Last Sunday at Anfield we witnessed one of the most extraordinary spectacles of cowardice of this, or any other, season.
No, I don’t mean the shambolic, supine display of Jose Mourinho’s erstwhile Manchester United team as they folded to a 3-1 defeat to their great rivals Liverpool, but rather the unedifying spectacle of four grown men afraid to criticise the then United manager.
That the four in question were Greame Souness, Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher just added to the general sense of astonishment, the former two having made their reputations as no-nonsense, tough-tackling hard men on the pitch, the latter two as no-nonsense, tough-tackling pundits off it.
Over several hours of broadcasting, not one of the quartet dared to lay the blame for the shambolic state of the Manchester United team at the feet of the man most responsible – Jose Mourinho.
Instead, Keane and Souness laid into the players (Keane, the United defence generally; Souness, Paul Pogba specifically – even though he wasn’t playing), while Neville continued his long-held – seemingly personal – obsession with the United CEO, Ed Woodword and the ‘Man Utd hierachy’ (whomever that nebulous noun refers to.)
Neville apparently believes that Woodward awarding Mourinho a new contract last January acted as some sort of immovable block to the Portugese doing even a semi-competent job.
Considering the fact that it is extremely common to reward managers and players with new long term contracts long before the expiry of their current ones, the Sky pundit’s obsession with this issue is nothing short of bizarre.
If Neville genuinely believes a contract extension is the main reason behind the abysmal, dysfunctional performances that had characterised United’s season thus far, then clearly he is in the wrong job.
His argument seems to be that once Woodward signed off on this contract extension, Mourinho should then have been given a blank chequebook to use whatever way he pleased.
Thus, when Woodward – quite rightly – vetoed Mourinho’s proposed moves for injury-prone 30-somethings Jan Vertonghen and Jerome Boeteng last summer, Neville chose to take sides not with the CEO making the sort of sound financial decision for which he is paid, but with the man-child who had already been backed in the transfer market to the tune of £390m over five transfer windows and who chose to throw his toys out of the pram over this issue on the eve of a new season.
Every last manager in the history of the game has had to work under transfer constraints at some point or another.
Mauricio Pochettino can put a brave face on it, but the Argentine must have been fuming at Daniel Levy and the Spurs board for not sanctioning a single signing last summer.
At Liverpool, Jurgen Klopp (and his predecessors in the Anfield dugout under the ownership of FSG) has operated under a policy of not signing players over 25 for significant sums, thereby effectively ruling himself out of the running for roughly half of all footballers.
Even at Manchester United itself, Alex Ferguson was thwarted on many occasions in his attempts to bring players to Old Trafford due to the parsimony of the United bean-counters.
That Mourinho – a man whose character makes perfect sense when viewed through the prism of a 15 year old child – should throw a petulant strop at this refusal was not in the least bit surprising.
That Neville, one of the most respected pundits in the country, should row in behind this laughably childish tantrum, was downright extraordinary.
But the refusal to sanction a big money signing of a jaded crock in defence was just the latest in a long line of gripes that Neville and the UK football media in general have with Woodward.
Indeed the ex-banker (how dastardly of him for once being employed in an industry where, as we all know, every last person is pure evil!) has being subjected to the proverbial kicking since day one.
Under his stewardship, it goes, United have become a rudderless ship, hiring and firing managers with no clear vision, wasting obscene sums of money on transfers and wages.
But is this fair?
When Woodward took up his position in 2013, succeeding David Gill and all the success he oversaw, it seemed, to many, as a poisoned chalice.
Woodward’s first major act in his new role was to appoint David Moyes as Ferguson’s successor. Except that wasn’t quite the case, was it?
In fact, Ferguson had already appointed Moyes himself (despite Ferguson’s deluded attempt to re-write history in a subsequent autobiography), so Woodward’s role in the appointment was merely one of administration.
After just eight months in charge, Moyes had proved himself to be spectacularly out of his depth, with close to 100% of United fans demanding the Scot’s removal.
