Henry Winter: Ed Woodward’s Manchester United tenure – Failure on the pitch, wasted money, but commercial success

His tenure as executive vice-chairman ends this month as the club prepare to appoint another manager with Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino the leading candidates, writes HENRY WINTER.

Ed Woodward, left, is to be replaced as executive vice-chairman by Richard Arnold, right. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images.
Ed Woodward, left, is to be replaced as executive vice-chairman by Richard Arnold, right. Picture: Martin Rickett/PA Images via Getty Images.

When Ed Woodward told his family that he was leaving Manchester United, his daughter burst into tears and his wife broke out the champagne. Woodward’s own reaction was one of deep sadness that his “addiction” to United, as the executive vice-chairman described it to friends, was formally ending with yesterday’s announcement confirming that he will step down at the end of the month.

The 50-year-old told Joel Glazer, the co-owner of United, last April that he was resigning over the European Super League as he did not agree with it, although he was heavily associated with the plan. He will stay on the football board until the end of the season, helping his successor Richard Arnold settle in. He will not be involved in the pursuit of a new manager beyond February 1, although he is aware of the potential candidates including Erik ten Hag and Mauricio Pochettino. Ten Hag, Ajax’s widely-admired 51-year-old manager, fits Woodward’s three-point list of a manager being somebody with a record of “winning trophies, attacking football and giving youth a chance”.

Woodward’s time guiding United will be remembered for financial success off the field and failure on it, compounded by a series of appointments of managers who didn’t last and the recruitment of many expensive signings who didn’t deliver. Only time will tell whether the changes he has introduced, notably rebooting the recruitment department, and improving the process of finding the right manager, have paid off.

Having trained as an accountant, Woodward first became involved at United in 2005, initially advising the unpopular Glazers on their takeover the same year, then running the club’s commercial operations from 2007 before being appointed to the board in 2012. A year later, Woodward stepped into the considerable shoes of David Gill, who departed as chief executive at the same time as Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager. United have still to recover from that twin loss.

Ed Woodward (L) stepped up at a time where legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson had just stepped down. Picture: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images
Ed Woodward (L) stepped up at a time where legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson had just stepped down. Picture: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

He spoke to Steve Parish, the Crystal Palace co-owner and a respected sounding board for people in football, about his plans in which he mentioned that his driving force was not financial but solving problems. He failed to solve the problems of finding the right successor to Ferguson.

Woodward has lived with the intense scrutiny from fans for United’s under-achieving after decades of prominence and of being the frontman for the despised Glazers. He has received death threats while his wife Isabelle has been sent rape threats. He has learnt to beware the lip-readers employed by the media trying to catch him muttering something critical about the team. Shortly after Marcos Rojo joined for £16 million from Sporting Lisbon in 2014, Woodward watched the defender fail to exploit a good opportunity in a televised game against West Brom and was reported as saying “a waste of money”. He glanced at his phone at halftime to see many texts alerting him, and messaged back saying he had said only “a waste of a ball”.

Those close to Woodward say that he feels he has another big job left in him, preferably in sport, whether in licensing, marketing or data. He still feels so “addicted” to United that it would be difficult to consider, certainly in the short term, a job at another club. He first needs to untangle himself mentally from the role which has obsessed him for the past nine years in particular.

Ten Hag, the Ajax head coach, is the leading candidate to be the next permanent United manager. Picture: ANP Sport via Getty Images
Ten Hag, the Ajax head coach, is the leading candidate to be the next permanent United manager. Picture: ANP Sport via Getty Images

He plans to spend some time with his family, particularly after Covid wrecked their Christmas, before resuming travelling with his wife. The pair spent part of their twenties exploring the world and have earmarked Israel and Peru as future destinations but those close to Woodward point out that his heart will remain at Old Trafford. The frustration for Woodward is that he knows he leaves United having failed in the main priority, creating a structure which can ensure silverware. United last won a trophy in May 2017.

