IAN HERBERT: Ed Woodward will be remembered as a Manchester United chief who loved to splash out but rarely got value for money
There was no more untenable position in football than Ed Woodward’s when he called time on Tuesday night on eight years of vast player outlay and minimal success at Manchester United.
He knew as early as Monday, when Harry Maguire remonstrated with him at the emergency European Super League video briefing he had staged for the players, that he was facing something bumpy at best, unworkable at worst.
There was also the small matter of the meeting with supporters three days earlier, at which he had not offered the remotest idea of what was to follow.
Ed Woodward’s position at Manchester United had become the most untenable in football
The optics of the Super League deal looked terrible from a Woodward perspective. He was hired by United from JP Morgan after designing the heavily leveraged takeover which put the club in the Glazers’ hands. And the financial drivers of the Super League? The same JP Morgan.
But it was typical of the man that he did not anticipate the opprobrium which saw Sir Alex Ferguson describe the breakaway league as divisive and disastrous and UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin publicly describe 49-year-old Woodward as ‘a snake’.
The word from inside United when he stepped into the top job in 2012 was to expect a brash, wheeler-dealer, who would approach things with as investment banker’s outlook. He was replacing David Gill, a chartered accountant to his fingertips, and certainly added immediate colour.
Woodward (pictured with co-owner Joel Glazer) has overseen a period of minimal success
He certainly brought a more approachable, vivid persona. There were informal gatherings in which his supposedly off-the-record chats were transparently his briefings when reported. But he did not seem to care about that. He liked the profile. He was self-evidently pleased that his phone was viewable when a call from a well-known agent came in at one such social gathering.
It didn’t help that the Glazers sanctioned Ferguson and Gill leaving at the same time — a disastrous piece lack of succession planning in 2013. Woodward found himself fumbling around, looking for clues to Ferguson’s success. Something he compared to hunting for a crashed aeroplane’s ‘black box recorder’.
But for an individual who had proved so skilled at generating commercial revenue for United, he was surprisingly poor at spending it. Most of the time, he was more determined to make a splash than find good value.
He signed players like Angel di Maria, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Radamel Falcao on vastly inflated wages, often on deadline day. Far from being embarrassed in 2016 that the club was spending £89.3million to buy back Pogba, he cited the size of the fee as evidence of United being back on the map.
He often found himself fumbling around looking for clues to Sir Alex Ferguson’s success
But there was dither over players the club could have signed far earlier — Maguire being a case in point. He seemed reluctant to cede control over the high-profile transfer business, with John Murtough only appointed a director of football last month.
Woodward was untouchable, though. The Glazers have only ever been concerned with the share price, not the league table, and that continued to rise. He was the man who gave them the keys to Old Trafford.
Though Woodward takes the bullet for the monumentally misguided decision to dispense with 143 years of United history and sign up to the Super League, co-chairman Joel Glazer was the one who viewed himself as king of that fiefdom.
He and his family will remain as invisible a presence as they have been ever since riding into Old Trafford on the back of a takeover which heaped debt onto the club.
But there will be consequences for the owners. The supporters’ fight to be rid of them has now gained momentum. But the Glazers’ intentions for the club are clear now. It will revive. Though the Glazers’ selling price of £1billion limits buyers to perhaps 20 worldwide, the events of the past 72 hours seem certain to ignite a level of opprobrium to see them out of the door.
The search for a successor to Woodward need stretch no further than his lieutenant Richard Arnold, United’s highly thought-of group managing director, who has kept the commercial juggernaut on track. But Woodward’s legacy is a club still some way off the top of British and European football, despite some astronomic spending, and the Super League fall-out which will resonate for months. A poisoned chalice.