Henry Winter: Ryan Giggs can revive Manchester United and restore the club's bond with loyal fans
Ed Woodward is a Manchester United fan as well as executive vice-chairman and cares deeply about that great footballing institution but he must confront the concern that United have lost their way off the pitch as well as on it.
Woodward has taken sound steps to restoring United’s traditions on the field, releasing the handbrake inexplicably applied by David Moyes, and turning in the short term to those long associated with the club’s strongest virtues. Taking off their boots and putting on their suits, Ryan Giggs and the Class of ’92 are taking United back to their roots.
Pace, camaraderie, youth, width, Fergie-time and fearlessness are traits embodied by Giggs and his band of footballing brothers that they aim to reintroduce to Old Trafford, starting tomorrow against Norwich City. Few would bet against a storming finish to the season, lifting spirits if not necessarily league position. Belief is back in town.
This current pause for thought at United, an interregnum as Woodward’s board hunts the best man for the manager’s job, must be accompanied by an honest inspection of the club as a whole, not just the dugout. Over the past decade, United have strayed too far in turning a legendary name into a global business brand akin to Coca-Cola or McDonald’s. The football and the fans must always come first. They are what make United special.
Cash is king in football, and funds the employment of Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie and the targeting of Luke Shaw, but this obsessive pursuit of riches under the Glazers, sweating the asset in New York Stock Exchange parlance, has damaged some of United’s historic characteristics, particularly in relation to the multitude who swarm up Sir Matt Busby Way on match-days.
Woodward seems conscientious, and has been quick to communicate with supporters’ groups and fanzines, so it is to be hoped that he heeds the advice of those encouraging him to remember United’s roots. The Manchester Evening News must always be more important to Woodward and the board than the Wall Street Journal. It is about community, about engaging with supporters as well as share-holders. It is about understanding that guardianship is interwoven with ownership.
As Giggs and the Class of ’92 work on reviving the team, Woodward must rebuild the club’s relationship with the support. The fans have been unbelievably loyal and uncomplaining during miserable recent months, showing a steadfastness that would not have been found many places elsewhere. Such fidelity deserves acknowledging by the board.
United need to treat their fans with more respect. It is easy to sympathise with those supporters who claim that assorted ticketing schemes, particularly pertaining to cup competitions, tax their allegiance unduly. United also need to deal with complaints quicker and better, remembering that they should all be on the same side.
Woodward is a Glazer man, doing their bidding, but he can surely see that the rift between owners and supporters is unhealthy. It is a rift that has not healed with time, that can be healed only by the Glazers behaving like custodians, not profiteers. Fat chance. It would be wonderful if the Glazers used the current watershed to examine their tactics. Unlikely.
The Glazers’ debt-driven financial model remains an embarrassment, a stain on the Premier League collectively as well as United individually. The idea that United’s triumphs and marketability are used to underwrite loss-making Glazer ventures elsewhere is noxious.
It must be sad being one of the Glazer sons, seeming to derive no sporting enjoyment from United, no thrill of the footballing drama. It is strictly business. The Glazers may ultimately take a billion out of United but they will never have the wealth of memories of a fan on the Stretford End.
But the decision by the Glazers, Woodward and the board to terminate Moyes’s contract at least means that fans will still stride more confidently on to the Stretford End this weekend. It was a decision that had to be made as tensions mounted backstage. It would still be gracious of the players if they made some public expression of “goodbye and good luck” to Moyes. It would still be wise for Sir Alex Ferguson to make some public comment, even if simply thanking Moyes for his hard work. Moyes is a good man who froze, a reality he will always regret.
This has been a turbulent season but there is hope renewed by the Class of ’92. Giggs’s title may be caretaker but the footballing values that he, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville espouse must be made permanent. United have to go for the jugular again and the pathway from the academy must be kept clear.
Every day United are linked with superstars at other clubs, and Woodward’s desire to chase the best is to be commended, but they also need to remember where Giggs came from, where Scholes, Butt and the Nevilles came from. Home-grown.
As Woodward watches on, the first part of the United revival should start on the pitch under Giggs. The United legend famed for “tearing you apart since 1991” in the banner that greets opponents at Old Trafford now has games against Norwich, Sunderland, Hull City and Southampton to put his own team back together. Giggs has to send a message to the players, the supporters, the media and the watching world that United are heavyweights who will always bounce back from setbacks.
Giggs has rescued United on many occasions before, on famous nights such as Villa Park in 1999 when his weaving run in the FA Cup semi-final accelerated the drive towards the Treble. United need some of that pace and panache, some of that intense commitment. Off the field, Woodward also needs to rediscover some of the club’s old attributes, reuniting United.