The catalyst for his departure was the European Super League. He’d known about the plan for two years but had seen previous versions simply being used by clubs to shake more Champions League money out of Uefa. Woodward didn’t think it would happen, not in the form that his paymasters, the Glazers, envisaged. He also didn’t think Liverpool’s owners, the Fenway Sports Group of John W Henry and Tom Werner, would go through with it. And if FSG hadn’t, Woodward believed the Glazers would have lost their nerve.

He spoke to the Uefa president, Aleksandar Ceferin, on the evening of April 15, enthusing about Uefa proposals for a revamped Champions League, not mentioning the European Super League. When The Times broke news of the elite clubs’ plotting on April 18, Ceferin railed at Woodward, describing him as a snake.

The previous night, April 17, having realised that the Glazers were going to drive through a plan that would damage the Premier League and the English pyramid, Woodward spent hours writing a document because he knew as the biggest executive of the biggest of the plotters that he would have to represent it to the world. He felt he couldn’t.

Woodward imagined being back at Brentwood School in Essex, explaining the project to his classmates, the majority West Ham fans, and how splenetic they would be. He went through 12 drafts, but still couldn’t square it with somebody who still believed in the pyramid, according to friends. Eventually, Woodward spoke to Joel Glazer about his concerns of the impact on the pyramid, the importance of promotion and relegation and pointed out that even the NFL had dead games at the end of regular season.

He told Glazer that he couldn’t speak publicly for the club on a scheme that he didn’t believe in. He feared a civil war in English football. He knew the impact it would have on morale of staff at Old Trafford and Carrington, as well as the outrage it would understandably cause amongst fans. So, according to sources, Woodward told Glazer that he would have to resign. Glazer said they should speak later, and they have frequently since then with Woodward not swaying from his original decision to resign. Talks between Glazer and Woodward are described as “amicable”. Woodward resented being depicted as the ringmaster of the ESL circus, although he undeniably could and should have fought the Glazers earlier about it.

The Glazers have made him wealthy and he has made the Glazers even wealthier by his skilful sweating of the Manchester United brand around the world. On the pitch, the Woodward years have not been a success. The retreat from the era of Ferguson dominance and team with an identity has been dispiriting for United fans.

United supporters protest against the Glazers following the failed attempt to start the European Super League. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
United supporters protest against the Glazers following the failed attempt to start the European Super League. Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Woodward has made mistakes with managers. The shortage of tenure reflects that. Since Ferguson left after his 1,500th game, David Moyes managed 51 games (then caretaker Ryan Giggs four), Louis van Gaal 103, Jose Mourinho 144, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer 168, (interim caretaker Michael Carrick three) and Ralf Rangnick has overseen six so far. The fact that United are managed by an interim who was plucked from a job as manager of sport and development at Lokomotiv Moscow is an indictment of United’s succession planning. It makes Woodward’s lack of interest in Antonio Conte bemusing. Conte, according to those familiar with Woodward’s thinking, was never on United’s radar.

Woodward is known to regret not providing Moyes with a stronger structure. He has told staff he felt he failed Moyes. He thought Moyes could simply step into the office and set-up of Ferguson and the show would roll on. But Ferguson was unique, a legend in personality and achievement impossible to succeed let alone surpass.

It is in recruitment, arguably an issue that began in the twilight of the Ferguson years, that has also held United back, another indictment of the Woodward reign. Moyes signed Juan Mata (£37.1 million), Marouane Fellaini (£27.5 million), Saidy Janko (and Wilf Zaha signed by Ferguson who returned from loan). Really only Mata can be deemed a success, although he remains at the club, kicking his elegant heels.

The Van Gaal period was distracted by the need to make United’s football operation more elite, with investment in Carrington. The experienced Dutchman advised on changes on rebooting the football departments, including recruitment and analysis. Woodward had a target of seven out of ten recruits being a success. Yet he acknowledged to certain staff that in the Moyes and Van Gaal eras United were getting only three out of ten right.

