September 3 is set to be a day of reckoning for Manchester United. The moment the clock moves to 00.01am will be when the club know whether they have retained the services of Paul Pogba. While Zinedine Zidane has played a typically straight bat on the subject of his countryman, Mathias Pogba, big brother, is not allowing the Real Madrid trail to go dead.
Many United fans could not care less whether Pogba remains, but there is little doubt his departure would leave Ole Gunnar Solskjaer hugely short in midfield. Last week against Chelsea, Pogba played as a deep-lying playmaker and supplied two goals in a 4-0 win. He then proceeded to leave the door open to a move in an interview on French TV.
Should Pogba get his move, then the guns will be turned not on Solskjaer, but Ed Woodward, the grandly titled executive vice-chairman who has become a cipher for the fans’ disquiet at the club’s slip from prominence. Giving Solskjaer the job on a long-term contract was a populist move by Woodward, but it unwittingly removed a protective layer for himself.
Solskjaer is about as untouchable as they come almost whatever happens, due to being one of the club’s most loved players of all and as someone whose love for the club appears to be as deep as any fan.
When and if he falters, the blame will rest on Woodward.
That said, Woodward appears to have developed a strength of purpose of late. The negotiator who, in January 2014, chose to conduct Juan Mata’s signing through an intermediary because he did not want to be railroaded into selling Wayne Rooney to Chelsea has, according to a couple of reports that would appear well-sourced, decided that he will continue to conduct transfer business until the club is led out of the doldrums.
The club’s lengthy ‘pursuit’ of a director of football does not yet appear to have thrown up a candidate prepared and capable of running the recruitment side of the business while still having to bow to the executive vice-chairman’s transfer skills and controls. Woodward, whose public utterances have been few and far between in recent years, and whose communiques are carried out by off-the-record briefings, will continue to be the silent frontman for the Glazer family.
He has been with them from the start, being one of the investment bankers who advised the late Malcolm Glazer’s leveraged buyout in 2005 and who then took on a role at the club. While David Gill was the club’s CEO and formed a close, successful relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson, Woodward was overhauling the club’s commercial department.
If anyone can take responsibility for the club’s huge turnover it is Woodward. A physics graduate from the University of Bristol who, in tandem with Richard Arnold, his Bristol buddy who is group managing director and director of the PLC, made sure the club’s continuing debts to various financial institutions can be serviced while huge amounts can be spent on the team.
Here is where those jokes about official noodle partners in Micronesia and endorsed engine oil in Eritrea began. It is a policy that the rest of United’s peer groups have had to follow to compete with the satchels full of cash that segmenting global markets have produced.
The change from being financial whizkid to main man came suddenly.
When Ferguson retired so did Gill and Woodward was handed a club under the new management of the wholly unsuitable David Moyes and with little personal experience of the transfer market.
That summer of 2013, where United chased Cesc Fabregas and ended up overpaying for Marouane Fellaini, was a painful lesson of it being who you know. One of the oddities of that period, and something that has continued to be policy except for emergencies, is the lack of leaning on the huge contacts books that Gill and Ferguson, still on the club’s payroll and board, had amassed.
It got to the point where Woodward was asking journalists to get him through to the right people at Barcelona so that Fabregas could be signed.
Fabregas never arrived, but over £700m has been spent since that first misadventure. Woodward has since worked out at least one facet of the transfer market, that paying top dollar will eventually land you the player you want. Pogba, a player with ambitions and advisers who will do rather well out of his moving from club to club, cost £89m and has been, largely, a disappointment.
Alexis Sanchez, ostensibly on a free, but on wages said to be approaching £500k a week has been far more of a disaster, to go along with mis-steps like Angel di Maria and Radamel Falcao.
This summer, Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Harry Maguire arrived for fees that the selling club had pretty much demanded in the first place. After weeks of negotiation from United, they still got their price.
United can afford the fees since the club’s revenue continues to be vast, but they’ve continued to spend good money after bad in the six years since Ferguson left and seen Manchester City and Liverpool surge past them on the field.
As the club continues to be a cash machine for the Glazer family, Woodward remains an untouchable. Over in America, the world’s most valuable sports franchise remains the Dallas Cowboys, who have not won a Super Bowl since 1995, and yet remain a licence to print money for owner Jerry Jones. And that is pretty much the case for United and the Glazer family.
There have been renewed attacks on the owners this summer, though mostly via social media, and not particularly effectively. They have not made the headlines that the “green and gold until the club is sold” motif did 10 years ago or so, and the purported involvement of the mysterious Red Knights who would rescue the club around the same time.
The Glazers, a couple of whom are seen regularly at matches, are here to stay until the money they make can be matched by something else. One long-running rumour is a Saudi Arabian-backed takeover, and some observers have suggested that Woodward’s low profile during the club’s summer engagements might have something to do with such a deal coming off.
That will be played out in due course, but for now the business of retaining Pogba would seem to lead the priority list. Losing him now, even despite an obvious desire to leave, would damage United.
And it will be Woodward who again would take the blame.