Sunday 20 October 2019

Vincent Hogan: 'Special One' departs - but Man United's troubles run far deeper'

Why Mourinho sacking should not take focus off club's board

High point: Jose Mourinho celebrates Manchester United’s victory in the Europa League final
in Stockholm against Ajax in May 2017. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
High point: Jose Mourinho celebrates Manchester United’s victory in the Europa League final in Stockholm against Ajax in May 2017. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

In a neatly sardonic twist, David Moyes's final game as Manchester United manager was at Goodison Park, against his former employers, Everton.

It was April 2014 and Alan Irvine - his former assistant on Merseyside - was now the club's academy manager.

When working together, Moyes and Irvine had a ritual before games of counting the number of Everton players they reckoned would get in the opposition's starting 11.

This time, Irvine did the comparison alone, setting down Moyes's expected United side alongside the squad available to Roberto Martinez. His conclusion? Irvine reckoned that only Wayne Rooney and Robin Van Persie were better than Everton's starting equivalents. Two out of 11.

United duly lost 2-0, and Moyes's sacking was confirmed two days later.

His replacement, Louis Van Gaal, spent extravagantly over the next two years before he too was relieved of his duties, making way for the now similarly jettisoned Jose Mourinho. So three managerial sackings and £700m (€780m) spent in transfer deals since Alex Ferguson's retirement, United sit sixth in the Premier League.

The same position they held four and a half years ago, that day Moyes went back to Goodison.

Unsurprisingly, sympathy was in short supply for Mourinho yesterday, given his polarising ways and a compensation package reputedly running beyond £22m. He's looked a tired, resentful figure in recent months, a man just acting his way through some kind of football parody.

Trust: Jose Mourinho with Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward. Photo: REUTERS
Trust: Jose Mourinho with Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward. Photo: REUTERS

When you immerse yourself in the sour, self-justifying, endlessly adversarial persona that has become Mourinho's calling card, there is a price to pay if success eludes you. And that price was written all over the palpably triumphalist tone resonant in so much media analysis of yesterday's Old Trafford news.

Mourinho has never been particularly likeable but he has, at least, been relevant. That may be changing now.

But try threading a common philosophical line between the stewardships of Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho at United and you won't get very far. Because there is none. Exactly one year before Moyes's sacking, they were crowned Premier League champions after a 3-0 win against Aston Villa.

Yet, 12 months on, Alan Irvine's "completely objective" view was that only two United players would get a game with Everton.

Ostensibly, Ferguson left them in fine fettle, champions for the 13th time on his watch. Yet, the United squad was ageing and maybe hindsight tells us now the club had no coherent football model beyond a long-term avowal of trust in the remarkable Scot.

When Ferguson went, United needed a path to follow, a plan.

But where would that come from given the ownership profile? By the very nature of their heavily leveraged acquisition of United, the Glazer family have always taken more from the club than they've given.

United's debts still stand at almost half a billion pounds today, the Glazers having siphoned twice that amount out in interest, fees and dividends since 2005.

All six siblings are "senior executives" of United and, accordingly, rewarded handsomely for that status.

Yet, United have fallen hopelessly behind nearest neighbours City and Liverpool in the business of recruitment and the protection of a discernible football lineage.

The club has been run since 2012 by Ed Woodward, a former accountant and investment banker whose recent loss of trust in Mourinho's transfer market judgment is surely hard to reconcile with the decision to award the Portuguese a new contract last January.

The problem with Mourinho, convenient for a United board utterly devoid of vision, is that he manages through melodrama. He demands the spotlight. He picks fights. The paradox of his life in management could maybe be synopsised in how his time as Real Madrid manager is remembered today as much for poking the late Barcelona assistant manager, Tito Vilanova, in the eye as for managing Real Madrid to a 100 points record in La Liga.

For Woodward and the Glazers, Mourinho became a firewall then, vain, surly, and ego-driven, a perfect Vaudeville show to distract from the truth. And floundering in the face of all that high-energy football being played by their most bitter rivals, the easy cliché is that the modern game has simply out-run him; that if the first obligation of a coach is to improve their players, he has been falling lamentably.

There is a scathing passage about United and Mourinho in Michael Calvin's terrific new book, 'State of Play - Under the Skin of the Modern Game', that surely runs close to the core of the problems now at Old Trafford. It reads: "United's credo has changed under Jose Mourinho, who has corporate permission to defy convention and elevate cloying, minutely organised resistance over freedom of spirit and boldness of expression.

"Mourinho doubled down on such heresy by referring acidly to United's "football heritage", as if the term represented a simple summary of results. Enmeshed in his own ego, Mourinho ignored the inconvenient truth that the best clubs gauge their impact by something more substantial than the league table.

"They seek to remain community assets in a globalised economy. They value the empirical evidence of tradition and express themselves with a certain style, an emotionally engaging panache."

Mourinho will, in time, be replaced by someone like Mauricio Pochettino or, perhaps, Zinedine Zidane and the next post-Ferguson chapter will be flagged as something profound and potentially thrilling.

But to what end?

Is there "a United way" to play anymore? Who do they have worth building a new team around? The pouting Paul Pogba, author of that sneering (and quickly deleted) Instagram post within minutes of yesterday's sacking with a graceless invitation to "caption this"?

Maybe you reap what you sow. Maybe someone whose way has always been to needlessly goad and disrespect isn't entitled to expect any gentler conduct in return.

But United's troubles run deeper than the manager's chair. They go to the core of an organisation being run to an exclusively corporate heartbeat. One fast losing sight of the elegance and panache of its past. A club at risk of becoming a ghost.

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