Jason Wilcox is one of English football’s most powerful figures, in accordance with the prophecy

Dave Tickner
Jason Wilcox, Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Erik ten Hag at Man Utd.
Jason Wilcox, Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Erik ten Hag at Man Utd.

Can we all just take a moment to fully acknowledge that Jason Wilcox becoming one of the most powerful men in English football is really bloody strange?

We’re not having a go. We’re not even saying it’s wrong, although our gut feeling is that Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s latest five bullet-point list of demands for and impositions upon any new Man United manager is a(nother) needlessly restrictive self-limiting and self-defeating bit of willy-waving.

At first glance, it appears to us the latest piece of evidence that inside every ferociously intelligent and wildly successful businessman there is a really, really stupid and petty idiot desperately trying to get out. Every leaked email about untidy desks and pronouncement about resignations from the new United regime sets alarm bells ringing.

And while we don’t doubt Sir Jim’s business success it did seem worth noting that his forays into sport are not uniformly successful; Team Sky dominated professional cycling for a decade and you don’t hear so much about them since INEOS took over, do you?

It might all prove to be genius, of course. Maybe applying the Leonardo Di Caprio Girlfriend Principle to the purchasing of professional footballers is a great idea and nobody else had the big brilliant brain to come up with it.

But we’re getting off the point. And that’s the fact that one of the five unbreakable rules at the new Manchester United is that the playing style for all levels of the club from youth to first team is set by the sporting director and that means Jason Wilcox.

Step back a little, and that is pretty wild, no? He’s done excellent work at Manchester City and Southampton and, again, we’re not saying he doesn’t deserve this chance or even that it won’t work.

It’s just the sheer amount of power and control that now rests with a figure who exists behind the scenes and out of the limelight that feels so difficult to square.

It’s not new and it undoubtedly reflects on a media-led obsession with the personalities and main character energy provided by managers.

But we still marvel at the fact that at no point since he was a solid if forgettable Blackburn winger in the 90s has there ever been any sense of any narrative that ‘Ah yes, there’s a man destined to become one of the most powerful and influential figures at Manchester United without ever being a first-team manager anywhere at all along the way’.

That lack of management experience or success is the thing, isn’t it? While he’s been grafting away and building his career, we’d hazard that you, like us, had given him barely a second’s thought unless he happened to pop up whipping in a cross for Chris Sutton on Premier League Years. And again, it’s on us and the media framing of who’s important. That’s what’s wrong here, not Wilcox and very possibly not even Manchester United, hard as that is to accept.

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In the same way that you don’t need to have been a great player to be a great manager, why would you need to be a great manager to be a great sporting director? They’re different jobs.

But we’re still conditioned to see the first-team manager as the most important single footballing figure at a club. The temptation here is still to shake our heads and go ‘What would Fergie make of being told his style of play is set by a former Blackburn winger who’s never been a manager, eh?’

But things have changed. There’s an old saying in journalism: to reporters the glory, to sub-editors the power.

The idea is that while it’s reporters who get their name in the paper and get the attention, it’s the subs who control the overall product. Senior editorial roles were far more commonly recruited from the subs’ desk than the reporters’ pen.

There’s a bit of that here. Not in journalism, not anymore; the industry f***ed subs off as an unnecessary luxury once bosses realised that nobody actually cares if a newspaper is good as long as it reassuringly confirms all their existing biases and fears every morning. But it still holds true in football’s current direction of travel.

Your Wilcoxes and the Dougie Freedmans of this world will never get the attention that managers get, but they are increasingly the people holding the levers of power.