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Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The high stakes at play for Man Utd call for a single-minded vision

The two greatest managerial appointments of Manchester United’s history had one theme in common: both were made with the club in a bad place and the anxiety that it could get much worse for an institution that seemed off the pace of change.

Matt Busby was offered the job after the war with part of Old Trafford in ruins – genuine rubble and dust, not the figurative ruins of a 4-1 defeat to Watford. The then chairman, James W Gibson, persuaded Busby to turn down offers from the clubs he had played for, Liverpool and Manchester City, by giving him autonomy to run the club as he saw fit, a rarity in those days. 

Alex Ferguson had to earn that power when he arrived in 1986. He had already turned down Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal in an era when careers moved more slowly than they do now. That the outstanding young coach of his generation spent three more years in Scotland, after leading Aberdeen to their European final win over Real Madrid, seems remarkable now. Over time, both men became to United what we might now recognise as directors of football: overseeing signings, reinvigorating the production of young players and lots of other things that were just as important then as now, but were unspoken in those days – culture, style of play, identity. 

It was clear that what United needed when Ferguson left was not so much a manager as the director of football that he had become. No longer a day-to-day coach. Instead something bigger. A figure who was the club’s public face and an effective lobbyist, be that with referees, or the Football Association’s disciplinary decisions or sticking his nose into the business of other clubs. He picked the team, he made the substitutions and he shook the other manager’s hand at the end of the match, but he had left the archetypal gafferdom far behind. All the different parts of Ferguson needed replacing for United to return to being United. 

They do at last have a director of football, or at least two of them, in Darren Fletcher, who has the title of technical director, and John Murtough, as football director. This being United, there always seems to be around 50 per cent extra relevant persons to do the job. But nonetheless, for the first time the questions around crucial appointments are in the hands of football people rather than the men in suits. 

This situation is different in one respect, though. Naturally, Ed Woodward, and Joel Glazer will approve the recommended candidate, but they will not lead the process. Everyone appears to have had a go, and now it is the turn of Murtough – who joined in a different capacity with David Moyes in 2013 – and Fletcher. 

There should have been a plan for the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer succession. That there was not speaks of the sheer terror at the club of undermining the one strategy that they did have, which was to back Solskjaer relentlessly. The speed at which the names of the interim manager candidates have emerged shows that there might have been some justification for that paranoia. For example, at Rangers, a club of comparable status in their own league, the aligning of candidates in the event of the departure of Steven Gerrard had begun a long time before that moment arrived, hence the relatively smooth transition to Giovanni van Bronckhorst. At Manchester City and Liverpool one expects that similar contingencies are ready for a similar eventuality. 

At United, it has only just begun. They were finally in the era of the director of football as of Sunday lunchtime, when the manager search started. It has been a long time coming. The club are not a straightforward entity and in the post-Ferguson years they have not enjoyed the kind of success that establishes a natural hierarchy of power and responsibility, as exists elsewhere. While Ferguson gradually conquered the constituent parts of 1990s United to reign supreme alongside the chief executive of the day, it is less clear these days. 

Woodward is the trusted aide of Joel Glazer, leader of the Glazer boardroom enclave. Woodward’s resignation in the wake of the Super League farrago projected his departure by the end of this year. He may not go by then. The club would likely have made some kind of announcement by now that managing director Richard Arnold would take a version of the job that the executive vice-chairman does. Instead, events have simply overtaken them. Woodward remains valuable to the Glazers. 

However painful the Woodward years have been, the club find it difficult to part with him. He is the best-connected man at United in the world game, he understands the club’s financial picture and the major broadcast agreements that they share with the Premier League and Uefa better than anyone else. You could say that at the very least he has seen, close up, what has not worked for United. It might not be justification for him to continue to make the decisions, but it is not hard to see why his kind of experience would not come in handy for those who do in future.

As for the next era, it will require Fletcher and Murtough to have a single-minded vision for United, which is asking a great deal when you think of the experience of the two men who have done that best in the past. They are playing for high stakes.

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