What do you imagine Ed Woodward will be thinking, from his seat in the Bob Lord stand, when a plane flies over Turf Moor this afternoon and the message trailed in the skies makes it clear there are Manchester United supporters who prefer to hold him responsible for the club’s current predicament rather than subjecting José Mourinho to any real form of mutiny?
It will need the thickest of skins, presumably, when the plane’s banner will read “Ed Woodward – specialist in failure” on the same weekend, 10 years since Abu Dhabi’s royal family seized control of Manchester City, that so many column inches have been devoted to the shift in power in this divided city.
Does he reassure himself that, strictly speaking, the offending line is not true given the commercial activity of an organisation that deleted the words “football club” from its badge 20 years ago and, despite Woodward sweet-talking United’s fans into believing he would put that right, has kept it that way ever since?
Maybe he will find it unfair he is being blamed for the team’s results when, normally, it is the manager, or the players, who get it in the neck. Or might he consider that, yes, perhaps he has to shoulder some responsibility when the current mood at Old Trafford is probably best epitomised by a delicious piece of satire on the front cover of the latest Red News, United’s oldest fanzine? It is a picture of Mourinho, superimposed in the cream coat and peroxide hair of Viv Nicholson, from a record sleeve of the Smiths and one of the old Manchester classics. The caption says it all: “I was looking for a job/And then I found a job/And heaven knows I’m miserable now.”
For those unfamiliar with the name, Nicholson was a factory worker from Castleford, near Wakefield, on £7 a week packing liquorice cakes, who won £152,319 with her husband in 1961 – several million in today’s money – on the pools, fainted in the arms of Bruce Forsyth at the cheque presentation and then became a tabloid sensation because of her lavish spending sprees on a pink Cadillac, extravagant holidays, fur coats and binges in the local Miners’ Arms. She even released an autobiography named Spend, Spend, Spend.
It can be fun, as City will testify, when you are catapulted into a new, exciting life with the super-rich. The difference is Nicholson found it all too much, blew the lot and ended up penniless, whereas nobody should imagine the same happening to Sheikh Mansour and his family, sitting on the planet’s seventh largest oil reserves.
Back in the real world, the people in charge at City will tell you their work is still in its early stages, 10 years into their empire-building on the other side of Mancunian Way, while rubbernecking in United’s direction at a time when Woodward seems particularly keen to counter any suggestions of friction between himself and the manager.
The latest evidence put forward by the unofficial PR machine is that Mourinho has been signing off their text exchanges with “kisses to the twins” in reference to Woodward’s three-year-olds. And, plainly, these touches are important to the man who brokered the deal for the Glazer family takeover.
Woodward, we learn, has become a regular visitor to United’s dressing room after matches. For reasons not quite explained, he has also been spending more time at the training ground. How long, perhaps, before he is seen in a tracksuit top bearing his initials?
One story springs to mind about Wayne Rooney’s mobile bleeping one evening, shortly after United had beaten Everton in the 2016 FA Cup semi-finals, with a text from the club’s executive vice-chairman to say he was on holiday in Dubai and toasting the team’s performance. Rooney, suffice to say, was bemused by the notion that a high-ranking director was trying to be so matey and addressing him as “Wazza”.
Not that it is fair actually to scapegoat Woodward alone and, deep down, I suspect the people who have chartered the plane for United’s visit to Burnley are as weary as the rest of us when it comes to Mourinho’s twitching, 24/7 obsession with his own importance, the looped reminders about the league titles he won for another club, in another time, and the rather grim evidence that he is the sort of self-made man who cannot resist passing on the recipe
Mourinho’s latest attempt to advertise his greatness involved quoting Hegel – “It’s always in the whole that you find the truth” – in another choreographed reminder of his career achievements. Unfortunately with Mourinho, we have probably gone past the point – some time ago, truth be told – when it was still rather entertaining that the subject he talked about with the most eloquence was himself. It has become a bit of a drag – so tiresome, indeed, he should probably pay more attention to another line from the same philosopher: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
His other problem is that the pattern of his career, in particular his apparent inability to last beyond three years at any club, is clearly blurring United’s thinking. The new contract offer for Anthony Martial is the case in point. Mourinho wanted him out of the club. Woodward, however, believes the Frenchman could be an asset for many years – long, potentially, after the current manager – and has to balance the fact that Mourinho rarely hangs around too long at any club and never tends to worry much about what happens when he has left.
Perhaps Woodward has a point when Martial is still only 22 and has shown, in happier times, some moments of instinctive brilliance. Yet it not usual for a manager to sign a two-year contract, as Mourinho did in January, only to find out his employers are reluctant to follow his wishes, and nor is this the first time if we go back to United’s failure to recruit a new centre-half over the summer.
Mourinho thought Harry Maguire or Toby Alderweireld would be an upgrade on his current choices. Woodward disagreed. “If we had done a deal [for Alderweireld], we would have been swapping our fifth-best central defender for another fifth-best central defender,” a source told the BBC. How daft that line looked after Spurs’ 3-0 victory at Old Trafford on Monday, with Alderweireld among the outstanding performers. But it didn’t look too clever beforehand, either. What qualifies Woodward to consider that his judgment of a footballer – not the transfer fee, but the player’s actual ability – should outweigh that of the manager?
All of which bring us to the fact it has been United’s least productive start to a season for over a quarter of a century, with six goals conceded in their last two games, Chris Smalling and Phil Jones reminding Old Trafford of their inadequacies, Eric Bailly not even in the squad against Spurs and the best that can be said about Victor Lindelöf being that the substitute did not give away a goal – as hard as he seemed to be trying.
The last time United had such a poor start, in 1992-93, the headlines screamed: “Bottoms Up, Fergie!” with Sir Alex Ferguson’s team at the foot of the table, and in the book he brought out the following summer he wrote: “It felt like the world had come to an end.” Yet United recovered from losing their opening two fixtures to win the title and the book in question was called Just Champion!. It was the first of Ferguson’s 13 league titles and we probably all know how the old master would have reacted if the club had doubted his methodology in the same way that appears to be happening with the current manager. Badly, to say the least.
That is not to say Mourinho should be given a free pass when, 16 days into the new season, United had already lost as many games as City did throughout the previous campaign in its entirety. Managers, like players, go through spells of good and bad form and, in Mourinho’s case, who could possibly argue that the person we see now is as effective as the heroic figure who once lit up English football?
But there are legitimate questions to ask of Woodward, too, when the former JP Morgan man has been an ever-present during all the difficulties of the post-Ferguson years. The plane circling Turf Moor on Sunday, arranged by a group called A Voice from the Terrace, is a hard‑faced reminder of that fact and it certainly hasn’t been easy keeping track of the number of times United have fallen back on his watch. More, I suspect, than he would wish to remember.
The Guardian Sport
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