At the end of last season, Manchester United launched the latest addition to their retro range. Not a new kit — not something the team would be wearing — but a reissued jersey to be worn on the terraces and on the streets, a classic blue shirt that harked back beyond the glory days of the 1990s and 2000s as far back as the testing times of the late 1980s.
A lot of fans loved it. So too did many of the club’s staff in the offices at Old Trafford. And they certainly loved the advert that accompanied the Adidas Originals launch: Sir Alex Ferguson, aged 81, standing in a car park at the stadium, wearing one of those old touchline anoraks and angrily tapping his watch as a group of fans, including some familiar faces, board a battered 1980s-style bus for an away day.
But it wasn’t universally popular. Some within United’s vast commercial department felt that, even for a retro kit, the ad was a nostalgia trip too far. It was one thing to embrace the most iconic figures from the club’s immense history — the Busby Babes, George Best, Eric Cantona, Roy Keane, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and of course Ferguson. But Denis Irwin? Lee Sharpe? Albert Morgan, the long-retired former kit man? Was this really what a global entertainment brand should be doing?
Such philosophical differences are commonplace these days. Depending on who you listen to at Old Trafford, from the commercial department to the youth academy, the modern-day Manchester United is either too wedded to the club’s glorious history or too divorced from it, too global in its outlook or too parochial, too cold and corporate or too comfortable and set in its ways.
It is a balancing act faced by other clubs who, having started out as local institutions, have become huge global brands. How do you sell your brand to the world while staying true to your roots?
For years, as their empire went from strength to strength under Ferguson’s management, United were cited as the gold standard — the ultimate yardstick on the pitch and off it. To return to that line from Sean Dyche, yes, there was always glossiness about Manchester United, but there was an unmistakable earthiness too. It was a global brand with a local heart. Or, if you prefer, a local club with a global outlook.
But the Manchester United of 2023 seems less sure of itself, less comfortable in its own skin. It is no longer even comfortable in its historic Old Trafford home, which, like the team, has deteriorated under the Glazer family’s ownership — once the best in the country but now a symbol of faded splendour.
This isn’t about recent results on the pitch, which have been largely encouraging under Erik ten Hag despite two defeats (away to Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal) in the opening weeks of the new Premier League campaign. Beat Brighton & Hove Albion at a packed Old Trafford on Saturday afternoon and the place will be buzzing with early-season optimism again before they return to the Champions League away to Bayern Munich four days later.
Nor is it about a commercial department that, after a period in which revenue flatlined and fell, has celebrated two big results in the past six weeks: a new 10-year deal with Adidas worth at least £90million ($110million) per season and a new £60million-a-year shirt sponsorship deal with Qualcomm Technologies commencing next summer.
For a decade since Ferguson’s retirement, though, United, as a club, has drifted.
The diagnosis might be that they have either been too fixated with or too dismissive of the club’s history.
Or perhaps both. Ed Woodward, the former executive vice-chairman, spent five years as the unwitting embodiment of that drift away from what he would casually call the club’s ‘DNA’ — only to board the nostalgia train himself in early 2019 by offering the much-loved Ole Gunnar Solskjaer a three-year contract as manager and then, two years later, another three-year deal (and then lose heart and sack him four months in).
But one thing that is widely agreed upon is the sense of stagnation under the Glazers’ ownership: the team, the stadium, so many different strands of the club and the business.
Every Manchester-based employee seems to have a favourite story about the awkward struggle to move with the times.
One cites the recent tale about how the club couldn’t sell shirts bearing the name of their new £64million Danish centre-forward Ramsus Hojlund for nearly a month because staff at the famous Megastore (a symbol of entrepreneurial spirit in the days when their rivals had merely a souvenir shop, only open on matchdays) had not been authorised to order a delivery of the letter ‘Ø’ before his protracted transfer from Atalanta was complete.
Another brings up the frantic postponement of a Premier League game against Bournemouth in 2016 when a suspect device, a mobile phone taped to a lead pipe, was discovered in one of the stadium toilets — only to discover the days later that it was a dummy device that had been planted by a security company during a training exercise earlier in the week.
Others cite IT issues or the difficulties of finding an electrician. And if these sound like trivial, microissues of the type that could happen at almost every club, it is because many of them are.
But, to use a trope beloved of so many social media skits about the modern-day football soap opera… this is Manchester United we’re talking about.
It is, according to a suitably polished video shared with potential commercial partners and investors, “the No 1 club in the No 1 sport”. It is a company for which the Glazers set an asking price of $8billion (£6.4 billion) last November and which they now appear to think is potentially worth far more.
