The tragedy of Ed Woodward and Manchester United: How has it come to this?

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Seeing the aggressive attack on United CEO Ed Woodward’s home, just a couple weeks after Old Trafford had practically emptied before the final whistle of a dismal 2-0 home defeat to Burnley, the glory days of winning a 13th Premier League in 22 years just 7 years ago seem an agonizingly distant memory for United fans such as myself.  

At the time of writing, United sit 8th in the tabe, a staggering 38 points below leaders Liverpool, and despite being 4 points ahead of Arsenal, it is still United’s worst points return after 25 games for several decades. With a manager whose most significant piece of managerial experience features being relegated with Cardiff City, and a star player who seems destined to leave in the summer in the shape of Paul Pogba, the mind does wonder: how has it come to this, and who really is to blame? 

In truth, the club has been in a non-stop downward spiral since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. It certainly wasn’t a surprise to see United struggle when he left; no one who came in would be able to fill his boots, let alone David Moyes. But the hole that he left when he departed covered more than just the managerial position; he had much of the influence for United as a modern-day director of football would. Alongside David Gill, Sir Alex managed not just the team to an immaculate level, but the transfer dealings as well. For many years, the pair had decided meticulously and dealt efficiently on a variety of deals – it seemed to an endless line of perfect talent for adequate prices throughout the years. Although they were one or two ‘flops’ signed by United, such as Juan Sebastien Veron or Diego Forlan, both bought for huge fees yet delivering little on the pitch, there were many success stories. Rio Ferdinand was purchased for an English record fee, but the longevity of his performances proved very much worth every penny. Wayne Rooney was undeniably a fantastic purchase, as were the likes of Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Nemanja Vidic.  For me, Cristiano Ronaldo epitomized the lot; a young, talented player, who Ferguson personally convinced to sign for United over Arsenal and became a Ballon d’Or winner within 4 years.  

So, the owners of course had to put in place the very best in the game to take over all things football and transfers at United. But rather than looking at men who had experience at some of the best clubs in the world and a proven track record, the infamous Glazer family decided that Ed Woodward, an ex-banker who had previously been working on the commercial side of United’s dealings, was the man to take United forward.  He was promoted to a role which was essentially the CEO of the club, overseeing all commercial and football operations. It was, therefore, predictable that things would go downhill from that point on, and of course, they did. In tragic fashion. 

Although the appointment of David Moyes can not be put down to Woodward – Sir Alex handpicked his compatriot to take his place – a portion of the blame for the train wreck that was Moyes’ time in charge can certainly be thrown Woodward’s way. Right off the bat, the transfer dealings were embarrassing. Woodward unrealistically chased the likes of Gareth Bale and Cesc Fàbregas, failing in humiliating fashion each time. If these failures were not enough, the window could not have ended in much more horrendous fashion – desperately chasing a deadline day deal for Marouane Fellaini, who eventually joined for £27.5million, a very substantial fee in a pre-Neymar-PSG market. Although Fellaini deserves more respect than he has been given for his longevity in the Premier League, he was far from a top-level performer in his 6 years as a United first-team regular, and few expected him to be, either. I find it hard to believe that Ed Woodward felt differently, but then again, such a thought would indeed match his consistent incompetence over the years. 

This incompetence in regards to transfers has continued window after window. In the next 5 years United would spend staggering amounts of money on players that failed to deliver; including (the rankings being my own personal but hardly deniable opinion): 

 Radamel Falcao: Horrific failure 

Angel Di María: Horrific failure 

Juan Mata: Hardly a success 

Bastian Schweinsteiger: Failure 

Morgan Schneiderlin: Failure  

Romelu Lukaku: Failure 

Paul Pogba: Not a failure, but yet to consistently deliver 

Memphis Depay: Failure 

Henrikh Mkhitaryan: Failure 

Eric Bailly: Endlessly injured 

Luke Shaw: Hardly a success 

Alexis Sánchez: Absolutely tragic failure 

It is truly sad to think that this list contains 3 players that broke the English transfer record, and one who is reportedly on a weekly salary in excess of £500,000. 

