‘Glazers out Woodward out’. If they arrived early enough – and missing the denouement to the thumping by Tottenham was a valid excuse – Woodward will have clocked them on his drive out of M16.
The swathes of vacant seats inside Old Trafford isolate Woodward in these pandemic times and the emptiness is especially felt by bereft United matchgoers locked out of the ground. The broadcasters homed in on Woodward at 1-4 and 1-6, fixing on the United executive vice-chairman, rather than the manager. One is a problem and the other is the problem.
The common denominators in seven years of mostly failure are the Glazers and Woodward. What United’s absentee landlords know about football would not fill a postage stamp and Woodward was exposed as a mere money man in his first summer as David Gill’s successor in 2013. The Tottenham trauma was the nadir of the United AD (after dominance).
United spent £76.6million on up-front fees, which barely covers the cost of Romelu Lukaku in 2017, a time before the watershed Neymar deal, never mind the pandemic. United’s net spend always soars ahead of a season where the Champions League anthem is absent at Old Trafford.
Woodward is into his eighth year as executive vice-chairman and Gill’s tenure lasted a decade. The appalling scenes outside Woodward’s Cheshire home in January and the sinister songs that preceded that nocturnal rendezvous must make him wonder whether it is worth the grief. Woodward’s wife and mother are believed to take the incessant criticism of him to heart, as any close relative would, and he has young twins to see grow up who are more deserving of his time than faceless trolls.
Yet Woodward also revels in the image of operating as a de facto director of football. United sources last year claimed he had ‘nothing to do with recruitment’ yet Woodward met Jude Bellingham and his parents in March and, if he has taken a step back from signings, Sky Sports have not absolved him of the blame. Their images are usually soundtracked by Gary Neville, Woodward’s staunchest critic of the coterie of former United players.
The suspicion 12 months ago was United were consciously protecting Woodward from the backlash. The scripts on investors’ calls have changed in the last two years so that Woodward speaks only on football matters and it is Richard Arnold who is thrown under the bus when he holds court to brag about the app rating.
Woodward’s attachment with United dates back to advising the Glazers on their toxic takeover in 2005 and however many millions he has earned and the security he has under the Tampa siblings, Woodward is the footballing equivalent of the captain of the Titanic: the man behind the demise of Manchester United. He will be loath to going down with the ship.
He has presided over shabby sackings, three seasons without silverware, the undermining of a manager, the inexplicable contract renewals and dilatory transfer windows. A former United employee who knows Woodward said he has never encountered anyone like him in football and that ‘Ed f—s up deals’. Woodward has reduced United to haphazard has-beens.
In this window, there were desperate deadline day dealings, like in 2013. An ageing striker was signed on deadline night, like in 2014. Time was wasted on a marquee move United could not pull off, like in 2015. They failed to sign their priority target, like in 2018. The window ended without them strengthening key areas, like in 2019. They played all the hits.
One of the most storied sporting institutions in the world is still run, effectively, by Bristol University alumni: Woodward, Arnold and Matt Judge. Judge has never spoken on the record but Woodward and Arnold have and unwittingly depicted United as a frivolous commodity with their commercialised soundbites. “We are represented in more countries now than McDonald’s,” Woodward told MUTV in 2014. “Stats like that, I love.” United fans are not loving it.
United’s eagerness in outlining their recruitment reboot last year can now be dismissed as bluster. They spoke of targeting players aged between 23 and 28 who were ‘humble and respectful’ and due diligence on targets was fastidiously compiled. An example of the revolution was Aaron Wan-Bissaka, whom some teammates find aloof and was bluntly described by a United staff member as ‘rude’. Then there is his ability; Wan-Bissaka hits a force-field whenever he considers leaving his own half. He cost up to £50m.
Harry Maguire is world football’s most expensive defender and never world-class. Odion Ighalo is already redundant but United are saddled with him until late January and Daniel James is at risk of becoming a write-off. Bruno Fernandes, bought five months later than necessary, did not reemerge for the second-half of the whipping by Spurs.
The mythical recruitment department, operating in the shadows like MI6 agents, ‘manipulated the data’, held monthly meetings, increased the accountability of the bloated scouting network, settled on targets by January and Solskjaer accepted second-choice options in a worse-case scenario. United have absolutely reset the culture – back to the summer of 2013. They have fobbed off everyone.
Woodward was enchanted by the prospect of signing Edinson Cavani in 2014 until he discovered Louis van Gaal was not. Cavani’s arrival has prompted comparisons with Zlatan Ibrahimovic from within the club yet Ibrahimovic signed on the first day of a transfer window and Cavani, also a free agent, was announced an hour before Monday’s UK deadline. Ibrahimovic had worked with his United manager and Cavani’s English is limited.
