Manchester United: Shadows of a Glorious Past

 

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The golden years. Photo credit: Google images

I have been a Manchester United fan for well over a decade now, and I’m first to admit the Club has a major rebuilding job to do. In rediscovering how we arrived at this point, this discourse makes a case against the Glazer Family led Manchester United Board of Directors while examining Sir Alex Ferguson’s role in the colossal leadership and management crisis rocking the Club. I present my submissions based on the following leadership philosophies:

  1. Success without a successor is failure –John C. Maxwell (Renowned leadership expert)
  2. The importance of strong Institutions over strongmen –President Barack Obama.

Wherever and whenever the story of Manchester United Football Club is told, it can never be complete without a mention of the Legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. The successful reputation he built for the team, the players he nurtured and the many years of excitement he brought to millions of fans worldwide through his tactical-nous was simply extraordinary. This is why history will be distorted if we X-rayed Man. United’s current woes without uncovering the role of Sir Alex Ferguson and especially, the Club’s Board of Directors in our diagnosis.

Now today, a little over 2 years since SAF retired as manager of Man. United, the players, fans and sponsors alike are worried by the tremors of implosion threatening the club. Indeed, big name transfers in the rumor mills linking Suarez, Cavani, Neymar or Guardiola with a move to Man. United may excite a few naive fans, but the ‘propaganda’ fails terribly to calm the fears of well-grounded fans who know the Club is far from being a desired destination for top talents and that, things are far from fine at the Club.

Did you know? Man. United finished in the top 3 for 22 consecutive seasons under Sir Alex Ferguson

The Character that accompanied Man. United’s reputation to every stadium the team visited is long gone. In its place, a pseudo-Character tainted with the familiarities of struggling European clubs has emerged. Here is a summary of Man. United’s post SAF era: don’t make it to the Champions league this year, make it the next year but crash out in the group stages, struggle in the League back home and most ominously, fail to attract desired players and/or manager to the club.

The crisis reminds us of glorious days gone past when Man. United sat atop the footballing world and looked down from its high peak, as smaller clubs struggled to climb the rocky terrain into worldwide prominence. One such football club today is Manchester City which, according to a U.K Daily mail article, “is doing better on and off the pitch” than, I dare add, the now quiet neighbors, Man. United.

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Fans protest against David Moyes at Old Trafford. Photo credit: Google images

Initially, the buck passed to David Moyes after he failed terribly at his managerial crash course with Man. United in the year after Fergie’s retirement. Moyes, in a rush to be his own man while filling the big boots inherited from SAF, rejected most of the technical and backroom staffs he met on ground at Old Trafford of which Fergie, in truth, had advised him to retain but Moyes refused, opting instead to bring in his own people.

The Man. United Boardroom was quiet. Then the buck passed to Louis Van Gaal’s table, who, though managed the team into its first Champions League since the Fergie years, opted to sell the players left behind from that generation even as some retired or voluntarily switched clubs, while he attempted to lay his own foundation.

Thus, the Board was forced to hope for the best and splash out the cash as the team lost almost all semblance of continuity from its glorious era. But how far has that move taken us? Now the buck has passed on to the field, where the players don’t recognize each other or the institution they represent, look devoid of passion and with every match, are being demystified by opponents to reveal Man. United for what it is today: a shadow of a great and glorious past that once was.

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Manchester United team celebrates with the trophy after beating Chelsea in the final of the UEFA Champions League football match at the Luzhniki stadium in Moscow on May 21, 2008. The match remained at a 1-1 draw and Manchester won on penalties after extra time. The team went ahead to win the Club’s 2nd treble that year. Photo credit: AFP PHOTO / Franck Fife/Getty Images)

Irrespective of ties Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola may have with the board of Man. City, it is possible that were he contacted for the Man. United managerial job, he refused to be next in line simply for the Club’s buck-passing game. Today, Man. United is getting sucked into a vicious vortex, the stages of which includes: one, the inability to attract/develop top young emerging talents (this begun under Fergie). Two, inability to manage and retain tested players and Three, failure to find the right Manager for the team. I submit that all these are offshoots of SAF’s failure to groom a competent successor inspite of his remarkable 26 years with the club. Now his legacy is being torn apart.

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Sons of late Malcolm Glazer (died 2014), owner of Man United FC. Avram Glazer in the center is Man. United’s co-chairman and together with his brothers and sister, they lead the Club’s Board of directors Photo credit: Google images

As it is, Man. United looks set for a trip into football’s wilderness –a trip Liverpool knows too well and are hoping to return from under their energetic manager,  Jurgen Klopp. I wonder if at this point the Man. United Board is now ready to accept the buck for the Club’s misadventures. What we are witnessing today is a leadership failure that only ends with Louis Van Gaal’s lackluster football style. It began with the Board’s failure to institute and cultivate a legacy of success that is independent of any strong person or persons.

For if SAF’s unfortunate blunder may be tolerated even if not condoned, the Board’s lack of foresight to take necessary measures in ensuring continuity of success after SAF’s imminent retirement is a crime against Man. United as an institution, its loyal fan base worldwide and the next generation of football lovers who will grow up disaffected to the Man. United football club.