Woodward’s record of managerial appointments has been poor too, with 3 experienced managers coming and going in the space of 5 and half years. As I previously mentioned, I will not blame him for the saddening case of David Moyes, and few United fans will say that he shouldn’t have been sacked when he was. And in fairness to Woodward, Louis Van Gaal and José Mourinho seemed formidable appointments at the time, and neither did themselves any favours in their general behaviour and management style in the time leading up to their sackings. However, they were clearly not backed with a thoughtful, effective transfer strategy.  

This was never more evident than during the summer of 2018, months before Mourinho was sacked in December.  

The previous season, José had somehow managed to drag an inconsistent United team to a 2nd place league finish, and one thing was clear to the United fans; we desperately needed a new, world-class centre-back. Without David De Gea having one of the best seasons I would argue any goalkeeper has ever had, United would have conceded far more goals and lost far more games than they did. The consensus amongst the fanbase was a point that we could all agree on: we had simply had enough of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling.  

So fans went into the summer expectant; hoping for reinforcements in midfield but firmly expecting additions in defenceSo for United to end the summer with the single major signing being £53million midfielder Fred was not just a disappointment; it was an embarassment. Moreover, for those who followed the insider news on who the board had targeted throughout the summer, plenty of cringing was provoked. After being nearly dormant for the first two months of the window, they spent the last two weeks tentatively eyeing up Harry Maguire and Jerome Boateng, before failing with a desperate deadline day bid for Diego Godín 

José Mourinho’s demeanour became more and more miserable throughout his spell as United coach, and for many he felt like a plague at the club towards the end of his reign. He had to go, but if the board had acted with a single grain of competence that summer and signed a single decent centre-back, the course of José’s final season could have gone very differently.  

In truth, the last two transfer windows have shown the first signs of a coherent, thoughtful transfer strategy under the control of Woodward. Aaron-Wan Bissaka is undoubtedly a very strong signing – a young, English defender who is one of, if not the, best defensive fullbacks in Europe. Dan James has also been a shrewd addition – for £15million, his 3 goals and 6 assists show 3 more goal involvements than £72million Nicolas Pépé of Arsenal this season at the time of writing. However, the fact that he hasn’t scored since netting 3 times in his first 4 league games show that he clearly has a very long way to go to get anywhere near to being a prolific winger. But for such a low price, he was very much a low-risk signing who has contributed much more to the team than say, Jesse Lingard – a player who I despise so much, I will not waste time talking about. Harry Maguire is a much more debatable signing – people will say that £80million is a terrible for a player who is seemingly not even that good. While I agree he is not worth anywhere near that much, we desperately needed a new centre-back, and one with leadership, and he has come in and considerably improved our defence. As much as many rival fans claim his lack of ability, as a United fan I do not need to subjectively defend him; instead I will simply quote Guardiola after the most recent Manchester derby: ‘Maguire, (is) one of the best central defenders in the world’.  

This most recent January saw the arrival of what seemed like the holy grail for so many United fans. Bruno Fernandes, a player who many of us had longed for as the perfect addition for so many months, was finally secured by Woodward and co. Time will tell if he will be able to convert his astonishing performances in Portugal into the English League, without doubt of a much more competitive standard, but those stats (nearly 50 goal involvements from midfield in Liga NOS last season)  certainly suggest there are great things to come in front of goal from the Portuguese midfielder. 

Amid these impressive deals, however, there have still been some mind-boggling calamities in the last year. Mainly the decision to sell Romelu Lukaku for as much as he was purchased – about £75million – and not replace him. You will find few United fans who, even after Lukaku’s staggering 20 goals in his first 29 games for Inter Milan this season, regret letting him go. He hadn’t performed to the heights we needed in his two seasons at Old Trafford, particularly in the big games. The big problem was clearly not the act of letting ‘Big Rom’ go, but rather expecting 18-year-old Mason Greenwood to be able to make up for the around 15-20 Premier League goals that were lost in the process. Only the most foolish fans would fall for Ole’s endless, tragic excuse of ‘There weren’t the right players available for the right price’. It is a claim which can be acceptable if referring to the difficult January window when no one wants to let their players go, but in the summer there are always suitable and available players out there, especially strikers. It just takes the right willingness and competency from the board to get them in.  

