Mourinho’s Gone, But United’s Boardroom Problems Are Still There

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Jose Mourinho coaching Manchester United (Photo by Ardfern)

atching the turmoil at Manchester United, since Sir Alex Ferguson retired, has made me realize there are a lot of things going on in the background of a soccer club that can affect on-field performances.

When Ferguson retired in 2013, it left a gaping hole in the club which they have struggled to fill. “Fergie” spoiled the fans on swashbuckling football and trophies almost every other season, so it was always going to be hard to follow that act. But something else also happened when Fergie left. CEO David Gill also retired around the same time. It seems that the Gill-Ferguson partnership had a lot more to do with the stability of the club than people realized.

Gill was replaced by Ed Woodward, who served as an advisor to the Glazer family when they bought the club. Woodward is an accountant who previously worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers and J.P. Morgan. He was instrumental in helping United secure lucrative commercial deals, but his soccer knowledge seems to be lacking.

Under Woodward’s tenure, United have gone through three managers in five years. The latest one being Jose Mourinho, who started brightly. But he was brought down by the third-year curse, increasingly erratic behavior and a drab playing style.

In many ways, it reminds of what has happened at Arsenal. At one point I thought former Arsenal coach Arsene Wenger was a football genius and could do no wrong. But towards the end of his reign, Wenger became an embarrassment. He simply lost the plot. He couldn’t keep up with the game’s changing trends, his tactics didn’t work and the team suffered many embarrassing defeats.

Finally, he retired earlier this year. But Wenger should have been shown the door much earlier. Unfortunately, the Kroenke family, who owns the club, were happy to tolerate him as long as he was qualifying for the Champions League and turning a profit. Wenger’s career suffered when David Dein, the vice chairman who recruited him to the club, stepped down.

In 2007, Dein sold his stake in Arsenal, frustrated at the board’s reluctance to invest in the club. Dein and Wenger got along like Batman and Robin. Dein signed the players and Wenger coached the team. When Dein left, Wenger struggled, especially with player recruitment. He ’s let a shocking number of talented players slip through his fingers over the years such as Ronaldo, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Yaya Toure!

But in retrospect, it was clear that the executive team at Arsenal should have acted sooner. Wenger’s declining performance eventually began to hurt the Arsenal brand. When they finally decided to pull the trigger, it was clear to the world the team had declined.

At the end of last season, the Gunners finished fifth and were trophyless. Now Unai Emery has come in and is making an improvement, but the team should have never been allowed to get to this point. A good executive makes a swift decision when he sees things aren’t working and this was not done with Wenger.

Woodward’s record with managers has also been spotty. I wonder how long the Glazers’ are going to put up with him? Or are they going to behave like the Kroenke family and tolerate him as long as he’s a good earner? If that’s the case, Manchester United’s problems might last longer.

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Manny Otiko writes about race, politics and sports. He has been published in Salon and LA Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @mannyotiko.

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