In a parallel universe Manchester United released their first financial figures of the post-David Moyes era this week, concluding six glorious years in which the club seamlessly moved on from the retirement of Alex Ferguson.
With Moyes’ trusty right-hand man Phil Neville ready as the anointed successor, weirdo-universe analysts expect the United dynasty to dominate English football in this bizarre alternate realm for years to come.
Back in our version of reality, executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward briefed financial gurus on United’s latest quarterly earnings, which showed the club as a roaring success in almost every quantifiable way, apart from the actual football bit.
Woodward made no mention July 2019 would have seen the lapse of the six-year contract Moyes signed upon taking over from Ferguson. Not even as a jokey aside.
This seems like a missed opportunity, given United are now one league place below where they were when Moyes was sacked in April 2014. Shareholders and stock market boffins would have lapped up a gag about how the club could have saved itself a packet by sticking with the so-called Chosen One.
And United fans are entitled to wonder the same. The brief Moyes reign is now a vague and not very fond memory. Lots of pointless crosses, Maraoune Fellaini lumbering elbows akimbo across the Old Trafford turf, a flicker of Adnan Januzaj. Mostly it’s that expression on Moyes’ face, a death-mask of anger and terror usually only seen on a Scotsman when he realises his seven-year-old son has drunk his prized bottle of single malt and filled it up with tea.
But still, would Moyes have delivered football any more turgid than that served up repeatedly by his successors, up to and including Sunday’s sluggish showing against West Ham?
Would Moyes have spaffed hundreds of millions of quid against the wall to any less effect than has been done since his exit?
Would Moyes have mismanaged and mithered a succession of big-name, big-money players any worse than they were mismanaged and mithered after he’d gone?
Still, it’s probably for the best that Woodward didn’t dwell on the past this week.
It’s a results business, as he has no doubt told all the men he has sacked in the past six years, and as long as United’s bottom line is on the up, then he appears to be untouchable.
Aside from David De Gea and the ramblings of Paddy Crerand on MUTV, Woodward is pretty much the one constant at the club throughout six years of turbulent and expensive underachievement.
It’s commonly accepted his ability to get Asian energy drink brands to pony up millions in return for matchday access to Clayton Blackmore has shielded him from any displeasure the club’s owners might feel about the team’s performances.
Not that there is much of that, not when revenues are at record levels and the club is heaving away at the massive debt the Glazers heaped upon it all those years ago. One must conclude that Woodward is still in a job because his bosses reckon things are going along very nicely at Old Trafford, some grumbling about the ‘football side’ notwithstanding.
Every so often United have to make a cursory nod to this sluggish legacy aspect of its otherwise thriving business. Take the headline on the club website’s story about the quarterly earnings, which read ‘Woodward: Winning Trophies Is Always Our Aim,’ a fact which you’d think a football club wouldn’t really need to remind itself of.
Woodward spoke of strategic plans for future success, of investment on the field and behind the scenes. Exciting young players were being signed, training ground facilities developed, the recruitment department overhauled. “We will focus on the long-term strategy — and won’t be influenced by short-term distractions,” said Woodward.
And yet if there is one phrase that encapsulates many of the big decisions made by Woodward on the so-called “football side” of United, it is ‘short-term distractions’. Whether it’s the signing of Alexis Sanchez or the rush to appoint Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as manager, Woodward’s reign has been a series of knee-jerk executive spasms. Hell, it would be no surprise if a Google search of the term ‘short-term distraction’ gave you an image of Jose Mourinho, whose time at United was as brief, tumultuous, and toxic as everyone knew it would be.
What has troubled United fans as much as the team’s struggles has been how the club has fallen behind its rivals as a general football concern. According to Old Trafford regulars the stadium has grown tired and shabby at a time when rivals are building gleaming palaces. The surroundings are underdeveloped when compared with Manchester City’s elaborate campus. Apparently, there’s an occasional rodent problem.
A bigger issue has been the club’s failure to appoint a director of football, despite reports of an ongoing recruitment process. It is accepted United’s transfer policy has been miles behind rivals such as City and Liverpool, who engage all manner of analytical brainiacs to evaluate possible signings.
“We are continually reviewing and looking at the potential to evolve our structure on the football side,” Woodward blathered this week, which sounds ominously like he plans to carry on calling the shots on the decisions that matter most to United fans. This is despite a record on “the football side” that would have seen any manager sacked long before the lapse of a ludicrous six-year contract.
The fear for United is that despite talk of a return to football success, as long as the club are raking in the cash for the “business side” then the hapless hegemony of the Glazers’ inside man will continue. “Success means winning trophies; that target and that standard has never changed for Manchester United,” said Woodward, but it seems he is a walking contradiction of that very fact.