When many football fans reminisce about Manchester United, they typically pine for the Sir Alex Ferguson days. At the helm of the club from 1986 through 2013, Sir Alex’s Red Devils won 38 trophies, including 13 Premier League titles, five FA Cups and two UEFA Champions League titles. Old Trafford, their home stadium, instilled fear in their opponents.
Fast forward just seven years later, and their fortunes have changed. Perhaps most telling was their loss on Tuesday to EPL lower-half Burnley by a 2-0 score. More important than the final score, however, was the fact that it was Burnley’s first win at Old Trafford in 57 years. As the match wore on, fans chanted disparaging comments directed towards the Glazer family, who have owned the team since 2005, and Edward Woodward, the team’s chief executive who oversees the club’s operations and is responsible for infusing the team with player talent.
The Manchester faithful have never shown much love towards the Glazers, Americans who also own the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As for Mr. Woodward, he is an English accountant who spent his career as an investment banker until the Glazers hired him on in a “financial planning” role when they took ownership in 2005. With both parties having almost no experience in English football, they allowed Sir Alex to run the team until his retirement in 2013. Since that time, however, the team managed to finish second in the EPL table in 2017-2018 and won the Europa League title in that year as well, both under the leadership of ex-manager Jose Mourinho. With the team underperforming the other years, have the glory years at Old Trafford ended, and if so, why?
With current manager and team legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in charge during the current campaign, he clearly lacks the talent on the pitch to be a top-tier team. The job of bringing in field talent falls to Mr. Woodward. Yet Woodward’s main thrust for the Glazers has been financial. He has overseen a substantial increase in the value of Manchester United, from $1.7 billion when the Glazers took over ownership in 2005 to a Forbes valuation of $3.8 billion at the end of 2019. But for the Manchester United faithful who had become accustomed to garnering silverware, their interest is geared towards success on the pitch rather than financial success. Rather than go the usual route of calling for the dismissal of the manager, the supporters believe that the Glazers and their financial wunderkind Ed Woodward are to blame and must go.
With an asset as valuable as Manchester United, unless an astronomical bid is tendered to buy the team (highly unlikely), the Glazers will continue as owners. A more reasonable solution would be to remove some of the operational power that Ed Woodward currently possesses and hire an experienced director of football operations who has a strong knowledge base of the European football market. He would be given a budget to purchase players jointly agreed upon by the Glazers, Woodward and the new operations director, and use his discretion to buy the right players for the team. The manager would also have some input, but not control the process. If this sounds too routine, it is because this is the process the best teams in the world follow. And for Manchester United to re-emerge as a top-flight club, they must follow this process as well.
Is Solskjaer, who’s managerial experience consists of brief stints with Cardiff City (where he was sacked) and in his native Sweden with Molde, overwhelmed and outmatched in the English Premier League? Without providing him with enough talent on the pitch, it’s impossible to know. But what is certain is that without a proper operational model in place, Manchester United cannot return to the glory days they prospered under previously.