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Manchester United’s crest. Photo credit: Google images

There is no denying the powerful influence culture has over our choices, especially as kids. I am a Man. United fan today because of how its success story was told amongst adults in my neighborhood at the turn of the millennium. If the process of rebuilding for the long term future of the Club doesn’t begin in earnest, five to ten years from now, would Man. United remain in the top 3 most popular clubs, considering the ease at which we can view more than just the Premier League on satellite T.V?

Of course as sweat merchant, Louis Van Gaal may lose his job if drastic improvements fail to come resultwise: managerial change is the first recourse for Board members. But can this spare The Glazer Family, owners of Man. United with over 80% shareholding, the rod for the role of its leadership in this mess? Immediately the Glazer’s $1.5bn phased purchase of Man. United was completed (March 2003 – June 2005), as a forward thinking business group, they recognized the value of David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson’s partnership hence, they chose to retain their services at the Club as Chief Executive and Manager respectively.

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Fergie and David Gill walking towards the dugout at Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams. Photo credit: Google images

People often say things look easier with the benefit of hindsight. Nevertheless, looking back, it is necessary to spotlight the leadership hurdle at which the Glazer’s tumbled: lack of a committed desire by Board members to build a strong football institution that is independent of one particular player or manager. It is possible that in the euphoria of SAF’s successes which seemed like it would last forever, the Board compromised on this fundamental principle of consolidating successful legacies… the type which endures the test of time long after the passing or retirement of strongmen.

Barcelona FC is a wonderful example of a strong institution, stronger than any one man. They have managed to institute a culture for continuity of success at the club even in the face of football’s radical evolution. Today, the Club is so well structured that its success is not dependent upon one particular player or Manager. How much role and influence did Barcelona’s board exert in ensuring this particular outcome?

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Beautiful imperfection at the Theatre of Dreams, Old Trafford stadium. Photo credit: Worldsoccertalk

We may never know but we do know that the club has a very vibrant and robust youth academy; members of whom they continue to train according to their ‘ticki-tacka’ philosophy of football. I believe the footballing community has talked too long about the evolution of football mostly in terms of fast players, of dribblers, goal scorers and of top managers with the huge cash accompanying such transfers while neglecting the behind the scenes evolution –a Club’s survival assurance and continued dominance independent of such big-money players or managers.

This ought to be the primary responsibility for any Board seeking to protect its long-term business interests and those of emotional stakeholders like it’s fans or customers. Perhaps, the Board got trapped in a convenient daydream wherein the giant shadow of Man. United will be enough to win matches even long after strongmen like David Gill, SAF, C. Ronaldo, Rooney, Tevez, Giggs, Ferdinand, Vidic, Van der Sarr, Evra, Scholes, etc have departed. But the sun is up and shining and with every match, the shadow of Man. United’s great yesterday grows more faint and proving inefficient to save us humiliation in the face of “small” opponents. Our Old Trafford fortress is now being decimated by opposition clubs who haven’t taken points on our turf for many years or even decades, in the case of our recent sad loss to Norwich at home.

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Embattled Louis Van Gaal. Photo credit:

Will a change in manager solve the problem? I think ‘Yes.’ If a new manager fails at the job like Moyes and Van Gaal, will it be the manager’s fault? I would say ‘No’ but quickly add also that it depends on the job description given him by the Board. No rebuilding job is ever done overnight. The next manager Man. United needs is a tested manager willing to sign a long term contract with the Club.

He must be given short-mid-long term mandates to run the club from the bottom-up. Meaning, he must be energetic, experienced but not too old and a hands-on manager. He will run the Club with the type of omnipresence similar to the one SAF exuded when he first started rebuilding Man. United in 1986 before his first trophy arrived in 1990, 26 years after the team last won any trophy.

Did you know? Upward of 20 of SAF former players have gone on to become football club managers themselves.

This means making investment in and paying attention to the Club’s youth academy system. Which is exactly why the Club needs a long-term Manager who won’t be plagued with the fear of job insecurity. In the mid-term, the manager must ensure the Club’s regular appearance in the Champions League and a minimum top three finish in the Barclays Premier League. That was the standard SAF created, if it cannot be improved upon it should at least be maintained.

In the short-term, the Manager must be able to undo the psychological damage inflicted on the Team due to its radical transition from an attack-minded playing pattern to a strange and calamitous conservative playing style. The fans have a huge role to play too. They must understand that Man. United is in a building phase once again and that success won’t come overnight, so expectations should be kept in check in the short to mid term.

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Believe, Manchester United. Photo credit: Google images

The board likewise must show informed commitment to managing the Club’s affairs better in the future. It’s not enough to run the Club as a family business without opening it’s door to people who are passionate about the sports as they are about the money and fame. Conclusively let me submit, if Ed Woodward, as current Chief Executive does not understand the dynamics of his office he should quit. We need a strong Club from Academy-up as much as we need the sponsorship endorsements he so vigorously pursues. The success of Man. United in the long-term and that of its managers’ is interwoven with the aliveness of the Club’s Board of Directors to its oversight responsibilities, strategic role and the understanding with which they manage the situation as lasting solutions are sought to prevent a recurrence of this type of shameful crisis.

It’s a long walk to redemption ahead no doubt, but we are Man. United and TOGETHER we march forward.

Glory, glory Man. United!

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football, bloody hell. But they never gave in and that’s what won it.” –SAF in an interview immediately after the team’s 1999 Champions league final triumph… our first treble winning year.

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