When Manchester United were searching for a new shirt sponsor in 2009, the commercial team prepared mock shirts with different companies’ names and logos and sent them to executives at each of the targets. The insurance company Aon became United’s shirt sponsor after “a sample shirt had landed unsolicited on the desk of Aon’s new marketing head, Phil Clement,” wrote Tehsin Nayani in The Glazer Gatekeeper. The Glazer family’s former PR man described how United would approach potential sponsors directly, rather than wait for sponsors to come to them. “No need to imagine what it would be like for Rooney to wear your company’s shirt – we’ve already done it for you.”
Such proactiveness, however, seems confined to the club’s commercial activities. On most footballing matters, there is visible lack of foresight and ambition.
Spurs’ swanky new stadium has put the spotlight on the neglect of Old Trafford. Its crumbling infrastructure and outdated technology is symbolic of a once unrivalled institution that has been left behind as competitors have modernized. United’s youth infrastructure and training facilities fall well short of Manchester City’s and there has been little effort to develop the area around Old Trafford itself. Until recently, the club did not even feel the need to invest in a women’s team.
Spurs’ swanky new stadium has put the spotlight on the neglect of Old Trafford. Its crumbling infrastructure and outdated technology is symbolic of a once unrivalled institution that has been left behind as competitors have modernized.
The men’s first team has fallen behind as well. As four English clubs battle it out in European competition finals and City enjoy back-to-back league titles, United have been admonished to another season in the Europa League. Liverpool’s failure to clinch the league is perhaps all United fans are left to cheer about.
Unsurprisingly the players’ attitude has come under increasing scrutiny. Gary Neville, in one of his increasingly familiar rants, picked six players – Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and David de Gea – who he felt are underperforming and “deserve far greater scrutiny.” He had earlier stated that he saw players “pretending to run back” against Barcelona. Newly minted permanent United manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, when asked post a 4-0 drubbing at Everton if his players cared enough, paused briefly then said: “I don’t know”. Even more pointed accusations have been made by former club legends on television throughout the season and a fan even confronted Paul Pogba after the final league game of a miserable campaign.
Poor attitude or a lack of effort should hardly be surprising at this point. Organizational culture, after all, trickles down from the top. “Playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business,” proclaimed Ed Woodward last year, addressing the only group he is answerable to: shareholders. Today United is a Cayman Islands-registered, New York-listed commercial entity, masquerading as a football club. It is just another financial investment in the Glazer family portfolio. Slipping standards on the football field is allowed, as long as commercial revenue keeps growing.
Aptly then, all key decisions at United – footballing or otherwise – are made by Ed Woodward, a former investment banker in JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions department. In his six years as Executive Vice-Chairman, he has overseen three disastrous managerial tenures, several botched transfer windows, and little on-field success.
All key decisions at United – footballing or otherwise – are made by Ed Woodward, a former investment banker in JP Morgan’s mergers and acquisitions department.
United fans now have their hopes pinned on the impeding restructure, but most managerial firings and calamitous defeats have been followed by reports suggesting “a root and branch review” or “modernization.” After United’s 2-0 humbling away at Olympiakos in the 2014 UEFA Champions League competition, Woodward took a picture of the scoreboard as a reminder that the club must never sink to such a low again. Two top four finishes in the following five seasons hardly suggests progress. United’s expansion and upgradation of the scouting network has had little impact on their scattergun transfer policy. Javier Ribalta was appointed from Juventus in a leading player recruitment position, but left after just six months.
Woodward has had half a year to start righting his lengthy list of wrongs – to appoint a Director of Football and a leadership team with complete control of footballing decisions at the club. As it turns out, a permanent manager has hastily been appointed and most reports now suggest that United will appoint a watered-down Technical Director, presumably with a final say on transfers set to remain with Woodward. He has no intention of relinquishing control.
Underwhelmingly, Sky Sports News now suggests that Darren Fletcher is a leading candidate for a role resembling the Technical Director, with Rio Ferdinand and Dan Ashworth – the Technical Director at Brighton – also mentioned. While it is hard to assess suitability for a role that has not yet been defined, Ferdinand and Fletcher have nothing even remotely resembling credible experience for such a role and there are plenty of experienced, proven candidates that can presumably be recruited. But a historic link to the club seems to have become the sole criteria for evaluation, with no credence given to a track record. In fact, astonishingly, if any of these rumored names are appointed as the Technical Director, the entire footballing structure – right from Woodward to the first team coaches, apart from Mike Phelan, will have no experience at anything close to the top level in their respective roles. It is unnecessary and unbecoming of a club this size.
Admittedly, Solskjaer and other club legends, despite their lack of experience, obviously understand United. And such institutional knowledge is certainly an asset. But such appointments only work when there is a structure to cover for their shortcomings. Solskjaer should have been assisted by an experienced Director of Football, with contacts in Europe and beyond, and with experience of recruiting world class players.
Solskjaer should have been assisted by an experienced Director of Football, with contacts in Europe and beyond, and with experience of recruiting world class players.
Now it is presumably too late for the Technical Director to influence transfers this summer and Solskjaer has never had to sign a player at this level. Real Madrid (Eder Militao), Bayern Munich (Lucas Hernandez) and Barcelona (Frankie de Jong and possibly Matthijs de Ligt) have promptly identified and signed their key targets as United tumble from one rumored target to another. The much-touted overhaul is already in jeopardy before it has even started.
Such colossal mismanagement has consequences, even at clubs with United’s financial clout. But there’s little incentive to change. “What are the odds that people will make smart decisions about money if they don’t need to make smart decisions – if they can get rich making dumb decisions?” Michael Lewis wrote in The Big Short. While commercial value continues to rise, there is little hope that United will get anywhere close to the modern, analytical operating model that Man City and Liverpool are now reaping the rewards of.