In the meantime, the club have been engaged in an exhausting pursuit of Bruno Fernandes, the Portuguese midfielder who became a United player with just hours of the January window left to spare. The negotiations followed a familiar pattern: initial interest, a lengthy impasse, and then a quick resolution following rumours of interest from other clubs.
What Fernandes is actually worth is very difficult to say, because he’s never played in a league competition which provides proper context. According to Sky Sports in the UK, United have agreed to a deal which, depending on performance, could rise towards £68m. Is that too much? Who can say? But it certainly sounds as if Sporting Lisbon have driven a hard bargain. For context, this transfer will make Fernandes one of the 20 most expensive players in the game’s history, so it could hardly be described as a steal.
And yet the reaction to Ed Woodward’s role within it has been bizarre. For all intents and purposes, it appears as if – spooked by the suggestion of a late Barcelona bid and fearful of the supporters’ response to a fallow January – Woodward just agreed to the original asking price. Sensible of him, maybe, but not the kind of decision which typically affords a CEO or chairman a round of applause from the press gallery.
But it has. He is the great hero of these negotiations. In the British media, it has been stressed more than once and by several different journalists that Woodward personally was the difference, that the transfer wouldn’t have been completed without him and that the act of reaching an agreement with Sporting is one in the eye for his critics.
That’s quite fanciful after seven years of what – at best – might be described as tremendous naivety on his part. It’s also very rare for the point of interest in any transfer to be something other than the player involved. But in this case it is, with the Fernandes deal being described, in one place at least, as a personal triumph for Woodward.
A good deal? Maybe. An important capture of a significant player? Only time will tell. But a personal triumph? That's very strong and almost without precedent. Not even Daniel Levy, who has acquired a semi-mythical reputation for breaking down intractable egos, generates that kind of reception.
So there’s spin. There’s an attempt to create a context around Woodward and orchestrate a shift in the game’s perception of him. He’s not a football dunce, insists this odd flare of coverage, but a highly dynamic operator capable of pulling all sorts of irons from all sorts of fires. The tone of the reporting has been semi-heroic. Preposterously so, even.
That in itself isn’t unusual, because clubs brief all the time. The mechanic at work is hardly a secret, either, having been revealed by a burst of hubris on a popular Sunday morning television show. A former, high-profile journalist has been appointed by the club to help restore its public image and this shift in coverage has occurred within days; it's probably not a coincidence.
But the important question is why. What is the aim beyond the obvious objective? If Manchester United want to present Woodward as being of great value to their recruiting efforts, then that indicates that they have little intention of ever devolving responsibility to a sporting director.
It speaks also to a determination to retain the status quo which, given how dramatic United’s decline has been, is very difficult to rationalise. In recent days, Ed Woodward’s house has even been attacked by emotionally incontinent fans. Morons, incapable of separating life from sport, whose behaviour has no justification. The conclusion, though, is still that Woodward's professional (and now personal) life would be far easier if he didn’t carry responsibility for something which seems beyond the range of his abilities.
From a practical perspective, given his proven commercial acumen, surely freeing him from any sporting responsibility is in the club’s interests? Fewer transfers, more partnerships. That would seem an optimal scenario and one which should be encouraged.
But it’s not the one which United are driving towards and there lies the curiosity, maybe even a touch of conspiracy. Why, instead of appointing a qualified specialist to oversee transfer activity, is it so important to Manchester United that Woodward remains in this role?
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