Under Van Gaal, United recruited Radamel Falcao (loan), Angel Di Maria (£67.5 million), Daley Blind (£13.8 million), Rojo (£16 million), Bastian Schweinsteiger (£14.4 million), Memphis Depay (£30.6 million), Morgan Schneiderlin (£31.5 million), Matteo Darmian (£12.7 million), Anthony Martial (£54 million), Sergio Romero (free) and Victor Valdes (free). The real successes were only Luke Shaw (£33.75 million) and Ander Herrera (£28 million). Van Gaal always felt the balance between the commercial and footballing side was wrong. Woodward was culpable for that.

Under Mourinho, United signed Romelu Lukaku (£76 million), Eric Bailly (£34 million), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (free), Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£30 million), Fred (£47 million), Nemanja Matic (£40 million), Victor Lindelof (£31 million), Alexis Sanchez (swap with Mkhitaryan going to Arsenal), Diogo Dalot (£19 million), Lee Grant (free) and re-signed Paul Pogba (£89 million). It was an expensive pick-and-mix with no obvious strategy.

It takes a certain mental fortitude to play for United given the scrutiny. Two members of staff looked at Lindelof after his first week’s training at Carrington and discussed whether he had the strength to make it at United. Mourinho wanted a centre back, Harry Maguire, but Woodward said no. Mourinho was asked about it and pointedly replied, when a pundit for Sky on United’s 4-0 win against Chelsea in 2019 when Maguire was imperious for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, “He arrived — one year later!”

Woodward felt he failed Moyes and has appointed a number of short-term managers. Picture: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images
Woodward felt he failed Moyes and has appointed a number of short-term managers. Picture: John Peters/Manchester United via Getty Images

Under Solskjaer, United signed Donny van de Beek (£35 million), who fitted the recruitment department’s ideal of young and hungry, ball-playing player. Transfers were increasingly done by the recruitment department in tandem with the manager with both sides having a veto. United wanted Van de Beek, who may yet prosper if Ten Hag does arrive.

Others brought in during Solskjaer’s spell were Facundo Pellestri (£8 million), Tom Heaton (free), Alex Telles (£13.5 million), Odion Ighalo (£10 million loan fee), Jadon Sancho (£73 million), Cristiano Ronaldo (£12.8 million) Aaron Wan-Bissaka (£49.5 million), Dan James (£16 million), Amad Diallo (£19.17 million), Maguire (£80 million), Raphael Varane (£34 million), Edinson Cavani (free) and Bruno Fernandes (£56 million).

A club as wealthy as United could afford to make mistakes in the transfer market. Only in the past few years has recruitment been overhauled so that the club is aware of every player, his strengths and weaknesses, his character and potential availability.

The change in strategy is more youth spiced with experienced with continued focus on the academy. Gradually, and sensibly, Woodward moved away from the recruitment side. He would become involved with talking to high-profile agents like Mino Raiola and Jorge Mendes but otherwise left it to John Murtough, United’s football director.

Take the signing of Ronaldo which Woodward was heavily involved in. Woodward would speak to Mendes every year about Ronaldo, a friendly chat, catching up but also making clear that if his client was ever on the move from Juventus to alert him. At the start of last May, the signals were that Ronaldo would leave. Woodward met with Solskjaer and discussed the manager’s wishes which were a No 7 and a centre-back. Sancho was incoming and they eventually secured Varane.

For most fans, recruitment should really have focused on the need for a high-class central midfield player like West Ham’s Declan Rice or Borussia Dortmund’s Jude Bellingham, both of whom remain on United’s radar. Different types of midfield player, they fit the young, hungry, fearless character the recruitment department desires. During his conversations with Solskjaer, they discussed the possibility of a No 9, always an important decision for the club.

With Marcus Rashford considered best from out wide, Woodward has talked to staff frequently of his admiration for Mason Greenwood, telling them he is the most natural player at the club and that two years’ more maturity will see him established for club and country for a decade. The issue for the likes of Greenwood, something United are aware of and working to contend, is keeping a player who inhabits a bubble grounded and focused.

