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Man United is run by the wrong people for the wrong reasons and expect failure until it changes

Erik ten Hag may well be a good manager but, under the Glazers, the club’s purpose is to serve corporate interests, writes John Brewin.

Dutchman Erik ten Hag is expected to be appointed permanent manager.
Dutchman Erik ten Hag is expected to be appointed permanent manager.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

AFTER GOODISON, MANCHESTER United needed a “quick win”. In the corporate sense.

With the team so devoid of reliability that a victory over Norwich on Saturday cannot be guaranteed, the need to point to brighter times was pressing.

Defeat at Everton last weekend was a crashing low, even after the nine years of doldrums and sheer bloody waste that have followed Alex Ferguson’s retirement. If Cristiano Ronaldo’s loss of temper and smashing of an autistic child’s phone took the headlines, losing to Frank Lampard’s previously hapless strugglers spelled out Ralf Rangnick’s interim spell as a bust.

This week’s stories of Erik ten Hag’s agreement in principle to be the next full-time manager was being denied by official United sources as late as Tuesday evening, but the timing may be little coincidence. Now United fans can talk of next season and read the feature pieces that detail their new manager’s football philosophy at Ajax while dreaming of a midfield where Fred and Scott McTominay are supplanted by Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane is smashing in the goals ahead of them.

If such transfer targets seem unrealistic, that’s because they are unlikely to happen. The purpose of Manchester United in 2022 is not to win trophies at all costs in Ferguson’s style. Instead, it is to serve corporate interests, majority-owned by a Glazer family taking healthy dividends each year while partially floated on the New York Stock Exchange.

Share prices tend to fluctuate more by virtue of expectation than reality, though any expectation is tempered by the prospect of costs overrunning. It’s good practice to keep the paying public and social media as excited as possible without overpaying for such dreams to be realised.

Speak to anyone with a notion of matters behind the scenes on who makes the decisions at United: the answer will always arrive at Joel Glazer. Recently departed executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward took nine years of flak but throughout that time he was always acting on the orders of Glazer, the club’s co-chairman with brother Avram.

file-photo-dated-21-05-2016-of-manchester-united-group-commercial-director-richard-arnold-joint-chairmen-joel-glazer-and-avram-glazer-richard-arnold-formerly-group-managing-director-will-become-ma Richard Arnold, Joel Glazer and Avram Glazer. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

The likes of Woodward, his replacement Richard Arnold, football director John Murtough and Darren Fletcher, former player turned technical director, and Rangnick, in his projected role as football consultant, may offer advice but the final decisions are taken by the senior Glazer.

Such is the way of American corporations. No amount of advisers or better qualified specialists will ever prevent the big man taking the big decision. Until it goes wrong and then the blame will be shared. It was Woodward who took the public flak for Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s ill-starred appointments, and a multitude of misfiring, multi-million signings, with Paul Pogba and Harry Maguire as headliners.

None of them would have happened without the thumbs-up from Florida. For a reported £3.15m a year, and 539,000 Class A shares in Manchester United plc, valued at $10.8m in 2019, Woodward took on the role of executive-class human shield.

When Rangnick was pictured taking in England’s Test match with West Indies in Barbados last month, there was confusion at the idea of a German watching cricket. That perhaps forgot Didi Hamann’s fascination with the summer game, but the probable truth was of a meeting with owners who have begun flirting with cricket.

In October, the Glazers failed in a bid to buy an Indian Premier League franchise while Avram Glazer has been linked with setting up a Manchester United team in a UAE T20 league to launch in January 2023, only for sources to dampen down the idea.

As owners of 2021 Super Bowl winners Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who may or may not retain Tom Brady’s services for next season, the Glazers are an American multi-sport operation, like Arsenal’s Stan Kroenke, owner of seven sporting franchises. Each of the four bidders currently trying to purchase Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea frozen assets has a portfolio of other sports clubs to its name. Having owned the Buccs since 1995 before taking over United in May 2005, the Glazers were pioneers in that.

They also introduced the concept of a leveraged buyout to English football, putting the debt of a takeover on to the club’s books, a commercial reality unbeknownst within the Pollyanna Premier League bubble of the time. A deal worth £790m would be serviced by sweating the asset itself. United’s debt remained at £494.8m (€598.43m) when the club’s accounts were published in March 2022.

file-photo-dated-18-05-2021-of-manchester-united-fans-holds-up-protest-posters-prior-to-the-premier-league-match-at-old-trafford-manchester-issue-date-friday-may-21-2021 Man United fans protesting at Old Trafford last year. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

When angry fans boycotted Old Trafford that summer of 2005, the words “debt is the road to ruin” were thrown back at David Gill, the club CEO who had stayed on despite voicing those very concerns. There remains a tranche of United fans who will never forgive Ferguson for his waving through a deal he alone might have had chance to avert.

The road to ruin never quite reached its destination but the current, purgatorial state of being, myriad false dawns, repeated missing the mark, may be worse. Meanwhile, Liverpool, the eternal rivals, having themselves embraced disaster in the late 2000s under the debt-laden ownership of Tom Hicks and George Gillet have shown the American corporate model can work in English football.

The Fenway Sports Group, John W Henry and Tom Werner at the helm, was made up of self-made men, as opposed to being a family concern like the Glazers. While it was Joel Glazer who played frontman for the 2005 takeover, it was his father, Malcolm, who had built the family fortune and whose standing secured Wall Street finance to get the deal done.

Serious illness and the death of Glazer Snr in 2014 robbed the family of its patriarch. The image of his children is akin to that of a less cool, less public, less rich, less influential Roy clan from HBO’s Succession. But with dividends pouring in, they can use the club’s riches as their own personal bank, with ventures like speculating on cricket funded by United and the NFL revenue.

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Meanwhile in public, the Glazer family say little to nothing. Mostly nothing. Why Ten Hag, 52 and with no big-league experience, received the nod over Mauricio Pochettino is nothing like clear, other than it being approved by Joel Glazer. That social media polls suggested United fans did not want “Poch” has been floated as one explanation.

manchester-united-caretaker-manager-ralf-rangnick-during-the-premier-league-match-at-old-trafford-greater-manchester-uk-picture-date-saturday-april-2-2022-photo-credit-should-read-anthony-devli Ralf Rangnick has all but admitted having little to do with the selection process for United's new manager. Source: Alamy Stock Photo

A shrugging, increasingly detached Rangnick has all but admitted he had little to do with the selection process for his permanent successor despite his consultancy role. Like paying £80m-plus for Pogba and Maguire, or trying to repeat Brady’s NFL magic with Ronaldo, 36 and fading, Rangnick, someone who made his reputation as a club builder, has become a spare part.

His engagement now appears the type of hasty decision taken by those without expertise, forward planning and worse, little to lose when big decisions go wrong. The usual Glazer pattern of response to mistakes has been to plump for the exact opposite of what was the previous wrong decision.

Ten Hag may well be a good football manager but United is a club run by the wrong people for the wrong reasons. Until that changes, the same pattern of failure can only be expected.

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