Andy Mitten column: Manchester United's failure to hire director of football reveals indecision gripping club

There’s a big feature in the new issue of FourFourTwo (opens in new tab) with Diego Maradona. It’s the maddest job I’ve done in journalism for a while, travelling to Sinaloa in Mexico, a state where the US imposed its highest level 4 ‘Do not travel’ warning due to the danger posed to visitors. Syria also has a level 4. Further US government advice was even less encouraging: ‘Do Not Travel to Sinaloa state. Violent crime is widespread. Criminal organisations are based and operating there.’

So we went to Sinaloa and saw the great man. Conversation moved back and forth and touched on Manchester United, who he used to support (opens in new tab).

“I know they sell lots of shirts around the world, but they need to win trophies too,” said Maradona. “I can do that for them.” El Diego isn’t the obvious choice to be a future United manager and I’m not going to argue his case here, but he’s another who’s brought up United’s undoubted commercial acumen over their lack of acumen in recruitment which has impacted on their success on the pitch.

Louis van Gaal was the latest this week in an interview with The Guardian.

“We didn’t always get the players that I want,” said the Dutchman. “That’s the problem. There is Woodward and his right hand is [head of corporate development] Matt Judge. Judge I met once in a while but not too much. And there was the head of scouting. That was the structure but you are always dependent on Woodward and Judge.”

Van Gaal has bided his time. Departing employees of United usually sign non-disclosure forms. They’re paid off to shut up because there’s so much public interest in the club.

Jose Mourinho is less direct. He was paid off more recently. Instead, he drops big hints, he alludes, he informs journalists. He doesn’t think United have the right structure either. And Sir Alex Ferguson is hardly being indiscreet in letting his views known, despite watching his decades of work unravel as United slipped from being a team who won to a team who now finished sixth of the big six.

The critics have their reasons and you can look at it another way. Both managers had chances; they were backed with big money signings which they sanctioned. The club may not have got every player they hoped for, but they spent hundreds of millions and they were not the successes that either Van Gaal or Mourinho expected. An element of their comments is because they were ultimately rejected and sacked – decisions which 90% of United fans agreed with at the time, whatever they say now.  

And United can hardly come back at their critics. They’re subjected to a thousand stories a day; mostly positive when they win and negative when they lose. They can’t counter them so they don’t – hence different players being linked with the club every day. Many will be pushed by agents who want their client to be linked with United. It does them no harm and journalists can be complicit here – they get the story, the story gets read and no harm is done to the player’s reputation.  

But the points about the club being too commercially focussed and not having the right football structure keep being repeated. And if there’s no structure or no club philosophy like at Barça or like there used to be at United, then it is going to keep on changing with each new managerial appointment. United have been set on appointing a sporting/technical director for two years, but it hasn’t happened yet. True, the loose job description has changed and true, Mourinho was against such an appointment, but he left the club in December. Fans are quite entitled to ask what on earth is going on and Van Gaal was absolutely right to talk about what a good technical director is.

“First of all you need knowledge of the game, methods of training, preparation experience, youth education, scouting and you have to think in structures,” he said. “So you need a lot of experience in the football world. When you are in your profession as a technical director, you have developed a name, then you have a big network and you can always make use of that network.”

His point was accurate and was in part reacting to former United players being linked to the job. Just because someone has been a great player doesn’t mean they’re going to be a proficient sporting director. They might be, but is now the time to take such risks at Manchester United when the main rivals are looking ominously strong?  

United return to training within a month. The manager wanted the summer business done by that point. He knows he’ll lose his job if things don’t go well just like the previous three incumbents, but Ed Woodward will also come under pressure, more criticism. Solskjaer is far more popular than Woodward, the man who has overseen the last four appointments, who remains at the helm of a club which overpays and underperforms. He might be the Glazers’ man, the man who consistently delivers sound financial results, but fans need more than that. They need to know what direction Manchester United is going before it sinks even more.  

Not appointing a sporting director smacks of indecision. If United are going to do it then do it. It’s a hugely attractive job to some of the best in that position, but that person must be given power to do the job. The current system has clearly not been working and needs to change.  

If the club are going to let Solskjaer have that power then fine, trust him to do that, but uncertainty about a director of football doesn’t help and is a microcosm for the directionless ship that United appears to be.

ORDER A COPY (opens in new tab), THEN SUBSCRIBE! (opens in new tab) 3 issues for less than £10


Quiz! Can you name every player in England’s squad for Le Tournoi in 1997?

What success – or failure – in the Nations League could mean for England

While you're here, why not take advantage of our brilliant subscribers' offer? Get the world's greatest football magazine for just £9.50 every quarter (opens in new tab) – the game's greatest stories and finest journalism direct to your door for less than a couple of pints. Cheers!


Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

Andy Mitten
Editor at Large

Andy Mitten is Editor at Large of FourFourTwo, interviewing the likes of Lionel Messi, Eric Cantona, Sir Alex Ferguson and Diego Maradona for the magazine. He also founded and is editor of United We Stand, the Manchester United fanzine, and contributes to a number of publications, including GQ, the BBC and The Athletic.