Tuesday 15 October 2019

Kevin Palmer: 'There is a simple reason why Man United's owners keep under-fire Woodward as their main man'

Manchester United's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Manchester United's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Kevin Palmer

Kevin Palmer

Manchester United are set to announce their most impressive result of 2019 on Tuesday and it is likely to be greeted with howls of derision from the club's disgruntled supporters.

Their increasingly unsettled army of followers around the world will not be comforted by the release of Manchester United Plc's fourth-quarter 2019 earnings report, which is expected to confirm profits in excess of £600m, yet the timing of the announcement is a source of great discomfort for the club's executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward.

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As has been the case since he took over as sporting decision-maker in chief at the club in the summer of 2013, failure for the succession of high-profile managers he has appointed has quickly led to criticism of the former investment banker, who curiously appears to avoid the wrath of the club's American owners despite his succession of expensive mistakes.

To understand how Woodward has managed to remain in his current role despite his disastrous track record of failed managerial appointments and expensive flop signings, the clock needs to be rolled back to the summer 2005 and an era when Manchester United had a very different aura on the field.

Back in the days when Alex Ferguson was their all-conquering leader and his chief executive David Gill was his transfer negotiator-in-chief, the takeover from the Glazer family was a sideshow that raised concerns among the club's supporters to the point that they mounted a concerted and very visible campaign against the takeover.

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Manchester United supporters protest against the Glazers. Photo: Getty Images

You might recall the yellow and green protests at Old Trafford that saw thousands of fans voice their displeasure at the prospect of owners effectively buying the club with money loaned to them by JP Morgan bank, where Woodward was negotiator in chief as they managed to get a deal over the line to buy England's biggest club.

Yet so long as Ferguson and his chief executive remained at the helm of the club and Champions League and Premier League trophies were rolling in at a steady rate, the unrest among the club's fans remained diluted to the point that #GlazerOut protests fizzled out until Ferguson and Gill retired in tandem in the summer of 2013.

Woodward's commercial success in turning United into the most profitable club in world football encouraged the Glazer's to hand him the role as Gill's successor as the club's football chief, even though he had little or no experience working in the industry and certainly not enough to qualify him for one of the biggest roles in the sport.

As David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho have discovered as they tried and failed to work with Woodward during their doomed reigns as United manager, the shambolic nature of his transfer dealings and lack of coherent objectives has made the job that should be one of the best in the game a living nightmare.

Angel Di Maria, Memphis Depay, Bastian Schweinsteiger, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Alexis Sanchez are among the high profile signings Woodward signed off on, yet as his latest manager flounders under increasing pressure following Sunday's 2-0 defeat at West Ham, the same old questions remain unanswered.

How is Woodward still charged with negotiating transfer deals and more importantly, why does the club's transfer structure remain unchanged despite £900m of spending that has failed to reap rewards?

Solskjaer may soon become the latest scapegoat in United's increasingly desperate decline, but the constant theme through the last six years has been Woodward's influence on transfer policy and football decisions and that he appears to be spectacularly unqualified to oversee these areas.

Yet to emphasise that United remain firmly behind the Woodward brand of management, the club embarked on the highly unusual move of releasing a club statement on Monday that was clearly designed to distance the executive vice-chairman from the latest crisis bubbling in increasingly menacing fashion under his most recent managerial appointment.

This was a message designed to shift the blame to a collective audience and away from Woodward, with the club's owners clearly giving the green light to its release.

"Everyone at the club, from the owners down, is focused on competing for and winning trophies at the highest level. To do that we have invested heavily in the playing squad and will continue to do so," read the statement.

"It's important to note that while our successful commercial operation helps drive that investment, the priority is the focus on achieving success on the pitch. Similarly, it is worth noting that we are not looking at or buying players based on their commercial appeal. We agree that recruitment is critical.

"We are committed to getting this right and there has been huge investment in this area to put our recruitment department into a position to be able to deliver the manager the players he wants. This process is significantly more effective than four or five years ago.

"We've materially expanded our recruitment department in recent years and we believe this runs in an efficient and productive way. Many of the senior staff in these roles have been at the club for over 10 years.

"Recruitment recommendations and decisions are worked on by this department and the manager and his team, not senior management.

"We feel the players signed this summer demonstrate that this approach is the right one and any future appointment would compliment this process. Regarding transfer budget, we have invested significantly in the squad and we will continue to do so."

Moyes, Van Gaal and Mourinho may beg to differ on the theory that Woodward does not have the final say on transfer trading at United and while the non-disclosure agreements they signed when they were sacked by the club restrict their ability to vocalise those gripes, the intended sentiments of club statements are unlikely to shift opinions and yet you wonder if the Glazers care what the fans think of them or their own chosen one.

The focus for United's owners will always be on profits and so long as Woodward is delivering the results that really matter on their balance sheets, they will feel no compulsion to change the banker who continues to make the tills tick at Old Trafford.

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