By now, Ed Woodward is used to vilification. Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman has borne a heavy brunt of the blame for the club’s descent in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years. It has come from all quarters: fans, media, ex-players and for much of José Mourinho’s reign, the manager Woodward had given a job and funded to the tune of £400m.
Appointing Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, though, already has the hallmarks of being a masterstroke. The gloom has been lifted, the football is exciting and for many fans, the disillusionment of the past six years can be forgotten. The last six weeks have been a gorgeous honeymoon compared to the resentments and simmering rage of the previous marriage.
And the heat is off Woodward. The January transfer window sailed by without complaints about the club’s lack of incomings. After all, Ole has United playing like United should. The opposite of Mourinho, in fact.
News that Molde execs will attend United’s Champions League meeting with Paris Saint-Germain suggests relations are warm, and a £7.4m release fee is widely reported to have been agreed should all go well.
Meanwhile, Mauricio Pochettino, currently the only other credible contender, has no release clause, and estimates place the cost of tempting him away from Tottenham as high as £50m. Would Woodward, the negotiator who got a third party in to negotiate Juan Mata’s January 2014 transfer from Chelsea so he would not be railroaded into selling Wayne Rooney, really fancy duking it out with Daniel Levy? Solskjaer, without saying it too explicitly, has not hidden his desire to be next permanent manager, rather than a baby-faced but now greying caretaker prodigal son.
Add all that together and United have a fait accompli to hand, a readymade new manager, and one who could hardly be held in higher regard, having followed up the glory of his playing exploits by coming to the rescue in the club’s hour of need. But this is all temporary. The ecstatic romance cannot last. Solskjaer is a manager on loan from Molde, and even if he gets the job, the serious stuff would start soon enough.
Neither club particularly enjoys being compared to its rival in being the most successful in English football but United need only look over to Liverpool to see how appointing a club legend on a temporary basis and then making him permanent can go when emotion and goodwill are no longer enough to sustain a regime.
Kenneth Mathieson Dalglish was Liverpool Football Club in human form, and the absolute opposite of Roy Hodgson when turned to in January 2011. Liverpool was a club in far deeper crisis than United were in December, under the new ownership of Fenway Sports Group after skirting bankruptcy under Tom Hicks and George Gillett.
Hodgson, just like Mourinho at United, had been a desperately poor fit for Liverpool, completely deaf to the club’s traditions, by the end loathed by fans for that and a brand of football that had brought drudgery to Anfield. Dalglish, like Solskjaer, had scored a European Cup final-winning goal and beyond that, had never shown anything other than love for the club.
Unlike Solskjaer, he had managed the club previously, and been a success at Blackburn, but the level of romanticism was similar when, against United in a January 2011 FA Cup, he reappeared in a tracksuit, older, greyer but with much the same enthusiasm as before. He had abandoned a family cruise in the Arabian Gulf to take on the job many felt he should have never left in 1991, though most appreciated the reasons for stepping down from a club still ravaged by the tragedy of Hillsborough.
Though Dalglish was relaxed and smiling, there was evidence he had not lost his fire in the post-match exchanges. “I will give everything I have got to put the club in a better position than it is now. Whether that’s going to be sufficient for everyone, I don’t know. I can’t see into the future. I can only promise 100% commitment.”
Dalglish had been tempted, he said, “to do a Mourinho or Gary Neville and run down to that corner”. It was the kind of stuff we have been hearing from Solskjaer since his arrival was a pre-Christmas present to Unite fans.
And until the end of the season, Dalglish and Liverpool fans enjoyed their time together, including a 3-1 defeat of United at Anfield that saw the Kop sing “Happy Birthday” to their king. Dalglish could barely hide his enjoyment, and seemed to be playing it for jokes. During a 1-1 draw at Arsenal, Dalglish even laughed when Arsene Wenger lost his cool, and tried to calm his opponent down.
A three-year contract became an inevitability as the new owners rode followed their populist gesture to its obvious conclusion, though there were footballing reasons.
Only Chelsea had gained more Premier League points since Dalglish’s second coming, but that was where the fun stopped.
The contrast between the caretaker and permanent manager was huge. Dalglish wore the responsibility of the job heavily. The previous japes and jokes were replaced by the stone-faced disposition of a man under serious pressure. Liverpool spent heavily in the summer of 2011. Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam were serious busts to go along with the £35m of the £50m received for Fernando Torres that had been paid out for Andy Carroll. The results were underwhelming, and tailed off badly around the time Dalglish embroiled himself in the Luis Suarez/Patrice Evra racism affair that did serious damage to the club’s reputation.
Dalglish was sacked a year and four days from the announcement of his contract, taking the blame for his club’s latest failure to relaunch itself; winning the 2012 League Cup, the club’s last trophy, was not enough. Outdated, primitive tactics and an over-reliance on Suarez and Steven Gerrard suggested someone struggling to keep up with modern practices, but he had not been helped by an ownership that was new to English football. The signings of Adam and Downing were signed off with the approval of the “Moneyball” practices FSG had brought over from baseball.
The honeymoon could not endure once the serious business had to start, and that is a situation that will soon face Manchester United. If it is to be Solskjaer, a manager with little to no experience in the top-level transfer market, there is still nobody, beyond Woodward and Ferguson, now 78, to help him through those shark-infested waters. Talk of a director of football has gone noticeably cold. And we are still yet to see the Norwegian suffer serious setback, gauge his ability to regenerate when the pressure piles on.
Even if United make the top four and even win a trophy, winning the title, which Solskjaer did six times as a player, is what the club has been about since Ferguson hit his straps. And the club is not yet equipped to compete with Manchester City or Liverpool, who in the years since the Dalglish misfire have learned lessons and set down an infrastructure capable of delivering success on and off the field.
The short time Solskjaer has been in charge has been the most enjoyable since Ferguson stepped down but if it is to be sustained then the club has plenty of growing up to do around him. And Woodward would be on the hook for blame if United should falter again.