Ed Woodward’s reign as Manchester United’s executive vice president is ending as it always has been: in largely self-inflicted confusion. No executive at an English football club has ever spent so much time on personal PR, which makes you wonder how bad their reputation would have been without it.
The glorious history of Man United, he explained as he stepped down, was like an albatross around the club’s neck; this albatross had to be brought back to life. It’s just possible that Woodward never read Coleridge Rhyme of the ancient sailor; or if he did, his reading is idiosyncratic. The Mariner shot an albatross with his crossbow, an act which came to be blamed for the disappearance of the wind that left his ship paralyzed. To punish him for having awakened a curse, his shipmates then tied the body of the albatross around his neck. Is he saying that Ernest Mangnall, Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson shouldn’t have won 20 league titles and three European Cups?
It may be true that past successes sometimes raise unnecessary pressure, but it is also this success that makes United the richest club in England in terms of income and makes Woodward the top football executive. highest paid in the country. To describe it as a curse seems ungrateful. And, of course, if the albatross did come back to life, it’s unlikely to end well, pounding in terror as it was tied around someone’s neck.
But then, very little of Woodward made sense. He was miserable in a way he picked up on just as Ferguson left. Replacing a manager who dominated a club the Ferguson way for 27 years was never going to be easy. Where other clubs had structures, United simply had the boss, someone with an irreplaceable wealth of knowledge, unparalleled contacts and an aura that commanded respect and intimidated rivals.
What followed was eight and a half years of chaos, bad decisions followed by bad decisions. David Moyes was Ferguson’s choice to succeed him. Woodward took a picture of the scoreboard in Piraeus when Man United, under the supervision of Moyes in 2014, lost 2-0 to Olympiacos in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 and vowed that ‘ he would never let things get so bad again. They did and got even worse.
The lack of football expertise on the board has been bluntly exposed. Louis van Gaal was an understandable bet, an aging master who had experienced a new life with the Netherlands, but José Mourinho was not, a declining figure with a history of locker room disruption. It was as if United’s board had bought the image of him as a born winner without considering what that might mean or why things had turned so badly for him at Real Madrid and Chelsea.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made sense as a detoxifying interim coach, but definitely appointing him to that position before the end of this season in response to some good results and a public outcry showed just how prone Woodward is to whims, how he reacted to circumstance. The signing of Cristiano Ronaldo last summer was similar, plans fell apart for short-term popularity. What remains is an uneven team that seems more and more unmanageable, full of egos that have no faith in the hierarchy and have therefore taken their personal interest.
What a mess has gotten poor Ralf Rangnick, a man who left Schalke because he hated the limelight so much. He had coached just 88 games in a decade before taking the job at United. With the players in almost open revolt, seemingly resisting his attempts to impose his pressing game, it feels like he might be the right person in the wrong job. His success has been as a director of football, and it’s advice that desperately needs that kind of expertise. But instead, Rangnick’s political capital risks being burnt even before he reaches the advisory part of his role.
The FA Cup must constantly fight for its relevance in modern play, but for United, Monday’s home third round game against Aston Villa is all too relevant. It has now been five years since United last won a trophy, a period of unthinkable shortage for a club of their stature. United are in desperate need of a cup race – anything, really – just to restore morale.
Meanwhile, Woodward will simply walk away on February 1, his outing long pre-arranged after the Super League fiasco last spring. He may have been successful from a business standpoint, earning a fortune at the club in sponsorship deals – a noodle partnership here, a pillow partnership there – but in football terms he leaves United in a much weaker position than they were in when he joined. Rangnick is just one of many to pay the price.
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