Jim White

Dismal Woodward failed in primary summer task: sign a superstar

Jim White

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Sir John Gielgud, the grand dame of British theatre, was renowned for the sharpness of his put downs. Once, when a colleague was extolling the virtues of an up and coming young actor who had just excelled with his performance in the movie the Wicker Man, Gielgud remarked.

“Edward Woodward? His name sounds like someone farting in the bath.”

For some reason, the poison knight’s verbal barb sprung to mind during the football transfer window. Though in truth it would be wholly unfair to compare Edward Woodward, the new chief executive of Manchester United, to a fart in the bath. After all, breaking wind in the tub can occasionally serve a useful function.

When David Moyes was appointed United manager, there was one thing everyone agreed his employers needed to do to smooth his arrival: over the summer they had to make a sizeable signing. A marquee acquisition would send out the right psychological message about the new man, indicate to the world at large that despite the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson it was still business as normal at Old Trafford, that the best players around were still anxious to join the club.

It was a limited pool of players from which to draw, but United have the financial resources to land anyone in the top bracket. Neymar, Luka Modric, even the best of them all Cristiano Ronaldo: Woodward should have stopped at nothing to ensure one of them was by now a United player.

Not easy, perhaps. But imperative. Yet, instead of carrying out that one straightforward task, Woodward had what might tactfully be described as an unfruitful summer. A man adept at pushing through deals to manufacture the United shirt, he proved himself utterly hapless when it came to recruiting players to wear it.

Woodward’s tactics in the transfer market redefined the term naive. Lacking the experience or contacts of his predecessor David Gill, in the embarrassing pursuit of Cesc Fabregas one of his main conduits for information was a British journalist based in Barcelona. Which is not exactly occupying the inside track.

When he finally appreciated that there might be a chance to prise Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid this weekend, Woodward contacted the Bernabeu to put in a formal bid. As anyone with any knowledge of the onrushing deadline knows, with the clock ticking there is no time to formality.

Arsene Wenger simply rang Ozil direct, and – in flawless German – persuaded him of the logic of a move to the Emirates. Being out-flanked in the transfer market by Arsene Wenger is the equivalent of that moment in the marathon when you are over-taken by a bloke dressed in a diving suit juggling tomatoes.

But that appeared to be the Woodward way. Coupled with Moyes’s renowned conservatism in transfer dealing, it meant United’s final plunge into the market was beyond a joke. On the deadline day itself, Woodward behaved – as one United blogger so neatly observed – like a bloke in a nightclub as kicking out time approaches desperately going round the place asking any of the remaining women to go home with him. And then, when one showed signs of agreeing to do so, he haggled over who was going to pay for the taxi.

The pursuits of Ander Herrera and Fabio Coentrao petered out over the kind of detail that would easily have been overcome had negotiations begun with more than a couple of hours left before the window closed. You know, like some time over the previous six weeks.

The net result was that the only signing delivered to the new manager was his old mucker Maroune Fellaini. And the noises coming out of Merseyside suggest even that would not had happened if the player himself had not so vigorously pushed for it. At £27 million, a good £4m more than he was valued earlier in the summer break, it also demonstrated a remarkable failure of bargaining.

United’s press team have been scrambling to spin the positives out of the summer. The signing of Fellaini, the eventual arrival of Wilfried Zaha after his loan at Crystal Palace and – most importantly of all – the retention of Wayne Rooney are being talked up as evidence of an improved squad for Moyes.

The rest of the football world is less convinced. Instead of giving the new man the public lift he required, his bosses have manifestly let him down. Comparisons are already being made between Woodward and that other marketing man turned CEO Garry Cook. And remember what a fine job Cook did of running Manchester’s other great sporting institution.

Still, if United fans are looking for consolation this morning after the wretched performance of their club’s chief executive over the summer, there is one thing that can be said in Woodward’s defence: at least he isn’t Joe Kinnear.

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