The inside story of Ed Woodward's Manchester United reign…

Ed Woodward’s Man United reign began with Fergie’s lunch bombshell and ended with his ‘holy s***’ Super League moment: With ‘3 out of 10’ buys and five bosses, he failed to deliver the success he craved

  • Ed Woodard will be leaving Manchester United at the end of this month 
  • He thinks club are in a better place than when Sir Alex Ferguson walked away 
  • Woodward also believes Manchester City raised the bar to unexplored levels 
  • He was ‘gutted’ at missing out on Klopp and dubbed bad signings ‘anchors’
  • Woodward might not deserve all of the criticism but is culpable for a fair share 

In the spring of 2014, after the sacking of David Moyes, Manchester United set about establishing exactly what their future managers should look like and deliver. It is to their enduring frustration and disappointment that, almost eight years on, they are still trying to fit someone to the template.

Back in 2014, there was an acceptance following the Moyes failure that things had to change. United had tried and failed to fit Moyes in to the simple old-fashioned structure of all-encompassing managerial power left behind by Sir Alex Ferguson and it had not worked. To this day, United feel as though they failed Moyes, that they let him down. The Scot lasted eight months.

After canvassing opinion from people like Ferguson, Sir Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson, United’s new chief executive of the time, Ed Woodward, and the club’s board established four fundamental criteria they would demand from future managers.

Sir Alex Ferguson told Ed Woodward he was leaving two hours into what was supposed to be  a celebratory lunch. The intervening years have been a struggle for the outgoing vice-chairman

United are still floundering but Woodward thinks he leaves the club in a strong place

Richard Arnold (left) is taking over from Woodward as Man United’s new chief executive 

In short United wanted a manager to play attacking football with X-factor players, who would not be afraid to draw from the club’s famous academy, who would be humble off the pitch but produce a team that was arrogant on it. Finally, of course, the new man must be able to win.

As Woodward prepares to depart Old Trafford at the end of this month, he knows that he has failed to deliver. United, he firmly believes, are in a better place than the day Ferguson walked away in the early summer of 2013 and effectively took the majority of the club’s know-how with him.

Back then United had antiquated recruitment and scouting processes, for example. They don’t now. They had virtually no player care set-up. They do now. The training ground is better. The stadium is (marginally) better. But United’s team continues to flounder and that, as always, is what matters.

There has been no Premier League title in the Woodward era. Not a sniff of one. He has hired and sacked four managers. And as he leaves – in all likelihood to another job in football – the 50-year-old knows that ultimately much of that is on him.

Woodward’s reign began badly. Promoted from within to succeed David Gill in 2013, Woodward sat down for lunch with Ferguson at the London restaurant Scott’s soon afterwards. 

Two hours in to what was supposed to be a celebratory meal with a new future at its core, Ferguson told his new boss there wasn’t to be one. He was planning to retire at the end of the season.

Well-placed United sources say Woodward was so horrified he began to doubt whether he still wanted the job. Ferguson, on the way to winning United their 13th Premier League title, was a genius from whom Woodward had intended to learn. Now he was on his own.

Moyes, appointed on Ferguson’s say-so, came and went quickly. He was, with hindsight, the fall-guy. United had survived and thrived on the back of Ferguson’s brilliance for two decades. Without him, there was nothing left.

David Moyes, now thriving at West Ham, found it tough to succeed Sir Alex Ferguson

As Woodward began the long and expensive job of fixing what was broken – of dragging United in to a new world already threatening to be dominated by super-smart and super-rich Manchester City – he appointed Louis Van Gaal.

Everyone that United’s fast-expanding football operation spoke to – including former Van Gaal players – told them of his love of attacking play. At 62, the Dutchman was also considered to have the experience to manage a group of senior players who had simply not taken to Moyes. The way they like to describe that appointment inside Old Trafford is to say ‘we were trying to replace the engine while flying’.

Again, it didn’t work. Van Gaal – once of Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich – brought a brand of micro management to the United’s training pitches that simply suffocated the club’s players. On his first pre-season tour to America in July 2014, Van Gaal tried to instruct Wayne Rooney how to take a penalty in Washington. Rooney was England captain at the time.