An $8billion company, “the No 1 club in the No 1 sport”… but one that took until after Ferguson’s retirement in 2013 to launch their Twitter account and until 2018 to set up a women’s team — in both cases becoming the last Premier League club to do so. A club that took until 2021, after eight years of erratic decision-making in the post-Ferguson era, to appoint a football director.
More recently, there was widespread criticism of United’s handling of Mason Greenwood. After the Crown Prosecution Service dropped charges of rape, controlling and coercive behaviour and assault occasioning actual bodily harm, citing the withdrawal of key witnesses and new material coming to light, United launched a six-month investigation to decide their next move.
That process ended with a “mutual agreement” that Greenwood, who denied all the allegations against him, should resume his career elsewhere — he has since joined Spanish club Getafe on loan — but only after chief executive Richard Arnold faced a furious reaction from some of his staff upon learning of an initial strategy to reintegrate the forward into the first-team squad.
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Arnold’s subsequent open letter to staff and supporters, in which he stated his conclusion that “Mason did not commit the acts he was charged with”, prompted the Women’s Equality Party to accuse United of doing “less than the bare minimum” — and only doing that in response to “enormous” social media pressure.
The Greenwood episode seemed to sum up the football industry’s lack of corporate values and moral compass. It was very easy to imagine the same football-based pragmatism being applied at other clubs in the same situation and then, after the backlash that followed The Athletic’s revelation of the reintegration strategy, the same reactive approach: a finger in the air to find out which way the wind of public opinion was blowing.
But… again, this is Manchester United. For all the rigour Arnold spoke about regarding the Greenwood investigation, for all the attempts to categorise various politicians, journalists and pundits as supportive, open-minded or hostile to a reintegration, there was an air of shock and disappointment among some in the United hierarchy once the strength of opinion — not least among their female staff members, including the women’s team — became clear.
This is a club that has recently begun to send beautifully packaged shirts to clients or partners (or potential clients or partners) with the box inscribed with the message, “At Manchester United, exemplary standards define who we are.”
But these days those exemplary standards — the Ferguson standard, the Sir Matt Busby standard, with reminders at every turn — seem merely to reflect what the club currently is not.
When Ten Hag faces the media for his pre-match news conference on Friday, the main subject on the media agenda will — just like three weeks ago — involve a player who isn’t there.
Back then it was Greenwood, whose fate had been announced by the club four days earlier. Ten Hag repeatedly declined to answer questions about the forward and whether he had wanted him back. In a previous interview, in August, he said he had shared his opinion with the board. This time, with the decision made, the United manager said he would prefer to “focus on the players who are available”.
This week Antony, United’s £85.9million Brazilian winger, was given leave of absence “until further notice” as he continues to address allegations of assault. The 23-year-old is under investigation by authorities in Brazil and Greater Manchester after allegations made by three women, which he denies.
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Once more, Ten Hag will try to sidestep the controversy and move the focus onto the players who are available — at which point the lines of inquiry will shift to Jadon Sancho, the club’s £73million winger, who was dropped from the squad for the defeat at Arsenal with the manager citing his “performances in training”.
In response to Ten Hag’s comments after the Arsenal game, Sancho took to social media to tell his followers, “Please don’t believe everything you read!”, “I will not allow people saying things that is (sic) completely untrue” and “I’ve been a scapegoat for a long time, which isn’t fair!”
Yesterday the club explained that Sancho was training away from the first team after a “squad discipline issue”, before The Athletic revealed this was due to the forward refusing to apologise to Ten Hag.
Since arriving in Manchester from Ajax last year, Ten Hag has spent so much time firefighting: the traumatic start, the Cristiano Ronaldo furore, a humiliating 7-0 defeat at Liverpool, the Greenwood situation and now the Antony situation and the Sancho situation. It is easy to forget that, between these various crises, United won the Carabao Cup and finished in a creditable third place in the Premier League.
Ten Hag has brought a certain kind of stability. But progress feels fragile now, just as it did in those positive moments under Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Solskjaer. At various points over the past decade, after a fleeting upturn in results, there has been talk of a successful “reset” within the club. It has never seemed wholly convincing. But a full reset doesn’t seem possible for as long as the Glazers retain control and a culture of mediocrity persists.
So much of what United have done in the post-Ferguson years has looked reactive: most of their managerial appointments, many of their acquisitions in the transfer market. The list of the club’s six most expensive signings looks grimmer by the week: Paul Pogba, Antony, Harry Maguire, Sancho, Romelu Lukaku, Angel Di Maria. It now falls to the 20-year-old Hojlund, who comes in at seventh, to buck that unwanted trend.
As Arnold said last year, in a private (and pressurised) conversation with supporters that was then published on the internet, the club has “f***ing burned through cash”, “blown through an enormous amount of money”. Arnold also hinted at some Woodward’s failures, asking, “Do you want me buying the players? Does that not ring a bell?”
