It’s tempting to sum up Manchester United’s owners and executive leadership by paraphrasing Groucho Marx.
They may look like idiots and talk like idiots but don’t let that fool you. They really are idiots.
In truth, of course, the Glazers are far from idiots. They are ruthless, self-serving capitalists who, whilst systematically draining Manchester United’s coffers through shareholder dividends, have also vampirically drained the club of its lifeblood.
Old Trafford, which used to be one of the best stadiums in the country, is rotting and rusting – with a leaking roof to boot – a fitting symbol of what used to be one of the best football clubs around but is now hardly fit for purpose.
On a shareholders’ call in 2018, responding to concerns that the club’s on-pitch performance might affect its earnings, United’s erstwhile executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, said:
very simply and candidly, playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.
His remark revealed the boardroom logics that power the Glazers’ corporate vandalism of Manchester United – and Woodward was a figure who encapsulated that perfectly. An investment banker whose masterminding of the Americans’ takeover saw him become their blue-eyed boy entrusted with United’s day-to-day operations, Woodward was in his element when he was monetising United’s brand and flexing its commercial strength. No partnership was too unlikely.
With the regularity with which United used to win trophies in what we can now safely call the Before Times, United would announce a new noodle partner, electrical styling partner, and even an official tractor. In and of itself, this wasn’t hugely objectionable but the trouble was that whilst Woodward might’ve been capable of running United as a commercial behemoth, he was inept at running it as a football club. It wasn’t just Woodward who was like this; it’s the case with virtually everyone the Glazers have appointed to executive leadership positions at Manchester United.
The reason the club is in its current decrepit state is that nobody at the helm, in its near vicinity, or even on the deck is competent at doing the basic things a properly functioning football club ought to be able to do. Filling executive positions with people competent at handling footballing matters has never been a priority for United under the Glazers. It was what seemed like an eternity before a football director was finally appointed in 2021 in the shape of John Murtough. Darren Fletcher was appointed as technical director at the same time but nobody – including himself it seems – really knows what his role at the club is; he eventually began to show up in the dugout alongside Ralf Rangnick towards the end of last season. And arguably the most visible consequence of the chaos and lack of working football knowledge amongst the executive leadership is in terms of United’s recruitment.
It is difficult to think of a single transfer Manchester United have conducted under a Glazer appointment that can’t be characterised as botched or comical. Beginning with Marouane Fellaini who was somehow signed for more than his release clause, to the debacle with Harry Maguire when Woodward tried to call Leicester City’s bluff on their £80 million valuation before eventually caving right at the end of the transfer window, shelling out £52 million for Fred when Mourinho didn’t want him, the utterly random move for Cristiano Ronaldo last summer which made minimal footballing sense, and this summer’s obsession with Frenkie de Jong despite the player repeatedly making clear his distaste for moving to the club, one thing is clear as day: Manchester United’s executive leadership are not qualified to run a football club.
On the latest instalment of Monday Night Football, Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher appraised United’s signings since 2013. It makes for painful watching – and it ought to be sackable material where United’s executives are concerned. Only two signings – Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Bruno Fernandes – were deemed successes. Even if one were to quibble over a couple of Neville’s and Carragher’s choices, the inescapable fact is that the vast majority of United’s signings have been failures. There is little evidence of any kind of coherent tactical plan or strategy that guides the club’s recruitment. As a result, United’s become the place a player’s career goes to die – or enter a period of long slumber, at the very least.
It’s possible that some of this frenzy is overblown. The Theatre of Dreams has been home to many a spectacle but it can also provide the perfect setting for melodrama. After all, other clubs have endured their own troughs. Liverpool struggled for almost an entire generation and suffered their fair share of ludicrous signings before finally rediscovering their quality in the last few years. Arsenal will acknowledge that after the “Invincibles” generation, they entered a period of steady decline that, at various points, appeared terminal. The dominance of clubs tends to be cyclical and the glare of 24/7 media coverage, far more comprehensive punditry, and a litany of content on various platforms can amplify a crisis. But it is difficult to recall a previous time when a club’s executive leadership has blithely told its own manager to lower his expectations. The real problem with Manchester United, then, isn’t so much that they play something between lousy to mediocre football. It’s more that, as an institution, it appears utterly dysfunctional – structurally, intentionally, and by design.
Perhaps this is why, when Woodward made his misguided pitch to tempt Jurgen Klopp from Borussia Dortmund, he described United as the ‘adult version of Disneyland’. For, the thing about Disneyland – what makes it Disneyland – is that it trades in make-believe. No surprise Klopp knew to reject the offer. Under the Glazers, United has morphed into some kind of a pretend football club; it’s consigned to continually drawing from the wells of history and heritage without thinking about deepening them. It’s a corporate brand without very much of a quality product. A Baudrillardian simulacrum of a football club – pure make-believe. The indignation that characterises Neville’s near-weekly post-match intonations of ‘This is Manchester United’ multiplies into United supporters all over the world – confusion and disbelief because what the words represent doesn’t correspond with what’s occurring in reality. We’re told Manchester United is a football club; every week reality intervenes to the contrary. Never mind a well-run football club, United aren’t even behaving like a minimally-functional one.
For a long time, football clubs – even the biggest ones – existed as an ‘extension of their local community’. It’s harder to make that case these days; one of the legacies of the Premier League, as it turns 30, is severing that extension for many of its clubs. Manchester United, however hasn’t just lost its links with its local community; it has ostensibly lost its links with football altogether. It’s difficult to say exactly what it is but whatever it is, it involves masquerading as a football club with all of its trimmings – a stadium, a squad of players, a coach, and so on. None of which means it behaves like one.
It may look like a football club and sound like a football club but don’t let that fool you.
Manchester United is not a football club.