‘Van Gaal was viewed as a man who played attacking football but when he came to us he evolved in to an even greater possession based coach than he had been before,’ recalled a United source.

‘He didn’t have the top talent he needed to do that and basically he didn’t deliver attacking football at all.

‘So that broke one of our four core pillars right from the start. It wasn’t Man United. We would rather win 4-3 than 1-0.’

Woodward’s reign has seen a number of managers come and go, but he is known to still hold Jose Mourinho’s achievements in high regard after he won the Europa League 

United’s lack of success has come at a time where rivals City have won five league titles

Van Gaal’s United finished fourth and then fifth in the Premier League. In Woodward’s eyes the team was heading south and by the time Van Gaal’s side won the 2016 FA Cup Final, the coach was a dead man walking and Woodward was prepared to take what has always looked like one of the biggest gambles of his time in office. He appointed Jose Mourinho.

Mourinho and United never felt like a great fit. The Portuguese – once such an innovator at Porto and Chelsea – had developed a habit of blowing clubs up from within. His spell at Real Madrid had been particularly toxic.

Did this appointment really fit with United’s modern ethos? Attacking football? Humility? In short it didn’t and United knew it. But by now – already three years on from their most recent title – they were getting a little desperate.

Those who know Woodward describe his appointment of Mourinho as a ‘compromise’ designed simply to win the Premier League. Woodward read eight books about his incoming manager and spoke to dozens of people within football. He knew he was effectively inviting a stick of dynamite in his football club.

Jose Mourinho won three trophies at Old Trafford, including the Europa League (pictured)

Another United source told Sportsmail this week: ‘The idea with Jose was we would swallow the pill, not get everything we wanted, put up with the chaos but at the same time get this monkey off our back and win the league.

‘We knew that tightened, paranoid environment Jose creates at clubs can only last for a while. It cannot survive. We knew what we were getting. But we thought he would win us the league first before it exploded.

‘But it didn’t work. Again.’

To this day Woodward is known not to be dismissive of the job Mourinho did at Old Trafford.

The two men fell out when Woodard was advised by his new recruitment department not to agree to the purchase of two new defenders the manager wanted in the summer of 2018. Mourinho had changed his mind on agreed targets at the last minute.

Woodward knew what he was getting the club into when he appointed Mourinho 

Woodward thinks the club is ‘more robust’ in every department compared to when he started 

Nevertheless, Mourinho won the League Cup and Europa League in his first season and finished second in the Premier League with 81 points a year later.

Mourinho has described that as one of his best achievements in football, which sounds odd given United still finished 19 points behind champions City. But Woodward actually agrees. He believes this period was one of United’s “up cycles”. Another came just last year when United finished second to City again, under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

Woodward’s view is that City have raised the bar to previously unexplored levels and to some degree he has a point. Ferguson’s greatest team, for example, won the league in their 1999 treble season with just 79 points. 

Underpinning many of the problems at United in the early post-Ferguson era was bad recruitment. In the three years following his exit, United saddled themselves with dreadful knee jerk signings such as Radamel Falcao, Angel di Maria, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Anthony Martial. Even in January 2018, they were still doing it. That was when they bought Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal.

Woodward believes to succeed at the top level, seven out of ten signings have to work. It’s one of the reasons he feels Chelsea have won titles while constantly changing managers. They have a squad good enough and deep enough to absorb the changes.

Back in his early days, Woodward believes his club’s own hit ratio was a pretty dismal 3/10 and that this impeded future progress like ‘an anchor’. He also believes this is now much improved. He believes the club to be ‘robust’ now in every department.

United recently sacked Solskjaer after a three-year stint and were criticised for taking so long to do it. They even gave the Norwegian a new contract last summer.

Jurgen Klopp was chased by Woodward but he could not be persuaded to take over 

The club’s explanation for that is simple and two-fold. United’s football set-up are strong believers in loyalty and believe it should be a key part of the club’s ethos. Also, they believed Solskjaer was moving the team forwards.

The contract, meanwhile, was awarded purely to quieten media chat about Solskjaer’s future. The compensation clause remained the same so, to Woodward and his team, the length of the deal did not really matter.

From the outside, England’s biggest football club can sometimes look a little soft, a little slow to act. Never more so than when it comes to managers.

