Is Dan Ashworth a marquee signing that Dan Ashworth would recommend?

<span>Dan Ashworth wants to take on his third long-term vision in five years.</span><span>Photograph: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United/Getty Images</span>
Dan Ashworth wants to take on his third long-term vision in five years.Photograph: Serena Taylor/Newcastle United/Getty Images

Newcastle United are demanding around £20m from Manchester United for their sporting director, Dan Ashworth. That’s a lot of money, and I wanted to know whether he could possibly be worth it, but it was hard to tell for sure.

I went on the popular search website Google and there were lots of articles saying that he definitely was, that Dan Ashworth is a genius who buys footballers for tiny amounts and sells them for hundreds of millions. And lots of articles saying that Newcastle wouldn’t miss him at all, that football is played on a pitch by actual players, and so in an ideal world you probably want to be spending your £20m on them, instead.

Related: Manchester United baulk at £20m fee for Newcastle director Dan Ashworth

I wanted a definitive answer, the kind a sporting director would demand. And perhaps if I discovered it then I too could be a genius like Dan Ashworth one day: either that, or simply a man capable of securing a procession of lucrative employments in a wildly inefficient industry by burnishing the carefully curated myth of one’s own genius. Both good options, I told myself. Both good options. So I kept at it. I crunched data. I had to buy a laptop for that. I downloaded a copy of Football Manager, got a subscription to Wyscout, signed up for networking breakfasts and leadership summits. I watched lots of YouTube videos with titles like “DAN ASHWORTH SKILLS//WELCOME TO MANCHESTER UNITED 2024//SPREADSHEETS, RECRUITMENT MEETINGS, POWERPOINT PRESENTATIONS [HD]”. I listened to every episode of The High Performance Podcast with Jake Humphrey.

But every new avenue seemed to blur the picture a little more. I read that Ashworth signed Moisés Caicedo and Leandro Trossard and Kaoru Mitoma at Brighton, how he hired Gareth Southgate at the FA and created the “England DNA” concept, how he joined Newcastle and then they reached the Champions League in his first season. Then I read about how he spent £60m on Sandro Tonali who gets banned for betting offences, about how his first choice before hiring Southgate was Sam Allardyce, who lasted one match. About how he hired Mark Sampson as women’s manager, and then let him stay after allegations of inappropriate relationships with players he had coached, and then cleared him of Eni Aluko’s racism accusations. It was hard to know what to believe, which bits of his glittering CV Ashworth was actually personally responsible for. Only the good bits? Only the bad bits?

If Ashworth does manage to squirm out of his enforced gardening leave and take on his third long-term vision in just over five years, then he will be reunited with his close friend, the marginally gainful Sir Dave Brailsford. They first formally worked together when the FA hired Brailsford to consult on the appointment of a new England manager in 2016 (the process that produced Allardyce). Since then Ashworth has invited Brailsford to address the Newcastle squad, and the pair collaborated on the 2022 high-performance review of men’s cricket, whose stated goal was to make England the “best side in all formats” (current rankings: third, sixth, third).

Still, we can be sure this is a meritocratic appointment. Clearly Brailsford would not have struck up a close friendship with Ashworth had he not also deemed him the outstanding candidate for any future job vacancy he might be asked to fill in a completely different sport. And of course there is a synergy there, a sparkling track record of success when backed by immense wealth. For Brailsford’s glut of Olympic cycling medals read Newcastle’s ominous rise from the Premier League doldrums, or their dominance of women’s football, where the likes of AFC Fylde, Liverpool Feds and Stourbridge are currently being swept aside by the girls from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

Look: it’s possible to maintain that being a sporting director is a very important and difficult job, while also finding it quite funny that one of the world’s richest clubs is considering paying a £20m release clause for somebody to do it. And there is also something innately amusing in Manchester United – a club told for years to wean itself off the drug of marquee signings and install a functional structure – trying to build that structure entirely from marquee signings.

The very nature of recruitment, of building a new culture, is that it requires creativity, fresh and divergent thought, the ability to imagine new things. But United have long been an organisation inseparable from the teat of Big Recruitment, not just as the means to the objective, but as the objective itself. A backroom structure, you say. An organic culture, you say. An end to the saviour complex and the cult of the individual. Yup. Yup. Furious nodding. Diligent notes scribbled on a jotter pad. Question. Say I wanted the Alexis Sánchez of chief executives, the Cristiano Ronaldo of sporting directors and the Ángel Di María of heads of recruitment. Who might those be? Hypothetically.

Alas, we may never know for sure whether Ashworth is worth £20m. I’m staring at the printouts, reading the podcast transcripts, and: sorry guys, nothing. Perhaps the only conclusion we can draw with firmness is that in any organisation as large and unwieldy as a football club the lines of credit and responsibility will always be unclear, and so anointing any individual as a guru or a genius is essentially to take a giant leap of faith, vibes and cash. Or, to put it another way: Newcastle’s Dan Ashworth seems exactly the kind of signing Manchester United’s Dan Ashworth would warn them against.