In all fairness, a striker was finally signed this January, but I think little expected it to be 30-year-old Odion Ighalo on a 6-month loan deal, especially being once again desperately edged over the line in the dying hours of deadline day. As much as people will try and mock United and claim that this deal showed that United ‘aren’t able to attract big players anymore’, that is not true. What it did show is that the transfer board is still a mess. The transfer of Erling Håland was not a clear case, and whether you want to believe that United pulled out of the deal because Mino Raiola was demanding a ridiculous £60million release clause in his contract, or because he simply turned United down, the one clear truth is that United missed out on their primary striking target. That was nothing to be ashamed of; it happens in football. Under Sir Alex, United missed out on players such as Ronaldinho, who instead joined Barcelona from PSG, and an 18-year-old Aaron Ramsey, who opted for Arsenal. However, a competent board would, after missing out on Håland, quickly turn to the next player on a carefully drawn-out list of striking options and get the deal done quickly.  

What was clear is that Woodward and co. did not have a plan B; they threw all their eggs in one basket chasing the Norwegian wonderkid. Similarly, an intelligent transfer committee in the case of United would have started hunting and dealing for strikers well before last summer at the moment when it became clear that Lukaku was likely to leave – he recently confessed that he had told the club he wanted to leave in May. Part of the reason as to why so few suitable strikers were available in January is because they had signed for different clubs in the summer and United had not even looked at them. I am talking about the likes of Sebastién Haller – a strong number 9 with a profiency for getting others involved in play – or Maxi Gómez – a pacy, prolific forward. Luka Jović was up for grabs, as was Mauro Icardi –  of whom I am still absolutely stunned United continually refused in the possibility of a swap deal for Lukaku, despite all the baggage the player brings with his notorious wife, Wanda Nara. Each player was far from United’s mind, Lukaku left and the team had been criminally short of goals since the start of the season. The injury to Marcus Rashford has left us in a shambolic situation in front of goal. Anthony Martial simply can’t significantly provide by himself, and Greenwood is still a raw, inconsistent youngster. James can’t notch in with regular goals, and seeing the likes of Pereira and Lingard attempt to create and score goals makes me cry at times. Thus the club has been driven to having no other choice but to wring in Ighalo to try and remedy the situation. He may very well hit the ground running and have a successful few months, but few anticipate him to be prolific. 

The recent verbal towards against Ed Woodward and that against his house have been long over-due, and to many the shocking Old Trafford chants wishing for his death and the attack of flares on his home may seem uncalled for and out of hand from United fans. In all truth, it is long overdue. Now, I certainly don’t vouch for the attacks on his house; the man has a family and the so-called ‘fans’ who carried out the attack are nothing short of a disgrace to our fanbase. As for the bloodthirsty chants, while I believe that the gruesome detail of wanting to ‘cut him up from head to toe’ is certainly too far, I would say that these demands effectively reflect the pain that his incompetency has caused to us; many years of seeing Manchester City and now Liverpool soar ahead of us in footballing terms is life-ruining for the most passionate among us. It brings me to tears sometimes thinking of how Liverpool are set to win their first Premier League title for 30 years. 

As much as Woodward has done a terrible job at United, we have to question the people who employed him. The notorious Glazer family have owned United since 2005, and there were even protests from United fans at the time who were unhappy with the clearly money-obsessed American businessmen who had taken over. The most appreciated and effective owners of football clubs over the years have clearly been those who have put significant effort and money into improving the club. The Glazers have done the opposite. Without putting in a penny of their own money, they have taken hundreds of millions of pounds out of the club leaving it in massive debt which still exists today. Moreover, they of course have failed to ensure that the club is properly run by the best people in the game. The continued trust in Ed Woodward is the most significant highlight of that. 

In conclusion, Manchester United Football Club has been run to ground by people with little knowledge of game in control, and it has been a tragic downward spiral to observe for the millions of devoted fans worldwide of what remains one of the three biggest clubs in the world, despite the failures of the team. Recent signings suggest that there may yet be hope in Ed Woodward, but it will take many years of correct decision-making of the squad and coach on a consistent basis for him to make amends, and with it looking certainly like the Glazers have no plans to sell United any time soon, it seems that we will be stuck with the man who makes them so much commercial cash yet creates so much footballing despair for years to come. In all honesty, as fans we’ve had enough, so things have to keep going forward or if they don’t, we will make our anger heard, no matter how controversial of chants it might require.