Sir Bobby Charlton sits uncomfortably in his chair, sweat trickling down his forehead while he stares directly at the camera. The United and England legend is symbolic of the Red Devils team that had to rebuild from the tragedy of the Munich air disaster and was instrumental in United’s greatest night when they beat Benfica at Wembley to secure their first Champions League crown in 1968. Instead of being interviewed about the glory of days gone by, Charlton is being questioned about the current plight of the side.
“I reckon it stems from the fact the United were on top for so long, that unless you’re in the position to recognise that you need to change then you’re going to fail…I think it should had been changed a lot earlier than it has been now, but it’s very sad you know to see the club going down like that, I hope they do better.”
The interview occurred in 1974, the year Manchester United was relegated to Division 2 in English football. Though United are not in a relegation battle in 2018, the interview could have context with the issues at the club in the years after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Manchester United are a shell of the team that dominated English Football during the Sir Alex Ferguson era. For a team that was once the trailblazers of innovation on and off the field, United is now a team that lags behind the likes of Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea and Tottenham.
United have become everything they once teased their opposition of being. They spend money freely like Manchester City, talk about their history like Liverpool, aim for fourth like Arsenal and change managers like Chelsea.
The Glazers and executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward need to take plenty of blame for the current state of the club, as they are the ones who failed to plan for the future of the club after Ferguson’s retirement. However, to suggest the Red Devils current plight has occurred once Ferguson retired is an understatement as there were signs the club was on the back foot when Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid.
Manchester United sold Ronaldo to Real Madrid in 2009 for a then world-record £80 million transfer fee. In the years prior to the transfer, United made successive Champions League finals and won three Premier League titles. The income from the Ronaldo transfer could have been used to revitalise the team with players such as Mesut Ozil (Werder Bremen), Sergio Aguero (Atletico Madrid) and Wesley Sneijder (Inter Milan).
At the time United had a £699 million debt and the Glazers were willing to use the money to reduce the deficit. Instead of revitalising the team with big-name purchases, the Red Devils bought Michael Owen (free transfer), Antonio Valencia (£16 million), Gabriel Obertan (£3 million) and Mame Biram Diouf (£4.5 million).
By failing to revitalise the side with world-class talent, the Glazers showed they took United’s success for granted. At the same time Manchester City was purchased by the Abu Dhabi United Group and began investing in the team to compete with their successful neighbours. Chelsea was also continuing to spend, but after years of out performing the Blues, United believed they could continue to be successful without spending exuberant sums of cash.
The gap between United and the best teams in the world was no more evident then when they came up against Barcelona in the 2011 Champions League final. United were outplayed by the Catalonia club in the 2009 UCL final, but what occurred at Wembley Stadium in 2011 was shear annihilation.
Barca won 3-1, but the score line did not reflect their dominance. The Catalonians had 63 per cent possession and had 12 shots on target, compared to United’s one.
It is fair to say that Barcelona team will go down as one of the greatest teams of all time and would have likely won the game no matter whom United put on the field that night. But investment to the team would have ensured the Red Devils did not line up with Fabio at right back and 38-year-old Ryan Giggs in central midfield.
The Glazers did give money to Ferguson to spend in the following years and United signed Ashley Young, David De Gea and Robin Van Persie for sums larger than that in the year after Ronaldo’s departure. But again, the likes of Young and even De Gea at the time were not world-class players and at the same calibre as Manchester City’s recruits.
At the same time Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement, long time chief executive David Gill announced his retirement, with executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward named as his successor.
Woodward receives plenty of criticism from United fans, without many of them knowing his history at the club. Before joining United, Woodward worked as an accountant at J.P. Morgan and played a significant role in brokering the takeover of Manchester United by the Glazers in 2005.
In 2007, Woodward was put in charge of all global and commercial media operations, a role he thrived in and generated enormous revenue for the club. In 2012, United made £117.6 million in revenue, which was up from the £48.7 million in 2005.
Make no mistake about it, Woodward is brilliant in generating revenue and his ability to market United has made them the biggest football club in the world. His work in expanding United’s reach to a global audience has been recognised by Barcelona and Real Madrid, who have copied initiatives first developed by Woodward.
But being brilliant in the commercial aspect of the club does not mean Woodward is the right man for the football department.
Woodward’s naivety in the transfer market was evident in the 2013 summer transfer window, when United only signed Marouane Fellaini, when it was clear to everyone the squad required investment.
United have spent big in the transfer windows during the Van Gaal and Mourinho era’s and have spent £611,630 million in the past five years, which is only behind Manchester City (£742,400 million) and Chelsea (£677,630 million) for money spent in the same period.
But while the other teams purchased with a clear objective, United’s spending lacked continuity and planning. If you look at the current United team, there is an abundance of attackers, but a lack of defensive midfielders and defenders. Jose Mourinho wanted to add another centre back to the squad in the summer but was denied by Woodward.
The question has to be raised; how can Woodward authorise the managers transfer request when he does not have experience in the football department?
United do not have a director of football, which means the manager and Woodward work together to get the transfer deals done. In the case of Mourinho’s request for a centre back, Woodward has an obligation to secure the players Mourinho wants; given the manager has a better understanding of the players at his disposal.
The director of football role has been debated at United since the failings of the 2013 transfer window. In his later years at United, Ferguson was arguably a director of football instead of a manager, as he allowed his assistants to run training as he completed other off-field tasks. When he retired, United failed to fill the void that linked the on and off-field departments, which is why Woodward and the managers have failed to succeed in the transfer window.
In the later stages of Ferguson’s tenure, the Glazers and David Gill reiterated that the club had learnt their lesson from the departure of Sir Matt Busby in 1969 and would not allow the club to free fall after the retirement of another legendary manager.
The saying ‘fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me’ has context at United as the club have succumbed to the same issues they experienced after Busby’s retirement. Busby elected Wilf McGuinness as his successor, almost in the same way Sir Alex Ferguson elected David Moyes as his replacement. Like Moyes, McGuinness struggled to earn the respect of the United players and was sacked a year after his appointment.
Busby returned to guide the team for 21 games before Frank O’Farrell was given the task to replace the legendary manager. He too struggled with the pressure at the club and was sacked in 1972, with the club fighting to avoid relegation.
After his retirement, Busby became a director at the club and was in charge of recruitment. He also retained the manager’s office, which further cast a shadow on his successors and made it difficult to them to attain credibility.
Busby was heavily loyal to the players that helped him win the 1968 European Cup and refused to purchase players that would dethrone his former players in the starting line up. This meant the likes of Charlton and Dennis Law continued to play leading roles in the side, despite their ageing bodies preventing them from performing at the same levels as in their heyday, while George Best who was fighting his own personal demons had to take a leading role, which accelerated his downward spiral.
The demise ended in relegation to the second division in 1974, before Tommy Docherty arrived and revived the side with a much needed squad overhaul.
The odds of United free-falling into relegation in today’s football seems as unlikely as Leicester City winning the Premier League title. But other than that, the pressure on the managers taking control of the club after Ferguson’s retirement are the same as those that occurred almost 50 years ago.
The Glazers and Woodward have made it difficult for the managers to replace Sir Alex Ferguson by failing to provide them with a stable club to complete the transition. United may have spent a large amount of money on players, but with a lack of football people in football roles, the club has failed to resolve the issues in the squad. They also hired a successor on the recommendation of a legend, instead of conducting a thorough review for an ideal candidate.
Investment in the football department is required for the next Manchester United manager to succeed and return the glory to the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. This will also allow Woodward to return to the role that he thrives in and take the spotlight off his inability to provide United with on-field success.