Around 20 so-called Manchester United fans turned up at Ed Woodward’s house on Tuesday night and a flare was thrown onto the premises. The club’s executive vice-chair and his family were not home, it is believed, but the seriousness of the incident serves to underline the volatile nature of the atmosphere surrounding United right now.
Results haven’t been good enough. Trophies seem a distant dream. The continued employment of manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is under intense scrutiny. The focus right now, though, is all zeroing in on Woodward.
The Snapchat video which surfaced late on Tuesday of the contemptible scenes carried the tag “Ed Woodward’s gonna die”, a reference to a song which has been chanted from United sections at recent fixtures. What was distasteful has become despicable. There is simply no justification for such intimidatory actions, regardless of what people may make of his record as their club’s day-to-day figurehead.
It is lost on nobody that Woodward has been in his current role since 2013, shortly after United’s last Premier League title win. Since that time there has been a steady decline in on-field fortunes. Managers have come and gone, projects backed and scrapped. Transfer business has been hit and miss. The relationship between the club and its fans has endured peaks and troughs.
Woodward was always likely to find the role difficult, in fairness. Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement was never going to be easy to overcome, but the fact that CEO David Gill simultaneously resigned his post left United with two gaping holes. The maligned Glazer family turned to Woodward having been impressed with their dealings with him to that point.
As a senior investment banker for JP Morgan he had advised the family in their takeover of United in 2005 and was invited to join the club following the acquisition, first in a financial planning capacity, then as part of commercial operations. He became executive vice-chair in 2012, working alongside Gill to an extent, but when the CEO stepped aside the following year Woodward’s role was extended to include responsibility for the football side of the business.
Since then United have slipped from the top table in a football sense, finishing in the top four of the Premier League only twice in six years, and are currently on course to miss out on Champions League football for a second successive season for the first time since the European Cup’s format was changed in 1992.
The struggling Solskjaer is the fourth permanent manager United have turned to since Ferguson. The David Moyes experiment ended less than 12 months into a six-year contract, while Louis van Gaal was sacked within 48 hours of winning the 2016 FA Cup.
Jose Mourinho - seen from the outside as United’s best hope of an immediate success - was fired in December 2018 following a summer market which had shown divisions in recruitment plans. The Portuguese had identified multiple central-defence targets - eventual Solskjaer signing Harry Maguire among them - but the board asked him to continue with what he had.
"At the moment there is a structure with a scouting division and above that is someone at Woodward's right hand," Van Gaal told BBC Sport in March 2019, shortly before Solskjaer’s interim reign was made permanent.
"The structure is not so bad but the right hand has to be a technical director with a football view, not somebody with a banker's role.
"Unfortunately, we are talking about a commercial club, not a football club. I spoke to Ferguson about this and in his last years, he also had problems with it."
Woodward’s track record in the transfer market has been well documented. For the large part he has handed the majority of responsibility to the manager, backed by the recruitment department, but he has had the final call in negotiations. In his time overseeing transfers, United have spent around £840 million and have arguably had more misses than hits.
In recent years there has been the flirtation with the idea of employing a technical director to take much of the football responsibility away from Woodward himself, but for now the club are happy with the current structure.
“We’ve materially expanded our recruitment department in recent years to increase its efficiency and productivity,” Woodward told investors in September. “Many of the senior staff in these roles have been at the club for over 10 years. Recruitment recommendations and decisions are worked on by this department as well as the manager and his team.”
Specifically on the possibility of adding a technical director role, Woodward added:
“We are continually reviewing and looking at the potential to evolve our structure on the football side. Much of the speculation around this type of role focuses purely on recruitment, an area that we have evolved in recent years.
“We feel the players that we have signed this summer demonstrate that this approach is the right one. As always with Manchester United, speculation around the summer transfer window was intense and the club was linked with hundreds of players, almost all without foundation. Despite this, our recruitment department’s robust process and early alignment on targets with the manager meant we were able to approach the window in a focused and disciplined way.”
Sources close to United have told The Sportsman that former Paris Saint-Germain transfer chief Antero Henrique is not on the club’s radar despite some reports, with the current business model set to be retained for the time being at least.
So where do United go from here? United fans will continue to fret about the future direction of the club for as long as results are falling short of the standards set in previous years. There will remain concerns about the business done in the market until the first-team squad appears more capable of coping with the rigours of Premier League football than it currently does.
But in a time when wall-to-wall coverage throws a greater spotlight on increasingly divergent issues, the obsession with Woodward has become unhealthy. He is the lightning rod for everything supporters do not like about the Glazer regime as well as for the difficulties the team are going through on the pitch. Fans who are unwilling to accept the status quo feel they have justification to take their frustration out in whatever fashion comes into their heads. And so we end up with events like Tuesday night.
Those resorting to such intimidatory behaviour need banning, and have been threatened with as much in a club statement. But the opinion on Woodward will seemingly remain unchanged for a long time to come.