United admit Cavani’s arrival is ‘opportunistic’ and there are portentous parallels with Radamel Falcao. Carrington sources have already expressed concern that Cavani’s presence could ‘f–k’ Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford, as the Uruguayan operates through the middle or on the left and Martial and Rashford ‘hate’ playing on the right.
Cavani was available in January yet United had no interest in paying a fee and settled for Ighalo. For the second successive window, United have signed a 30-something striker on the last day of a window. The reboot has malfunctioned.
So much so that Judge actively sought recommendations for players from agencies. United’s backgrounders on Amad Diallo and Facundo Pellistri were ringing endorsements for the recruitment department at academy level. Someone should be in line for a promotion.
A source who has dealt with Judge, United’s negotiator, says he is ‘astute with business’ but gets the impression United ‘make it up as they go along’ and it was apparent in the window. Solskjaer diplomatically said he had ‘no issue’ with Judge being tasked with executing deals (Jose Mourinho did), a strategy that was derided by Patrice Evra in a lacerating Instagram video.
Alex Telles, a 27-year-old addition from Porto, goes against the grain of how United’s rivals have identified their left-backs. Andy Robertson and Benjamin Mendy were both 23 when they moved to Liverpool and Manchester City in 2017, Everton signed the 25-year-old Lucas Digne in 2018, Kieran Tierney was 22 at the time of his move to Arsenal last year, Ben Chilwell is 23 and so is Sergio Reguilon. At least Telles falls into the 23-28 crowd United covet.
United stressed they first clapped eyes on Telles at Galatasaray in 2014 and had watched him extensively over the last two years. United’s Portuguese scouts had attended matches Telles was involved in but he only properly beeped on their radar after an MEN reporter wrote an opinion piece on the Brazilian which was then spun as a transfer tale by Portuguese outlets devoid of bylines. And the wheels were set in motion.
Diallo, née Traore, came to United’s attention in an Under-15 match in 2016 and was continually recommended by scouts up to his career debut in October 2019. Atalanta’s academy is regarded as the best in Italy and Diallo is widely considered to be one of the standout teenage prospects in Europe.
Diallo is due to link up with United in January and is their first right-sided specialist signing since Wilfried Zaha in January 2013. Pellistri, also 18, is a right winger. United’s emphasis was supposed to be on proven players in the mould of Bruno Fernandes this summer and they have ended the window without occupying their priority position with a recognisable name.
It became apparent in the last weeks of the window United were not going to secure a British record move for Jadon Sancho and their (in)activity was essentially face-saving. A source claimed United ceased dialogue with Sancho’s agent, Emeka Obasi, weeks before the deadline. United vowed on the evening of the Championship Play-off final on August 4 they were prepared to walk away from a deal and it seems they did, just without saying so.
A crumb of comfort for United is Obasi has moved Jamie Bynoe-Gittens to Dortmund from Manchester City to keep them sweet ahead of the inevitable departure of Sancho, whom United first tried to sign in 2017. Sancho wanted to join United but they will need to offer Champions League football next year and are in danger of losing that.
The Sancho situation became so vexing for United the communications department had to contact an influential journalist to inform them their stories about an imminent agreement were inaccurate. Supporters had been whipped into an online frenzy by some of the reports, convinced a deal was a foregone conclusion, and the journalist had to tactfully backtrack on their Twitter account.
Others were plain mischief-makers. The obviously bogus claim that United had contacted Lionel Messi’s father again spurred the club into contacting an offending reporter to admonish them. The overseas reporter’s verified tick was seen as validation even by football followers with a cursory interest in the transfer market, such was the worldwide fascination with Messi’s future.
The United squad is still bloated to obese levels. Chris Smalling informed United at the start of the year of his desire to stay in Rome permanently yet an eminently sellable squad player did not leave until the 11th hour with the early Italian deadline looming. United spent £13.6m on Telles and shortly after confirming his signing were reimbursed with the exact same amount by Roma for Smalling.
United are still saddled with Phil Jones, Marcos Rojo and Jesse Lingard. Andreas Pereira only left on loan and they inexplicably failed to find a buyer for Sergio Romero, until this season the best back-up ‘keeper on the continent.
Requests have been made by the MEN to conduct an interview with Woodward that have amounted to nought, even though the usually reticent Daniel Levy sat down with the London Evening Standard last year. Real Madrid president Florentino Perez has made time for Marca, as has his Barcelona counterpart Josep Maria Bartomeu with El Mundo Deportivo.
Woodward’s favoured mode of communication is in relaxed settings, sometimes with a prepared script, and on at least two occasions he reneged on chats with the caustic editor of the defunct Red Issue fanzine. There are key questions that remain unanswered and United’s paying punters are entitled to some form of communication beyond a quarterly call.
United’s up-front spending this summer amounted to £72.4m – only £900,000 more than they invested in the fraught close season window of 2018. United’s most extravagant summers – in 2014, 2016 and 2019 – were sanctioned in response to finishes outside the top four.
They have run out of excuses.