Man United face uphill climb to rebuild reputation

Remarkable news from Florida, where Joel Glazer, Manchester United principal shareholder, executive co-chairman, director and general Old Trafford-phobe has unexpectedly discovered a deep yearning to communicate with his fellow supporters over all matters pertaining to their mutual object of affection.

or his fellow United fans who have not been able to borrow hundreds of millions to own the club they support at no personal cost to themselves, this sudden conversion may initially be confusing. Indeed, the Glazer pledge to “become better listeners” came just after they heard the thunder of footsteps and angry cries on the concourses of a supposedly empty stadium last weekend. This is a club who have been plunged into crisis since the swift abandonment of the European Super League over three days last month.

The nominal British-based head of it all, Ed Woodward, executive vice-chairman, has fallen on his sword, amid curious attempts to distance himself from the Super League’s conception. Around Old Trafford and the Carrington training ground, United’s 1,000-strong staff, some of whom were in Old Trafford when fans broke in last Sunday, have wondered what next?

Many of them will be back on duty come Tuesday as football returns to the stadium, with tension high and security beefed up.


They may well also wonder who is in charge of United these days. For a long time you barely had to ask – it was Alex Ferguson in harmony with David Gill, who stepped up from deputy to chief executive with no fuss to replace the departing Peter Kenyon in 2003.

No one would argue that Gill or his predecessor were universally popular, especially post-May 2005, but the chief executive role is crucial. It would be hard for United to say otherwise having paid Woodward upwards of £3m a year. The question is: who replaces him? Woodward’s deputy is Richard Arnold, the current managing director, who is so close to his erstwhile boss that some in Premier League shareholder meetings see them as two sides of the same gleaming commercial revenue-generated coin.

Indeed, that closeness is the problem. As well as building trust among their supporters, United, as the biggest club in English football, are trying to do the same with their fellow non-rebel clubs too, but how can they trust those who once sought to abandon them?

Over recent years, Woodward, Arnold and other executives among the rebel six have given the impression that the 14 clubs should accept the Premier League revolves around its wealthiest, most famous shareholders.

There has always been a sour whiff of conspiracy in the air too, of something being cooked up off-stage which meant that, when they came, Project Big Picture and the Super League were hardly a shock. Both have been comprehensively defeated, but the memories have not faded.


Woodward is going and his most obvious internal successor is either Arnold, Hemen Tseayo, the former JP Morgan colleague of Woodward recruited to be the club’s head of corporate finance, or chief financial officer Cliff Baty. But all three have a connection to the misadventures of the past six months that is impossible to ignore. The revenue that was projected and divided up in the tables in PBP’s appendices, the long months of secret Super League negotiations – none of these was Woodward’s work alone.

As for Joel Glazer taking a hands-on role himself in rebuilding trust, it feels unlikely. For around 72 hours he was vice-chairman of the European Super League. Against this grievous reputational crisis, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has soldiered on as the single public-facing, high-profile United employee answering questions about the club’s role in a breakaway he would never have wanted. It has come just when Solskjaer has at last won a semi-final, and it might be possible to imagine United as a force in next season’s title race.

United’s brand in the great Ferguson years was that the rest of English football was largely an irrelevance, or to quote the banner: “Not arrogant, just better.” Although one suspects that Ferguson himself, a journeyman pro who worked his way up the coaching ladder from East Stirling, would never have seen it that way. The problem was that the Woodward regime gave the appearance of believing that nothing truly mattered beyond the gates of Old Trafford. How wrong that has proved to be. Perhaps Joel Glazer’s open letter to supporters will signal a beginning of co-operation with a disenchanted fan base, 16 years late, and maybe a roadmap out of this unhappy ownership to something better.

There must also be a relationship rebuilt with United’s fellow clubs at home and in Europe, and it is hard to see how one of Woodward’s deputies can be credible amid so much anger.

The appointment of a former player such as Edwin van der Sar, currently the Ajax chief executive, is one mooted solution, but no one should doubt the scale of this job. United should not just be a great competitive club, but a great leader in the English and European game. No one would suggest United being any less ruthless on the pitch and in the transfer market as they were under Ferguson, but as the game changes so rapidly they will also have to show some leadership in the wider game. To ask Solskjaer alone to carry that burden, as well as restore the team’s fortunes, feels absurd.

His complaint on Friday about the punishing scheduling of United’s four games in nine days would once have made those responsible a little uncomfortable. But his complaint about “people who sit behind a desk in suits” only served as a reminder of what the United suits – along with the rest of the rebels – tried to inflict on football. For the first time in its history the Premier League can afford not to care what the United manager thinks.

This is where United find themselves, as the most successful club in English football, approaching the 120th anniversary next year of the birth of the modern entity from Newton Heath’s railwaymen.

They were never liked by their rivals, but they were admired. Whoever inherits Woodward’s seat in the directors’ box will have to go a long way to reclaim that.

© Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)

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