£1 billion on transfers, zero titles: Woodward's Man Utd era ends in abject failure

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If Ed Woodward was to have his time as executive vice chairman again, there are quite a few things he would do differently. 

That’s hardly surprising, of course, given Manchester United failed to win a single Premier League title during his eight-and-a-half years in charge and, in truth, never really come close to finishing top of the pile.

In terms of trophies won on Woodward's watch, there has been a Europa League, an FA Cup and a League Cup. But they didn't sustain a single title challenge in the Premier League and became also-rans in the Champions League. 

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This poor return means that when he walks out of his Mayfair office for the final time at the end of this month, he will do so with a feeling of regret that he failed to achieve what he had set out to do when he was appointed in 2013. 

Looking back now, Woodward never recovered from his first summer transfer window.

At the time, David Gill had just quit United and Woodward had agreed to step up to fill the void but, unbeknownst to him, legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson was planning to leave as well.

Woodward admits that the Scot's shock departure made the start of his tenure incredibly challenging and he was devastated he didn’t get to work alongside a man he believes to be "a genius".

He certainly could have done with Ferguson's help during those first few months, when a lot of fans lost faith in him.

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When he left the club's tour of Australia to conclude some "urgent transfer business" ahead of the start of the 2013-14 campaign, the supporters thought that at least one big-name signing was about to rock up at Old Trafford.

Instead, only Marouane Fellaini arrived through the door on deadline day. It was a dreadfully underwhelming deal that came to shape how he was perceived. 

Indeed, given that his background was in investment banking rather than football, Woodward quickly became a scapegoat for every poor transfer that United made, and there have been quite a few.

The 50-year-old privately admits that his tenure will be remembered as a failure due to the club’s inability to win major trophies and he believes that it comes down to one main thing: poor recruitment. 

He failed to land the right managers at the right time, and he failed to sign the right players at the right time.

The fact his last appointment was an interim who had been manager of sport and development at Lokomotiv Moscow says everything you need to know about the succession planning at the club.

Ralf Rangnick, the club insist, was always first choice to succeed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer until the end of the current campaign, but had better decisions been made before then, the club would not have found themselves in such a desperate position, needing a quick fix to a long-time problem.

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Woodward privately admits that had United made different managerial decisions, then they may have won that elusive 21st league title.

He is a keen admirer of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, and the latter was available during his time as CEO.

Club sources describe "sliding doors moments" that meant the circumstances never fully aligned to get some of the world’s top coaches to Old Trafford, but no attempt was made to hire Antonio Conte, for example.

Still, if he deserves a significant share of the blame for not appointing the right bosses, United's player recruitment woes are not all his fault.

When Ferguson left, a lot needed to change. Ferguson and Gill were the glue that held the club together. They were the duo that got everything done, so both leaving at the same time rocked Old Trafford to its core.

There is admission from within the club that David Moyes was set up to fail because the structure wasn’t there to support him.

Then there was Louis van Gaal. Woodward concedes that the Dutchman was given too much autonomy when it came to signing players.

The Dutchman was culpable for signing some of the biggest flops of the post-Ferguson era: Angel Di Maria (£67.5m), Marcos Rojo (£16m), Memphis Depay (£30.6m), Morgan Schneiderlin (£31.5m) and Anthony Martial (£54m). 

In terms of transfers, Woodward had hoped for a success rate of 70 per cent, but he admitted that during the Moyes and Van Gaal eras only three out of every 10 deals were working out.

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United spent big money under Mourinho too, bringing in the likes of Romelu Lukaku (£76m), Paul Pogba (£89m), Fred (£47m) and Henrikh Mkhitaryan (£30m) to name but a few bad buys.

The primary issue with the majority of the names brought in before Solskjaer's appointment was that there appeared to be no method to the madness of their spending.

For the main part, United have since tried to invest in exciting young English talent, but the fact remains that over £1 billion has been spent during Woodward’s reign and yet the team is now miles behind the likes of Manchester City and Liverpool.

And Woodward has held his hands up and confessed that United will be dealing with the repercussions of their poor transfer dealings for years to come.

They are struggling to offload overpaid, sub-standard players, leaving them with a bloated squad that is not good enough to compete for major titles.

However, it is understood that Woodward wishes he had made it clear that he was not the sole person responsible for signing players at United, believing it would have spared him some of the vitriol that has been aimed at him and his family in recent years.

It's certainly telling that it has already been made clear that incoming CEO Richard Arnold will have a more hands-off approach when it comes to football matters. 

However, when it comes to United's involvement in the Super League fiasco, which led to Woodward's departure, he has nobody to blame but himself.

He was one of the driving forces behind the attempted breakaway, along with Juventus president Andrea Agnelli.

Woodward had been involved in talks over a closed-off competition for Europe's elite clubs for two years but when it quickly fell apart, he said that he did not agree with the final format and "had no option" but to withdraw his support.

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It was the final straw as far as the fans were concerned. For years, they had questioned Woodward’s lack of football knowledge, so his key role in the project confirmed their worst suspicions as far as they were concerned.  

Woodward admits that he has made several mistakes, but he believes that there have been a number of notable success stories.

His focus on commercial deals, which irked match-going fans, generated sufficient funds for United to sign players without requiring financial backing from the club's owners, though cynics would argue that such an approach only further benefited the Glazers.

Woodward regrets his infamous statement that "playing performance doesn't really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business”. However, given the board has to "fight for every penny", he will depart proud of the club's increase in revenue.

The admirable way the club acted during the pandemic, freezing ticket prices and increasing fan engagement, are other things that he would point to as high points of his time at Old Trafford.

However, no matter how good his commercial deals have been, or how many improvements have been made in terms of the recruitment process, there is only one way to view his tenure.

After eight and a half years, five managerial appointments and no major trophies, the Woodward era has been a failure, as he would reluctantly admit himself.