Whilst the substituted Bruno Fernandes was stewing in the home dressing room and Manchester United were preparing their damage limitation battle plan with Tottenham already 4-1 up at Old Trafford, John Murtough was driving Alex Telles into their Carrington training complex.
Murtough, now the club’s football director, had previously greeted Alexis Sanchez at Manchester Airport and chaperoned the 16-year-old Hannibal Mejbri in Oslo during United’s pre-season friendly with Kristiansund. Murtough, brought to United by David Moyes, pressed the flesh of Jose Mourinho when he sauntered through the glass doors at Carrington for the first time and often conversed with Louis van Gaal. Murtough has been warming up for the inaugural role of Football Director of Manchester United.
It is a role that more esteemed names were linked with. Edwin van der Sar was the most eminently qualified, Ralph Rangnick was relentlessly linked, Paul Mitchell, formerly of Southampton and Tottenham and now at Monaco, was touted, as was Stuart Webster, still at Norwich.
Yet two years after United felt they were ‘close’ to hiring a technical director they have settled on someone on their own doorstep. Sources have told the Manchester Evening News Murtough introduced himself as the club’s ‘director of football’ during meetings to recruit for the women’s team in 2018.
So why did United plump for an in-house appointment? The feeling among the club’s hierarchy was the external candidates were synonymous solely with recruitment, whereas Murtough had overseen the overhaul of the United academy and built the women’s team from scratch.
United sources concede bigger names were linked with the football director role but were uncomfortable with the prospect of appointing them on the basis of their recruitment record. Some candidates ironically discouraged United from moving for them the more they championed their hit-rate of signings.
Murtough also presided over the recruitment reboot two years ago with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and his work on the three fronts has seen Murtough gain a reputation as a ‘fixer’ at United. Murtough’s ability to solve problems made him a leading candidate but United sources maintain they seriously considered options from outside the club.
Ed Woodward took a step back from recruitment last season but had to muck in again, mainly due to the coronavirus pandemic, and met with Jude Bellingham and his parents before the midfielder decided to join Borussia Dortmund. The anticipation now is, should Wayne Rooney call again about taking a United player on loan at Derby County, he would contact Murtough rather than Wodoward. Murtough will report to Woodward.
United are comfortable with not appointing a former footballer, such as Van der Sar, as their football director and believe they have sufficient football expertise with Solskjaer, Michael Carrick and Mike Phelan on the coaching staff to ‘communicate the football project’.
The MEN revealed in May 2019 Darren Fletcher attended a high-profile meeting about United’s proposed restructure and was viewed as an advisory voice, rather than a candidate for the de facto director of football position.
Fletcher was only appointed a first-team coach on January 4 and, rather than flank Solskjaer in the dugout, he has watched matches alongside the analysts in the makeshift press boxes at stadiums.
United figures recall Fletcher entering the directors’ box at Anfield in January prior to the goalless draw with Liverpool and how he held court for 15 minutes.
Fletcher is seen as the ideal complement for Murtough as United wanted a former professional to provide expertise on the direction of the squad. Fletcher will monitor the development of academy graduates on the fringes of the first-team, such as the 17-year-old Shola Shoretire, and advise on whether recruitment is tailored around them so they are given a pathway. Fletcher will attend recruitment meetings with Murtough.
Woodward, ultimately, decided on the two-pronged structure of a football director and a technical director following consultation, among them the former club secretary John Alexander, a Liverpool fan once seen singing ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ at Anfield whilst an employee of United in 2015.
Matt Judge, United’s deal-maker for the last five years, is now the ‘director of negotiations’ as his previous position of head of corporate development did not reflect his role. Judge will continue to negotiate players’ contracts and transfers.
Judge and Woodward met as students at the University of Bristol and the former’s new title, as well as the internal promotions, will draw scepticism from some supporters. Woodward has surrounded himself with compliant subordinates at the football level after being overwhelmed by Van Gaal and Mourinho.
A source who has met Murtough said his appearance is deceiving: “Some might see him as a yes man but, from speaking to him, I very much don’t get that impression.”
Solskjaer and the recruitment department retain the right to veto a target and United settled on their summer shortlist in the winter. Solskjaer was aware of United’s intentions to appoint a football director when he agreed to take over as caretaker manager in December 2018 and enjoys a positive working relationship with Murtough.