As Ed Woodward watches the lights dim, the curtain closing on an underwhelming ensemble as they head home for the night, Manchester United’s failure to beat Huddersfield Town in their quest for a smash-and-grab Champions League qualification may come as a surprise to him, and him alone.
To many, this is a worthy end to a top four race that had long left them behind.
26 points from José Mourinho’s 17 games in charge before Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s arrival was the worst possible scenario. Reeling from a dysfunctional summer where the club was linked to Gareth Bale, again, the manager’s transfer wishes were tossed to the side to never be seen again – to Woodward, the current players were good enough for the task at hand – and the start to the season saw tip-toe penalty kicks from Paul Pogba and high-pressing suicide against Tottenham Hotspur.
Had Solskjær pulled it off, winning the last available ticket to the riches of the European elite, then Woodward would be talking about the miraculous and much-needed appointment of Solskjær, a throwback to an era much talked about – and hopefully, fully appreciated – than the calamitous situation that he now faces.
That sounds more like it – “calamitous”, “failure”, and “reeling”. These are the words rival fans use to describe United nowadays, a malaise that will be entering its seventh instalment of the Woodward Era when the 2019/2020 season comes around.
Gone are the days when this once dominant, towering figure was dominant and towering. Cowering under the shadows of their once dormant rivals, we have a version of United that is unrecognisable, completely alien to the club that Solskjær would’ve known in his time as a player.
And now, the club’s tragic and recurring struggles, a testament to Woodward’s worst nightmare on repeat, has left Solskjær with an improbable task – one that may have a glitter of hope, but can only be made successful by a hierarchy that sees beyond the latest sponsorship deal.
All Woodward has to do is to look at the teams leading the rest. Liverpool and Manchester City are the torch bearers of what it means to be a modern football club in ways that United could only imagine. With points tallies of 94 and 92 respectively, it takes more than just a fledgeling style of football to achieve such lofty heights – insert comments about a Director of Football and progressive football people here.
When Jürgen Klopp took his team to the Kop to celebrate a 2-2 draw against West Brom in 2015, rivals laughed. Here was a team stuck in its own mediocre time, a misplaced fallacy built on years of Premier League strife.
In those days, Christian Benteke was the talk of the town and Simon Mignolet was, unsurprisingly, making mistakes. United fans lapped this all up with glee, emboldened by moments such as Anthony Martial’s majestic run and goal in his debut.
Six years before that, their team played City at Old Trafford on their way to an unprecedented hat-trick of Premier League titles. The red wave of United jerseys, both on and off the pitch, made light work of their blue neighbours as Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez scored in the 18th and 45th minute respectively to give them a 2-0 victory.
Manchester was all about United. The sight of Sir Alex Ferguson prowling around the touchline marked the supremacy of the times. He knew what life at the top was all about and the noisy neighbours, like most teams waiting for United to slip up, were a mere whisper.
United ended that season on 90 points, whilst City finished in 10th.
As you were, everybody – nothing to see here. United could celebrate, and teams like Liverpool and City were left to lick their wounds.
So, is this United’s time to be the team playing catch-up? All clubs have peaks and troughs but for them, the latter is a weird and unusual place to be. When you aren’t accustomed to being a supporting act to the main attraction, you tend to look a bit silly.
Players are left to make disingenuous apologies on Twitter to save face, yet perform exactly the same way on a weekly basis. Fans are left to become nostalgic, defending of the club’s glory years and ignoring what’s happening now.
And even if Liverpool haven’t won anything for some time, it’s difficult to think that this will go on for much longer. Having made it to the semi-finals of the Champions League twice in a row, and pushing City to the very end in the league, it seems to be a matter of time before Liverpool will become more than just a slight headache.
By contrast, City are on course for their third title in the post-Fergie years. United have barely threatened to finish above them in that time.
And with a stern face and eyes wide open, Woodward has watched this all unfold. In the last six years, his tenure has seen egotistical managers and unimaginative tactics, failed recruitment and short-term thinking. Two top-four finishes in six attempts at any other illustrious club would be met with hard questions and demands for more.
Yet for now, he will hold onto power, the man who could make or break Solskjær’s dreams for a club close to his heart. In a world of big European fishes, Woodward and United look strangely out of their depth, a big-small fish in a big pond.
So as the Europa League waits with open arms, Woodward’s United are where they deserve to be. The rest of the top six will relish their lack of football thinking, and Europe’s elite won’t be sending messages of support, whilst teams like Wolves and Everton will be circling their encounters with “MUST-WIN” hovering close by.
Until such a time when all seems to be back on track, this is United’s reality. From top to bottom, the blame will be shifted. What we know, however, is that Solskjær’s job will be a difficult one if Woodward can’t rescue a worrying trend that is slowly becoming his trademark.
From here, he can either sink or swim.