The director of football, or sporting director, may seem like a modern phenomenon, but the role has existed for decades. Fundamentally, the role is an intermediary between the board and the first team manager, with a task of creating continuity: in the long-term direction, playing style, transfers, hiring and firing, and bridging the gap between the academy and the first team. Given that managers and players often focus match-to-match, the former with the intention of keeping his job and the latter with hope of staying in the team, the sporting director is charged with executing a long-term vision.
“The only thing I can say is that I’m still a coach with ambitions, and desire to do new things,” José Mourinho said on TF1’s Telefoot show. “And I don’t believe… no, I’m sure I won’t end my career here.” “Here” being Manchester United. There may be a whole number of reasons the United manager spoke about his career path. Perhaps he was trying to divert attention from the drab scoreless draw against Liverpool; maybe he was giving Ed Woodward a little nudge during contract negotiations, or it could simply be that “Mourinho is gonna Mourinho”.
Picture the scene. Thursday, 17 December, 2015. Chelsea’s annual Christmas lunch at the club’s Cobham training ground has just concluded. The mood is downbeat. The Blues had lost 2-1 at Leicester City the previous Monday to record a ninth Premier League defeat of the season. José Mourinho’s low-key pre-lunch training session does little to lighten the atmosphere. The manager is sporting a newly shaven head and the stubble of a man too distracted to shave. As the players drift home, chairman Bruce Buck and director Eugene Tenenbaum arrived to sack Mourinho as Chelsea manager for the second time. A brutal assasination.
July 1, 2013. A man with greying auburn hair walks into an oversized office in South West Manchester. He’s dressed smartly. The one thing everybody notes about him is the courtesy with which he greets people. He surveys the scene: a large clock, a panoramic window looking out onto a dozen green fields, intersected by goalposts and white lines, scattered with scores of teenage footballers.
So there it is. Manchester United’s long search for a major trophy after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement finally came to a positive end. The Reds’ 2-1 FA Cup final victory over Crystal Palace at Wembley brought glory and silverware to the club – and Louis van Gaal the sack. It was the Van Gaal’s first taste of success in England, but was swiftly followed by an end to a period in which the Dutchman has increasingly alienated supporters and, critically, failed to deliver on his promises. Retirement beckons, José Mourinho beckons. Louis goes, but it is with a modicum of dignity restored. The same cannot be said for Ed Woodward.
Friday, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman/lightning rod/chief figure of fun (delete as appropriate) was ‘grilled’ by investors when he reported on the club’s financial results for the third quarter. Much like the ‘grilling’ in the second quarter there was little surprise that investor questions focus little on Manchester United’s on the pitch challenges.
Everybody hates Louis van Gaal, and rightly so. In the stands, in the press, probably even in his own house. After all, since the Dutchman’s appointment in May 2014 he has taken it upon himself to tear apart the Theatre of Dreams. Whether its analysis that insults the fans’ intelligence, or the insipid football on show, Van Gaal has successfully alienated the world’s biggest fanbase. Yet, it is not only mistaken to think that all Manchester United’s problems lie at the Dutchman’s feet, but naïve as well. The cancer comes from the top.
At the secret Glazer family money bank, Joel, Bryan and Avram proudly toast inking their latest commercial partnership. Joel strokes his wad as Avram preens, proudly sporting a freshly waxed pony tail. Bryan, known as the ‘fun one’, is busy celebrating United’s latest success by polishing his tractor.
Sometimes it is the messenger as much as the message that resonates most. The ranking is up for debate, of course, but there is little doubt that Manchester United’s Europa League defeat at Liverpool on Thursday night was one of the club’s most embarrassing in the past three decades. Paul Scholes knew it, Rio Ferdinand saw it, the travelling United supporters left Anfield certain of it. So what is it, exactly, that Louis van Gaal and his paymaster Ed Woodward cannot see?