It took almost eight years — eight summer transfer windows, almost all of them chaotic — for Woodward to appoint someone to oversee the football operation, promoting John Murtough to football director and former player Darren Fletcher to technical director. It has brought a more structured approach, but five transfer windows later, the strategy is still not entirely unclear and the recruitment record remains patchy.
Then there is the academy. Few clubs place as much importance on youth development as United, who, beyond the fame of the Busby Babes and the Class of ’92, have named a homegrown player in their matchday squad for every competitive match since October 1937. Here, too, there has been an acceptance — belated, grudging — that United spent too long standing still, living on past glories, as Arsenal, Manchester City and Chelsea in particular set a new standard at academy level.
And again there is the conflict beyond drawing heavily on the past, using figures steeped in United’s rich history, and following a new path.
So many long-serving staff members have gone and, though the 70-year-old Tony Whelan remains, passing on his memories and insights from the Busby era, one of the departed staff says “the heart and soul has been ripped out of the place” — a line he applies to the club as a whole but says the academy is the perfect illustration of his point.
“It has changed so much,” he says. “The club used to be a thriving hub with people who had been raised with the Manchester United DNA within us — or if not, then learnt from long-serving staff. Today it’s a cold, heartless environment, which I believe sets the tone of the whole club and training ground. It has changed so much. Too many people coming in and wanting to stamp their own philosophies, with little respect for the culture and the history.”
Nicky Butt, a member of that famous Class of ’92, hinted at similar frustrations when, having returned to the club as a reserve-team coach before moving on to academy manager and head of first-team development, he left in March 2021, 11 days after Murtough’s appointment at football director. Butt felt he was “pretty much at the end of the road”.
It is a difficult one to evaluate. More than three decades have passed since the Class of ’92. More than one decade has passed since Ferguson retired. The ‘DNA’ talk sounded great in that early Solskjaer period, but pretty hollow as time went on. A link with the glory days does not necessarily make someone the best person for the job — any job. Very few of Manchester City’s staff, in any department, are former players.
In December 2018, Gary Neville, another Class of ’92 graduate, was scathing of the suggestion that he or one of his former team-mates should be in the frame for the director of football job at United. “Absolutely no way in a million years,” he said on Sky Sports. “This needs to be the best in class, internationally. We have to take emotion out of it. ‘Get him back!’. No, get the best people, who have run the best clubs in the world, and reset properly.”
It is not hard to say United have either appointed “the best in class” or embraced a full strategic or cultural reset.
But Manchester City have done precisely that: appointing Ferran Soriano as chief executive, Txiki Begiristain as technical director, Pep Guardiola as head coach and so many other talented, experienced operators who have spent years working towards the same vision.
Some have left Manchester City to take more senior roles at other clubs; in the past 12 months, Enzo Maresca departed to coach Leicester City, Rodolfo Borrell is sporting director of Austin FC, Joe Shields went to become chief scout at Southampton and then co-director of recruitment and talent at Chelsea, Jason Wilcox is director of football at Southampton. But the operation continues to work smoothly.
United’s staff do not seem to be coveted in quite the same way. Perhaps because the operation doesn’t run so smoothly.
In November last year, on the same night they confirmed the termination of Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract by mutual consent, the Glazers announced a “strategic review (…) with the ultimate goal of positioning the club to capitalise on opportunities both on the pitch and commercially”.
Officially, they were not putting United up for sale. Unofficially, they were.
Nine months on, very little has changed. British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder of the INEOS petrochemicals group, and Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, son of a former prime minister of Qatar, have both made offers worth in the region of £5billion. The Glazers want more and, for all the many whispers there have been of an imminent agreement with one bidder or the other, there is still no real sign of them budging.
The club was already in a state of limbo under the Glazers’ ownership. Arnold as good as admitted that when he told those protesting supporters that “for the future, for investing in a new stadium and a latest-and-greatest training ground, we’ve got to do something. We’ve got to get investors in. You either borrow or invest it. The money has got to come from somewhere”.
That sense of limbo drags on.
United insisted at the start of the summer that their transfer business would not be affected if there was no resolution to the investment/takeover saga. They still say that after a summer in which they made big investments to sign Cameroon goalkeeper Andre Onana from Inter Milan, England midfielder Mason Mount from Chelsea and Denmark forward Hojlund from Atalanta plus loan deals to sign Sofyan Amrabat and Sergio Reguilon on loan from Fiorentina and Tottenham Hotspur.