On Woodward’s watch at United, the majority of Europe’s elite coaches – Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino, Thomas Tuchel and Antonio Conte – have at some point been available. 

Manchester City have found uncharted levels of success and reached another level

Yet United have hired none of them. Some executives at Old Trafford feel they have been ‘unlucky’ to exist in the Premier League era of Guardiola and Klopp at City and Liverpool. Critics would say they simply should have hired a super coach of their own.

Insiders at United refer to this matter as ‘sliding doors moments’. For them, they say, the doors to appointing a stellar name have simply opened at the wrong time. It is known to be one of Woodward’s great regrets.

He did fly to Germany to try to hire Klopp as Moyes’ replacement in 2014. He denies telling Klopp that Old Trafford was like ‘an adult version of Disneyland’ but was nevertheless known to be ‘absolutely gutted’ when the German pitched up at Anfield.

It is understood United have also had conversations with Pochettino who remains one of the favourites to succeed interim manager Ralf Rangnick this summer. Conte, meanwhile, joined Tottenham earlier this season after Woodward and United decided against a move for him.

Thomas Tuchel was another elite coach available while Woodward was in situ at Old Trafford

Solskjaer’s departure came after United fell to another hapless defeat at Watford

United looked hard at the Italian as Solskjaer began to seriously struggle. Woodward thinks he is an ‘exceptional’ coach and may well succeed at Spurs.

But the United view is that Conte’s style of micro management of players and tactics would not have been suited to the majority of the club’s current squad. Whether that says more about United’s players than it does about Conte will doubtless become a topic of debate among United’s supporters as will another nugget of information, namely a belief among the current club hierarchy that their squad lacks leaders.

The start under another German, Rangnick, has been slow. Monday’s defeat at home to Wolves was as bad as anything seen under Solskjaer, with the possible exception of the 5-0 home drubbing by Liverpool.

As Woodward prepares to be succeeded by colleague Richard Arnold, he believes that, despite disappointments such as Monday’s, the club he leaves behind is in much better shape. He is known to be optimistic about United’s future on the field, even if it may take the departures of Guardiola and Klopp for things to significantly change at the top of the Premier League.

Rangnick is understood not to be a current strong candidate for the long-term post but will take up his two-year consultancy role at Old Trafford even if his own spell leading the team turns out to be underwhelming.

Ralf Rangnick is in place for the time being before he moves into a consultancy role 

Woodward resigned from his post the week the plans for a European Super League fell apart last April. Many believe he fell on his sword in shame after United and Europe’s other top clubs had to shelve the idea following a backlash from supporters.

Woodward’s story is different. He claims he decided to resign on the previous Sunday after learning the plan was going ahead by telephone the night before.

Pouring himself a glass of wine at home, his first words to his wife Isabelle were: ‘Holy sh*t it’s happening’.

Woodward – who sits on the board of the European Clubs Association – had already told United he could not be involved in any decision to support the scheme and had removed himself from their discussions. He effectively resigned in a video call to United owner Joel Glazer on the Monday morning. The plans collapsed the next day.

He leaves United knowing his version of events will not necessarily be believed but is also confident he has messages on his phone and email that substantiate his version.

Woodward has been the pantomime villain for long enough at United to know how it works. His house has been attacked by United fans. Isabelle has received rape and death threats online, his daughter bundled over when she was only four.

The Glazers, Avram (left) and Joel (right) remain incredibly unpopular owners 

Woodward was supposed to bring the good times back but the wait goes on at Old Trafford

When things don’t go well in football, someone has to get the blame and for the best part of a decade that man has been Woodward.

He maybe doesn’t deserve every single piece of the criticism. For example, he has not raised season ticket prices once. His claim is that he has not been the man signing the players.

But, despite this, he does deserve his share and he knows it.

Back in 2014 when Moyes’ team were losing a Champions League tie at Olympiakos, Woodward was pictured taking a photo of the scoreboard on his ‘phone. That photo still sits on his desk at Old Trafford.

It was supposed to serve as a reminder of a low point, something to keep people grounded when the good times inevitably returned.

As Woodward packs up his belongings this month, that wait goes on. 

Woodward was unable to help steer United to major prizes during his time at the club

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