How will Woodward exit impact Man Utd on the football side?
Written by Simon Austin — April 28, 2021
TRAWL social media for hours and you might still struggle to find a positive comment about Manchester United Vice Chairman Ed Woodward, especially after his role in the botched attempts to create a European Super League.
Talk to backroom staff at Manchester United and the story is more nuanced though.
One told TGG: “I’ve not had to go to him directly very often, but when I have, he’s reacted in the way you’d hope and has always backed us.”
Another senior member of staff said: “Things feel quite healthy at the club now. This is the biggest amount of clarity and expertise we’ve had for a long time.”
When Woodward steps down from his role after eight years at the end of 2021, he leaves a football department that will be stronger than at any other point during his tenure. It's less reliant on him, lines of command are clearer, the culture is better and there are plenty of subject-matter experts.
Of course, many fans will never forgive the former accountant for brokering the deal for the Glazers to buy United back in 2005, saddling it with £540m of debt.
For them, he’s a corporate who's more adept at brokering deals for official noodle and tyre partners than for players. In all, Woodward sacked three managers and has secured three trophies during his stewardship - but not the coveted ones of Premier League and Champions League.
Sometimes there has been a lack of understanding in his dealings with players, with Michael Carrick finding out that a contract extension had been triggered via the club’s press officer rather than the hierarchy, and Ander Herrera complaining, “they didn’t even call me,” after he had waited in vain for a new deal in 2019.
Allowing Jose Mourinho to turn the monitoring lounge, once described as the best facility of its kind in the world, into a massage room, and to scrap the use of GPS, showed the risk of having an all-powerful manager rather than a Technical Director able to take a more long-term approach (more of that later).
For much of his time at the helm Woodward did seem to take too much on, overseeing both commercial and football operations, and struggled to formulate the right footballing strategy.
However, in the last two years, there has been more clarity and direction. One misconception about Woodward is that he’s been more concerned about commercial operations than football ones, but a senior member of staff told TGG: “his main responsibility has always been the football side.”
Over time he has also “surrounded himself with more and more specialist experts,” in the words of another.
Alan Dawson is Head of Operations, Richard Hawkins Head of Performance, Steve McNally Head of Sports Medicine and Science, Nick Cox Head of Academy, Paul Brand Head of Analysis and Alan Judge the Director of Football Negotiations.
Above them all and reporting into Woodward is John Murtough, who was promoted to the role of Football Director in March, with Darren Fletcher becoming Technical Director after only a few months as first-team coach.
Murtough, previously the Head of Football Development, will provide “overall leadership and responsibility for operations and strategy across all football functions” with department leaders reporting into him rather than Woodward.
Over the course of the last two seasons there have been other significant additions to the coaching, analysis, performance and medical staff at the club as well.
The most significant has been that of the manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has led what Woodward describes as a “culture reboot” at Old Trafford. The word from inside the club is that it was actually co-chairman Joel Glazer, and not Woodward, who was behind the appointment of the Norwegian, having tracked his progress at Molde for some time.
Whatever the case, his impact has been immense and one source describes a “culture of humility, hard work and collaboration” now. Solskjaer has five assistants - Mike Phelan, Martyn Pert, Kieran McKenna, Michael Carrick and Richard Hartis - and each has distinct roles and responsibilities.
For example, Pert oversees offensive set pieces, with Hartis taking on defensive ones, and Tom Green works as a dedicated set piece analyst. The technical team is also split into units for pre-match analysis.
Before the recent Burnley game, which United won 3-1, central midfielders Fred and Scott McTominay held a meeting with Brand, McKenna and Solskjaer, at which they analysed their direct opponents and discussed strategy. The approach of these unit meetings is always “robust and two-way.”
In 2016/17 the analysis department consisted of just two members of staff (Brand and Andrew Findlay), but now there are six, with Andrew Meredith having come in from St Pauli in August 2019 as Analysis Operations Manager.
The performance department has also been augmented, with Ed Leng coming in as Lead Sport Scientist, Michael Clegg as Strength and Power Coach and Charlie Owen stepping up from the Academy as first-team fitness coach, all in the summer of 2019.
In medical, Robin Sadler arrived from Derby County this January to become Head of Rehab and Physiotherapy.
Despite the increased numbers, Woodward can still be hands-on, for example suggesting that the club should have a big screen at their Carrington training ground after reading about one that was being used at Bristol City. Pretty soon, and at not insignificant expense, United had one too.
Perhaps Woodward’s most important role has been as a “carrier pigeon from Manchester to America,” in the words of a senior staff member. Someone else who had worked within the club’s hierarchy told the Sunday Times: “Ed might take the flak but he has never, ever been in control at United. That’s Joel. He makes 100% of the decisions. Ed has been a well-paid human shield.”
Despite being often ridiculed and sometimes despised, Woodward will leave a big hole when he departs United at the end of the year. The structure and staffing he's instigated over the last two years mean the football department should be able to motor on though.