But the sight of United thrashing around on the final day of the transfer window to tie up those loan deals for Amrabat and Reguilon, was not quite “business as usual”. Nor was the signing of Wout Weghorst on loan from Burnley last January. In both instances, the club highlighted the need to be prudent to stay within the Premier League’s cost control regulations. That United of all clubs have found themselves sailing so close to the wind is, again, not a great reflection on this regime.
It goes beyond the transfer market, though. Club executives feel growth has been limited by the constraints of Old Trafford. United announced in April last year that they had appointed Legends International and Populous to create a “masterplan” to redevelop the stadium — or, potentially, to build a new arena.
Feasibility studies have been conducted, but nearly 18 months later everything is on hold until there is a resolution on the investment/takeover front.
The decline of Old Trafford can be overstated at times — it is still among the best stadiums in the Premier League — but it does show signs of neglect compared to many of the new or redeveloped facilities elsewhere. A lack of legroom is a common complaint. So too some of the dated concourses behind the shiny facade.
The club claim to have spent £100million on the stadium in the 2010s, including £20million in 2019 (most of it on improvements to accessibility, security upgrades and hospitality areas), but the last significant project was the construction of the corner quadrants in 2006, which was signed off before the Glazers took over.
Redevelopment options are complicated by the Manchester-Liverpool railway line that runs behind the South Stand. But these challenges are described as surmountable. The big hold-up is investment.
The same goes for United’s training ground at Carrington, which was widely described as state-of-the-art when United moved there in 2000 — a drastic upgrade on their previous training ground, The Cliff, and unlike anything any of their rivals had.
Now known as the Aon Training Complex, it has undergone a series of renovations, including a new medical centre and sports science hub a decade ago, relaying the pitches and the construction of various centres and pavilions. It is still one of the best around, but the club want to redevelop, renovate and extend it. Again, architects have been appointed (in this case KSS). Again, the project is on hold.
By comparison, Manchester City announced a feasibility study for a redevelopment of the Etihad Stadium last December. Plans (including the addition of 7,900 more seats in the North Stand, a new hotel, offices, a new fan zone and a new eight-storey building containing a ticket office, a megastore and a museum) were revealed in February, planning permission was obtained in July and building work is underway. It will cost an estimated £300million and is scheduled for completion in 2026.
The Etihad Stadium has become a major concert venue, hosting Coldplay four times this summer and Ed Sheeran, Liam Gallagher, The Charlatans, The Spice Girls, Jay-Z, Beyonce and Taylor Swift over recent years. The Co-Op Live arena, which is due to open next year on an adjacent site, will strengthen the feeling of the Etihad Campus as an entertainment venue.
By contrast, Old Trafford has not hosted a concert since 2018. Trafford Council confirmed the club will be required to apply for a new safety certificate before they do so again.
United are one of the few clubs in the world with the revenue streams to compete with what City are doing both on and off the pitch. Under a different regime, with renewed ambition and renewed vision, they surely would.
For the most part, we are talking about first-world problems. Crisis talk at Manchester United is always relative; over 10 seasons that have been beyond the worst fears of any supporter or staff member, they have finished outside the Premier League’s top six once. And that year, the first after Ferguson’s retirement, they finished seventh. That is also the only time they have missed out on European qualification.
That is the thing about the modern football landscape. The biggest, most powerful clubs are now so rich — and the financial divide within the game is now so great — that it is almost impossible to fail on a grand scale. It isn’t like 50 seasons ago, when United, six years after being champions of Europe, were relegated from the old First Division.
A decade of drift seemed to have hit the Glazers where it hurts: the flatlining of the club’s commercial income. But even then, even at a time when the brand has been tarnished by unedifying stories involving star players, United have managed to land those huge deals with Adidas and Qualcomm. There will be more where those came from. Even in difficult times, Manchester United is an easy sell.
Things will pick up on the pitch too. Beyond Saturday’s game against Brighton and the not-so-small matter of Bayern away in the Champions League on Wednesday, Ten Hag’s team have a gentler run of games against Burnley, Crystal Palace (Carabao Cup), Palace again, Galatasaray, Brentford, Sheffield United and Copenhagen before they take on Manchester City at Old Trafford on October 29.
But there is still so much bad news coming out. Some of the stories are trivial (the Hojlund shirts at the Megastore), some of them unwelcome (the tensions between Sancho and his manager) and some (the Greenwood and Antony situations) are unremittingly grim.
Results on the pitch will always govern the mood inside the club to a large extent, but it is telling that, even when a feelgood factor returned on matchdays under Ten Hag last season, so many United staff members shared the same sense of weariness about day-to-day life under the Glazers’ ownership.
More than ever, they find themselves longing for a resolution and, ideally, a new start, with a club that still draws inspiration from its rich, almost unrivalled history as it finally looks, with renewed purpose, to the future.
(Design: Sam Richardson; photos: Getty Images)