How Man Utd lost its soul as well as its manager
The club's success in negotiating sponsorship deals only matters if the team performs on the field, writes Paul Hayward
Published 23/04/2014 | 02:30
Sacking a manager 10 months into a six-year contract is only one sign of vast cultural change at Manchester United. Another was Sir Alex Ferguson striding onto the Old Trafford pitch along an avenue of DHL flags to wave goodbye after 26 years in charge.
At a club less commercially motivated, Ferguson would have stepped onto a "clean" field, with nothing to distract the eye from the poignance of his retirement. In keeping with United's unashamed drive to accommodate corporate partners, the moment was commercialised as well as enshrined.
Soon after Ferguson gave way, United's marketing and social media departments turned hyperactive, as if the constraints that made the footballing side the beginning, the middle and end of everything had lifted.
David Moyes was dismissed first of all for footballing reasons: dire results and a dressing-room belief that he was not waving but drowning in the job.
His departure brings the club to arguably the biggest junction in their history.
What identity will United choose now? Who will make the biggest decisions? Will they join the superpower mainstream of pragmatism and three-year cycles or restructure the whole football operation while holding dear the Busby and Ferguson traditions?
Thus the Glazer family, who impaled Moyes rather than give him a €180m transfer fund potentially to squander, have decided against another experiment in Giggs in favour of a guaranteed A-list trophy-farmer of the sort that will calm investors and service the Glazer debt.
Ed Woodward, the breezy and City-savvy executive vice-chairman who took over from David Gill in the main decision-making role, sees no contradiction between the rampant pursuit of commercial partnerships and the quality of the football team.
He sees United's vast network of tie-ups as complimentary to, and not distracting from, the business of winning battles with Manchester City, Chelsea and now Liverpool, not to mention Europe's heavyweights.
When Serbia's Eurobank signed a credit and debit card arrangement with the club, it joined Emirates NBD in the United Arab Emirates, Krungsri in Thailand and Maybank in Malaysia and Singapore, not to mention Mister Potato (official savoury snack partner) and Kansai (official paint partner). United are now a private mall of link-ups, with every human need covered: beer (Singha), cars (Chevrolet), spirits (Aperol Spritz) and gambling (Bwin). Even the Hong Kong Jockey Club has crept in there somehow.
If he were feeling political (which he probably is) Woodward could argue that it was Ferguson's wish to be succeeded by Moyes and the Glazers' decision to sack him. The idea that Woodward directly briefed against his manager during a holiday period better known for resurrections is contradicted by accounts of journalistic digging and unstoppable momentum following the 2-0 defeat at Everton.
The sacking was mishandled, certainly, but few would argue with the outcome.
Anyway, the light now falls on the decisions being made at Old Trafford. In that sense the past 12 months have been instructive, as policy has been concocted from positions of weakness rather than the old strengths.
Foremost among them, after a summer of missed transfer targets and the ill-fated purchase of Marouane Fellaini, was the spectacular new contract for Wayne Rooney, who has twice exploited a low ebb at United to inflate his own salary. While solving the Rooney conundrum Moyes might have thought he had hit the diplomatic jackpot. Another way of seeing it was that United recklessly threw a €365k-a-week salary at a 28-year-old who has already peaked.
Rooney's initially bright contribution to Moyes's first and only season fell away. There were mutterings, too, about special treatment for the prodigy Moyes managed at Everton after Tom Cleverley, Danny Welbeck and Ashley Young were punished for having a night out.
As the fog starts to clear it is easy to enumerate all the things United will be glad to see the back of now: ponderous football, deferential language in media conferences; players effectively leaving halfway through the season (Nemanja Vidic); 51 different starting line-ups; the Robin van Persie problem; planes dragging protest banners across the Manchester skies; doomed transfer pursuits and close-in shots of Ferguson in the directors' box. This can end now as he is no longer the previous manager.
He is previous to the previous manager.
So wipe away the frustrations. But what happens then? Getting rid of a manager many considered to be under-qualified for the job cannot save those players who have performed so abjectly from what you might politely call an annual review. Less politely, you would say "the chop", because Nani, Young, Cleverley, Chris Smalling and others cannot sidestep the reckoning, whether on application grounds or straightforward ability. Nor should Rooney be allowed to recline on the laurels of his new salary and leave the fightback to others.
Asked for advice by young managers, George Graham used to say: "Remember, when you walk in the dressing room for the first time – these are the b******s who cost the last guy his job." That lesson would not be lost on Louis van Gaal, the inverse of Moyes, who would embody the old line about being careful what you wish for.
Giggs, who takes temporary charge, will have his own mental notes about which of these players bear comparison with the great United teams of the past. Many would have found it easier to suck up to him than they will an incoming household name, who will probably want to slash and burn.
United can justify being a deal-making factory to service the Glazer debt only if the football side is paramount, and the right people are making the decisions, which means Gill, Sir Bobby Charlton and Ferguson still supplying the wisdom on who should occupy the dugout and how the playing side should evolve.
All three would argue for a structure rather than hire-and-fire thinking. Equally the biggest clubs have never seemed so reliant on the six to eight European coaches who can handle jobs of this magnitude.
Moyes was not one, so all the thinking that came with Ferguson's retirement goes out of the window. Though the hierarchy knew around the time of the Champions League defeat at Olympiakos that the players were rapidly losing faith in Moyes, there was still a strong sense on Monday of disorientation, shock and uncertainty about the way ahead.
The velvet handover has been more of a vortex, with United now needing a new back four, central midfielders and an immediate return to the old spirit and urgency.
No doubt the exodus of Moyes appointees will make the Carrington training ground feel more like home again. Yet a club who were insulated from having to make a decision about the manager for 26 years are now in the same mud-wrestling contest as everyone else.
All the while, they look 25 miles west and see an experiment that went right, as Liverpool clamber back towards their perch. Brendan Rodgers: bringer of more pain. (© Daily Telegraph, London)