The signing of Ronaldo has not worked out as the club would have hoped despite his impressive scoring record. Picture: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
The signing of Ronaldo has not worked out as the club would have hoped despite his impressive scoring record. Picture: Gareth Copley/Getty Images

So with Greenwood not yet ready, there was definite interest in a No 9. In August, the signal from Ronaldo’s camp was that he was staying at Juventus, wanting to commit his children to their schools. In the last week of the window, the word out of Turin and via Mendes to Woodward and other clubs, particularly Manchester City, was that Ronaldo would move.

Woodward consulted United’s analysis department, who had all the numbers ready on Ronaldo, and they replied in the affirmative that the Portuguese, even at 36, was in supreme shape. It is not known whether Ronaldo’s intermittent approach to pressing was discussed. Solskjaer viewed Ronaldo’s potential arrival as a positive, not simply because of the goals he would bring (14 so far in 21 games). Solskjaer knew Ronaldo’s impact on the dressing-room would be beneficial, driving up standards.

United staff have always been mindful that some players can melt in the heat of the United crucible. Ronaldo, winner of five Ballons d’Or, is too strong to wilt. There is a mixture of bemusement and amusement inside Carrington at talk on social media over Ronaldo’s body language, given that they want players to feel angry at defeat or poor performances.

United did their due diligence on him and soon realised they were in a race with City. United insist they did not react because City were after a club legend of theirs but simply because they now knew Ronaldo was available. United were convinced that City were preparing the documents to seal Ronaldo’s signing. City have consistently signalled they were not interested in Ronaldo. At 4.51pm on August 27, United tweeted that they had reached agreement with Juventus over Ronaldo. The tweet garnered 1.9 million likes.

This continued obsession with United is something that Woodward takes great pride in as he prepares to step down. He has spoken to players of his admiration of the support within the stadium which has never turned on the players or the manager. Woodward advised players of the need to understand the difference between the noise in the stadium, invariably supportive, and the noise from outside, particularly on social media.

Yet the headlines signalling unrest in the camp, even if emanating from parties associated to players not in regular first-team contention, remains a problem for Arnold, Woodward’s successor. They need Rangnick to impose discipline on the dressing-room, to bring order and focus. The German was recruited because of his reputation for “discipline”, a word frequently mentioned at Carrington about him.

Woodward felt the discipline was required after the Solskjaer era. Even though there is pride about the fabled “cultural reset” brought in by the popular Solskjaer, there is also a feeling that the Norwegian was too collaborative with the players. United’s board want Rangnick to bring the right balance “of stick and carrot” last seen fully almost a decade ago under Ferguson. The concern discussed internally about Rangnick was whether he would be perceived as like a supply teacher, lacking the authority of a long-term manager, so it was one reason why they gave him an additional two-year consultancy.

United are very aware when looking at Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool (from 2015) and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City (from 2016) that the pair possess a strong aura. When Liverpool and City suffer a poor result, United noted that the players stay in a calm place because of the powerful presence of Klopp and Guardiola respectively. There is an understanding within United that “we need to get back to the players being in a calm place” and there was a feeling that Rangnick would bring some composure.

The appointment of Ralf Rangnick as interim head coach was designed to bring stability back to Manchester United. Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP
The appointment of Ralf Rangnick as interim head coach was designed to bring stability back to Manchester United. Picture: Paul Ellis/AFP

They also debated Rangnick’s commitment to 4-2-2-2 and what that meant to Bruno Fernandes, a No 10 who started on the bench against Wolves, and also to United’s commitment to wide players. During the discussions over Rangnick, it was noted that many wingers are inverted nowadays and come inside. Yet Sancho was bought to get to the byline and put in crosses, particularly as now United have two of the best headers of the ball in world football in Ronaldo and Cavani. Ten Hag’s approach would suit United’s personnel better and be more true to club traditions.

United still felt that Rangnick was the ideal choice because of his personality. There was, though, disappointment in parts of Carrington that two coaches rated highly by Woodward, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna, have not stayed on. As he prepared to stand down, Woodward had one piece of advice for Arnold and that was to focus on the long term and ignore the noise.

– The Times

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