Press reports earlier this year announced the resignation of Ed Woodward from Manchester United at the end of 2021 but he may not be going very far after all.
It was one of those moments that came and went in such a way that it prompted a double-take. In the slipstream of the announcement of the European Super League at the end of April, there was an outpouring of anger from supporters at the decision taken by England’s six biggest clubs to unilaterally break away to join the new competition.
Among the angriest protests of all came at Old Trafford, before a scheduled Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool on May 2. Supporters protested outside the stadium before breaking in, getting onto the pitch and into the stands. Kick-off was first delayed, but it didn’t take long before the match was postponed, eventually being played 11 days after its originally scheduled date.
One of the more surprising effects of the implosion of the European Super League at the end of last season was the contrition. Liverpool’s John W Henry issued an infamous apology in which he looked like he may well have been kidnapped himself. Spurs hastily arranged meetings between the club and supporters groups. And at Manchester United, Ed Woodward fell on his sword. Well… almost.
There was always something eyebrow-raising about the non-resignation of Ed Woodward. At the time, this was spun very much as a matter of conscience over the European Super League decision. Consider, for example, this contemporaneous report from Sky Sports: ‘Man Utd executive vice-chairman resigned over belief he could not support Super League plans’. Seems pretty conclusive, doesn’t it?
It took six months for the truth to come out. The Athletic wrote a lengthy report (£) which filled in some of the blanks regarding what happened at the time, notably that Luke Shaw had accused Woodward of treating the players ‘like children’ during the meeting about the decision to sign up to the competition without consulting with them in any way whatsoever. Woodward’s involvement in the plot was laid bare, including details of meetings with the government and the sheer duplicity of how the league came about in terms of the clubs’ dealings with UEFA at the time.
The key detail in all of this was something that was given a bit of a pass. Ed Woodward didn’t resign as executive vice chairman of Manchester United in April; he announced that he would be leaving his post at the end of this year. Indeed, Woodward has returned to Old Trafford this season, for United’s home matches against Newcastle – which marked Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to the club – and then again for the home match against Aston Villa.
But now we’re in the last few weeks of this year, and talk is starting to grow that Woodward is going to be staying on after all. The Daily Mail reports that he is now in talks with the club about staying on in a consultancy role after he formally leaves his executive position, and this is already causing a familiar outrage among Manchester United supporters.
The article itself says that ‘insiders say it is commonplace when chief executives leave a company to strike an agreement which allows the firm to call upon their knowledge if required’, but this raises questions of its own. The impression given from the reporting of Woodward’s initial resignation was that he had fallen on his sword, with the implication of it being a clean break. Talk of him leaving at the end of the year was tolerated by supporters on the implicit understanding that finding a replacement for an executive position might be a lengthy process, and one which should not be rushed.
At no point at that time was it mentioned that, ‘Oh, by the way, it’s pretty common in business for resigning executives to be kept on in a non-executive capacity’. Indeed, in these particular circumstances, it is not unreasonable to assume that the resignee would not be taking on such a position, even if it is common business practice to do so. This could be extrapolated further as yet another example of the way in which corporate practices themselves are broken, and of how executives routinely look after their own.
It may well be legal. It may well be normal business practice. But this doesn’t make it right, and when we look back over that period, the whole process – the resignation (with a caveat that it’ll be later in the year) followed by reports several months later that he’s going to retain some form of influence within the club – looks shady and duplicitous, as if it was always the plan to give the impression that he was resigning as an acknowledgement of the vast anger over both the European Super League and the way in which Manchester United have been run for years, while changing as little as possible in actual, practical terms.
Ed Woodward has come to be symbolic of the pall that has descended over Old Trafford in recent years, a world in which official noodle partners and social media brand engagement are at least as important as winning football matches. At Manchester United, the anti-European Super League protests had the extra edge of that context behind them, a bubbling well of anger that has been simmering for years and has occasionally come to blowing altogether.
Manchester’s history of radicalism stretches back a long way, and one particular story springs immediately to mind. In 1976, The Sex Pistols crash-landed into British pop culture with a show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester to 40 people, a show which is widely thought to have blown punk rock in this country. But less than two years later the band were at the point of collapse, and at the end of what would turn out to be their last show, at the Winterland in San Francisco, a weary Johnny Rotten asked the audience, ‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’
Manchester United supporters who’d been expecting Ed Woodward to be gone from Old Trafford by the end of this year might well be thinking exactly that.