On May 12, 2013, when Sir Alex Ferguson walked out to the centre circle at Old Trafford after taking charge of his final home game, against Swansea City, and gave his valedictory speech to fans who had gorged on his successes, some accepted there might be a bump in the road ahead for Manchester United.
Few, however, foresaw that before the end of 2018, United would be searching for their sixth boss in five and a half years, derided as a basket case of a club, desperate for a manager who would not only win back their respect but also wrest back their soul.
The Glazer family and their patsy, Ed Woodward, have thrown so much away so quickly and so carelessly at a club that dominated English football for so long that it beggars belief. The inventory of everything they have torched since Ferguson retired includes stability, success, grace, class, dignity and Juan Mata.
The inventory of everything they have gained includes a boat-load of mediocrity, an official global lubricant partner, a reputation for wages largesse that measures 9.5 on the Peter Ridsdale Scale and an exorbitantly rewarded non-playing Chilean who only seems interested in his dogs, which is apt because that’s exactly where his career went the moment he arrived at Old Trafford. In that context, the self-immolating reign of Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford was a symptom of United’s ills, not the cause.
Mourinho was on the down-slope of his career before Woodward appointed him, a man consumed by bitterness and resentments, a man who showed every sign of having fallen out of love with the game and the men who played it, a man whose playing style was outmoded and dour – but when Woodward, United’s executive vice-chairman, chose Mourinho, he just saw a name.
He likes names. Big names sell things. They make money. They move merchandise. They sell tickets. Glory? Please. Don’t be so naive. It’s the profits, stupid. At United, they have taken the Glory Game and turned it into the Glazer Game. Only one currency matters and it’s not trophies.
When Mourinho was fired last week, reality bit: United aren’t getting any closer to recreating the glory days. They’re getting further away. They’re getting weaker and weaker and Manchester City and Liverpool are getting stronger and stronger. Compare the quality of the players at Old Trafford and the Etihad, say, and there’s a chasm between them.
Come the summer, it will be six years since United last won the league, a hiatus that seemed unthinkable not so long ago. Yet Mourinho and Woodward brought the club so low that, right now, it does not sound outlandish to say it could be another six years before they win it again.
Much more of this and City fans will be stringing up a banner at the Etihad like the one that used to be displayed at the Stretford End, showing how many years it is since United last won the title. When Ferguson left, it was hard to imagine a decline like this but it has happened. It is still happening.
So what does Woodward do now? Resign is the option that springs most readily to mind. Admit that while he may have been a brilliant commercial director, he sucks in this role. Quite how he’s still in a job when he has driven United this far south is staggering, until you catch yourself and remember that the Glazers are still raking in the profits and that that is really all that matters to them and Woodward.
Woodward has, after all, presided over three disastrous appointments in David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Mourinho. He’s the guy who bought all the most expensive players he could find and thought that would fix everything. He’s the guy who thinks money buys you love in football. He’s the guy who wears an expression of constant surprise that at United it hasn’t.
Woodward is the man without a plan. There’s no method in player recruitment at United. There’s no consistency. Woodward’s running round in a blindfold, trying to pin the tail on the donkey. He’s a guy who is painfully out of his depths, a money-man who is being chewed up by the football world and spat out. He’s the guy who buys a pound sign, not a player. He’s the guy who buys a reputation, not a manager.
He’s the guy who tried to copy Real Madrid’s transfer policy and brought us Galacticos Minus. He’s an overblown city boy who got the keys to the biggest club in the world and took them from title winners to also-rans – but the money keeps rolling in, so, frankly, who cares?
That’s the most alarming thing for United fans. Deep down, they’ve always known it. They’re stuck in the clutches of owners who are all about taking money out of the football club, not putting it in. The infrastructure of the club is frayed. Compared with other giants like Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, they look tired. They have been wallowing in complacency since Ferguson left.
Mourinho was only sacked once it became apparent United were going to struggle to qualify for the Champions League next season.
Think about that. United cared about fourth. Not first. That’s the really sobering thing. At any other club of United’s size, Mourinho would have been gone long ago – but United are different. The club are in a state of atrophy. United don’t have an identity any more. Nobody can ever take away their glorious history but Woodward and the Glazers are stripping it of all its romance.
The appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as caretaker-manager is a half-hearted recognition of that. It’s a half-hearted attempt to win something back. It’s an acknowledgment of something they should have done a long time ago.