In April of 2014 Woodward listened to the masses and put the former Everton manager out of his misery.
Instead of making a knee-jerk decision, Woodward decided instead to appoint club legend Ryan Giggs as caretaker manager while he carried out an extensive review of potential replacements, before eventually deciding on the stellar name of ex Bayern Munich and Ajax boss Louis Van Gaal.
News of Van Gaal’s appointment was met with general approval from United supporters, and after the charismatic coach led his Dutch national side to a 5-1 annihilation of a seemingly unbeatable Spain at that summer’s World Cup in Brazil, it would have been a lonely voice among the fan base who objected to the choice of United’s new boss.
However, after two seasons of dreadful football, massive underachievement and over £260m spent, that lonely voice would have been the fan not calling for Van Gaal’s removal.
Once again, Woodward gave the masses what they craved.
Next came Mourinho, a manager vast swathes of the club’s fans, and almost the entire football press, had been clamouring to get into the United hot seat for years.
Again, Woodward gave the majority what they wanted and then went on to back Mourinho with the largest transfer outlay in the clubs history.
And so to this week: Woodward has done what any responsible boss should do and sacked a massively under-performing employee but, again, this is not acceptable to the CEO’s detractors, with the overwhelming consensus being that the 47 year old should follow Mourinho out the door at Old Trafford.
Look at it from the opposite viewpoint and imagine Woodward had not made all the major decisions for which he is now being castigated.
Should he have overruled Ferguson, the club’s greatest ever manager and still most powerful figure, and vetoed the Moyes appointment? Should he have kept Moyes longer? Not appointed Van Gaal, one of the most decorated and highly thought-of managers in the game?
Should he have kept Van Gaal longer, even after failure to qualify for the Champions League and playing turgid, soporific football? Should he not have appointed Mourinho, the fans’ and media’s choice? Should he have kept Mourinho longer, even with a rumoured 90% of the players against him? Should he not have backed all three managers to the tune of nearly £800m?
Ignoring hindsight, the truth is that all Woodward’s major decisions have been the most sensible ones available at the time and decisions that represented what the majority of fans and pundits demanded.
The latest stick with which to beat Woodward is that he should have appointed a Director of Football, although these calls were almost non-existent until a few months ago.
Aside from the ructions such an appointment would have caused with Mourinho, it begs the question of what exactly are the roles of Ferguson and Bobby Charlton at the club, if they are not to advise on football matters? After all, both are directors and not just ambassadors.
It’s convenient to lay the blame for all United’s current ills at the door of Woodward, but it is largely misplaced.
Like all CEOs the world over, Woodward is not perfect. Even the sainted David Gill oversaw some of the greatest waste in the club’s history, when signing off on transfers for the likes of Alan Smith, Anderson, Owen Hargreaves, Gabriel Obertan, Kleberson, Bebe, Eric Djemba-Djemba and Dimitar Berbatov.
But Gill was fortunate to be at the club during the Ferguson years. Had Gill not been shrewd enough to walk away with the Scot in 2013, there’s little to suggest things would have gone any differently had he remained in situ till the present.
The truth is Woodward has been made a scapegoat for lazy fans and cowardly pundits afraid to take Mourinho on and criticise him for his many failings, such as his incoherent tactics, his penchant for throwing his players under the bus, having no plan for attacking, not developing players and his multitude of other shortcomings that have led to United’s worst start to a season since 1990.
To ignore these faults and instead focus on the perceived errors of a CEO who has done what the majority of pundits and fans have demanded is no less cowardly than the United display at Anfield last Sunday.
Punditry in the English game has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, with a certain Gary Neville being credited for playing a significant role in this.
However, when we see the sheer cowardice of Neville and his colleagues last Sunday to even point a finger at the man most responsible for United’s dreadful display in the game they were ostensible there to critique, it serves as a stark reminder that the quest for top class analysis most definitely goes on…