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Ken Early: Sacking van Gaal was Ed Woodward's biggest mistake at Man United

Woodward’s Manchester United developed an unhealthy fixation on yesterday’s men

In a reflective mood as he prepares to leave Manchester United at the end of the month, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward recently mused on 'sliding doors moments' – the times when his regime might have found itself on a different path. It so happened that the sliding doors moments that came to his mind were all bad moments.

Top of the list was Alex Ferguson's decision to retire just as Woodward was about to take over the running of the club from David Gill. How much easier might it have been to learn on the job in partnership with the greatest manager of all time?

Woodward also recalled Luke Shaw's sickening leg break against PSV Eindhoven in September 2015, an injury that hobbled Louis van Gaal's nascent system, and Paul Pogba's torn thigh muscle early in the 2017-18 season, which ultimately contributed to the breakdown of his relationship with Jose Mourinho.

In other words, Woodward regretted some unfortunate things that happened that were beyond his control. But more significant in the story of his time at United were the things he did control and got hopelessly wrong.


When you reflect on the biggest sliding doors moments when Woodward was in charge of opening and closing the doors, it’s hard to look past his decision to sack Louis van Gaal immediately after the Dutchman had won the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era, in order to appoint Mourinho.

Van Gaal had endured some bad spells at United, but by the time Woodward decided to sack him, things had begun to go his way. He always had a clear idea of how he wanted the team to play and a good record in the biggest matches, and he had delivered Champions League qualification in his first season and now won a trophy in his second.

Unfortunately for van Gaal, Woodward had been eating up nonsense about Mourinho being a ‘proven winner’ and a ‘guarantee of trophies’, when his more recent record suggested the only thing he still guaranteed was trouble.

Mourinho delivered minor trophies and major trouble. While van Gaal had integrated the 18-year old Marcus Rashford into the first team, Mourinho proved unable even to integrate Pogba, a £90 million world record signing. He tore up the patterns of play and left behind shellshocked players and demoralised supporters. It cost United nearly £20 million to sack him, but more costly still was the ground they lost on Manchester City and Liverpool in those three wasted seasons.

In the fateful Mourinho decision you could glimpse Woodward’s defining flaw. Lacking the football knowledge to independently evaluate the merits of prospective coaches and players, he was instead guided by media reputation. Since reputations are based on what you’ve done in the past, Woodward’s United would develop an unhealthy fixation on yesterday’s men.

Nowhere was this more evident than in their habit of paying gigantic sums to past-it superstar strikers. Woodward handed Wayne Rooney a £70 million, five and a half year contract in 2014, when the 28-year old Rooney was already clearly in decline. Radamel Falcão, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Cristiano Ronaldo all rank among the greatest strikers of the 21st century - but all were years past their best by the time they came to United.

The reality is that on his watch United were surpassed by Tottenham

These all seemed like MLS designated-player signings when a club like United should seek to employing the best in the world at the peak of their powers.

Woodward accepts that recruitment has generally been a problem for United, but he argues that things have now improved thanks to certain ‘processes’ which have at last been put in place. One wonders how good these processes can be when they can still produce a signing like Donny van de Beek: £40 million wasted on a player the coach didn’t want to pick.

Massive mistake

In any case, Woodward was willing to step in and override the processes in exceptional circumstances, such as when the opportunity arose to sign Ronaldo. Confronted with the temptation of once again overpaying for reputation to sign an aged megastar whose arrival risked destabilising the team on and off the field, he proved unable to resist making one last massive mistake for the road.

The usual counterpoint is that Woodward was always a business guy and he handled the business side brilliantly. He seems at least to have been a safe pair of hands: according to figures from the annual Deloitte Money League survey of football finance, United were the fourth-largest club in the world by turnover when Woodward took over in 2013, and they were again the fourth-largest by turnover in the most recent report, published last year.

But look beyond these headline figures and the story that emerges is one of relative decline. United's overall revenues increased from €423 million in 2013 to €580 million in 2020: an increase of 37 per cent. The corresponding figure at Liverpool was 132 per cent, at Manchester City 73 per cent, at Chelsea 54 per cent, at Tottenham a remarkable 158 per cent. Only Arsenal's revenue growth of 36 per cent compares with United, and Arsenal have failed to qualify for the Champions League for the last five seasons.

In 2013, United were earning comfortably more from football activities - that is, matchday plus broadcast - than any of their rivals. Their football earnings then were 116 per cent of Arsenal’s, 120 per cent of Chelsea’s, 164 per cent of Manchester City’s, 195 per cent of Liverpool’s, and 205 per cent of Tottenham’s.

Back in 2013 it would have astonished everyone in the game to learn that by 2020, United would be earning less from football than all of these clubs except Arsenal. Woodward has complained to friends about how hard it is to keep pace with state- and oligarch-funded clubs, but the reality is that on his watch United were surpassed by Tottenham.

Commercial revenue

What about commercial revenue – the specific area in which the impact of Woodward’s exceptional business nous might be expected to show up? United still have the biggest commercial income in English football - but when you look at the trends, it’s the same story of relative decline. Their commercial revenue grew 81 per cent from 2013 to 2020, but the corresponding figure at Liverpool is 113 per cent, at Chelsea 103 per cent, at Spurs 251 per cent and at Arsenal 125 per cent. Only City, at 71 per cent, had slower commercial growth than United in this time – and that is largely because City’s commercial income in 2013 was already exceptionally high for a club of their size, thanks to their stupendous (and controversial) sponsorship deal with Etihad.

It was remarkable to read reports last week that Woodward sometimes thought of United’s great history as an albatross around their neck. In fact the history is why United have so many fans, it’s why they can attract big players, it’s why companies still scramble to sponsor them, it’s why they can afford to pay their top executive £3 million a year.

Far from being a curse, the history is the source of United’s strength. As for the albatross, he might look closer to home.