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Fergie’s influence is fading

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Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward is ready to take a significant step away from the Alex Ferguson era. Picture: Phil Noble

Manchester United’s most senior British executive may look a dead ringer for Ian Hislop but Ed Woodward has got news for you – he is a serious player at Old Trafford and the right man to turn United around. And as is rapidly becoming evident, Woodward is also ready to take a significant step away from the Alex Ferguson era.

The sacking of David Moyes (hand-picked by Ferguson), the overlooking of Ryan Giggs as a replacement (endorsed by Ferguson) , and the likely hiring of Louis Van Gaal (whose personality and singular approach are match for Ferguson’s) are all evidence that Sir Alex, so recently all-powerful, is now finished as a major Old Trafford power broker.

Ferguson’s wider lauding in recent days of his Class of 92 also brings into question their future in a Van Gaal regime. The Dutchman has plans to bring his own staff so Giggs and his cohorts, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville, will have to decide whether to remain inside the United fold or concentrate on other ventures, such as Salford City, the Northern League team they bought jointly last month.

Van Gaal’s description of himself when he became Bayern Munich manager in 2009 says much about his approach. “I am who I am,” he said. “Confident, arrogant, dominant, honest, hard-working and innovative.”

And Woodward is who he is, according to those who know him well. “He has an ambitious banker’s relentless work ethic. He’s always ‘on’,” said one.

Another says the pressures of Woodward’s inaugural season in charge, which included two underwhelming transfer windows and the flop of the Moyes era in his first year as David Gill’s successor, will only inspire him.

“Ed is calm under pressure, always,” said an insider. “He was and is hugely up for it [running the club]. He doesn’t get paralysed by problems, he thrives on solving them.”

Moyes had become a problem. Ferguson distanced himself from the sacking last week, telling a charity function that he was in Aberdeen when the decision was made. Woodward ultimately gave Moyes the news, face to face, and in doing so proved who has the real power now.

Woodward would not want Ferguson’s marginalisation to be characterised as such. Ferguson remains a director, with a voice and input. And easy-going Woodward, the executive vice-chairman but effectively CEO since Gill’s departure from that role last year, is, according to insiders, a ‘team player’ and ‘a people person’.

As one said: “He’s a good guy, he creates a positive environment to work in. He doesn’t run his ship putting people’s noses out of joint.”

But as another colleague of Woodward added: “If you think Ed is just some financial whizz who lacks hard football nous and won’t make the big decisions, think again. He’s been an integral part of the club for more than eight years. He knows what makes the club tick because he’s been a big part in its success.

“He’ll make the best decisions now for United, not for any single individual. There was no panic and no wavering over sacking Moyes. They just got rid of him at the right moment.”

While Van Gaal is odds-on to be the next manager and Dutch sources are convinced the deal is done, Woodward is understood to be checking out all options before finally sealing any deal.

Now 42, he grew up in Essex and went to Brentwood School, alma mater to, among others, author Douglas Adams, broadcaster Sir Robin Day, glamour model Jodie Marsh, former home secretary Jack Straw and several footballers including Frank Lampard.

The young Woodward then studied physics at Bristol University before moving into accountancy, which took him to a high-flying role at bankers JP Morgan, advisors to the Glazer family when they bought United in 2005. Woodward rapidly established a close working relationship with Joel Glazer, the most hands-on member of the American owners, and Glazer appointed Woodward as his ‘chief of staff’ at United in late 2005.

His sporting background is varied. His father, David, was a football and rugby fan, giving Ed a middle name of Gareth after Welsh rugby legend, Gareth Edwards. Woodward senior was from Derby, who he supported at football, although he also had a soft spot for United and was at the 1968 European Cup win at Wembley against Benfica, suffering broken ribs in the celebrations as Bobby Charlton scored his second goal in the 4-1 win.

Woodward junior’s sporting career was cut short at the age of 11 by arthritis, although he remained a passionate follower of sport. His footballing affiliations are unconfirmed but his track record shows that whoever he supports on the pitch, he has been supporting United off it for years. The Glazers’ takeover infamously ladened United with more than half a billion pounds of debt, including £270m of high interest ‘pay-in-kind’ debt, described at the time as a ‘ticking time-bomb’.

One of Woodward’s great early achievements was to get this refinanced, eradicating the chance the club might go bust because of it.

He then focussed his attention on a massive overhaul of United’s commercial operations, laying the groundwork for lucrative commercial deals around the world, including the upcoming seven-year $559m (£333m) shirt sponsorship deal with Chevrolet.

Initially he worked from offices in Belgrave Square Gardens, behind Buckingham Palace, then in swanky offices in Pall Mall, where he would have video conferences with the Glazers in Florida up to five times a day.

But the business rapidly outgrew Pall Mall. United’s London operation, their global commercial hub, is now run from extensive premises on Stretton Street in Mayfair, next to Langan’s brasserie and around the corner from Green Park tube station. Woodward splits his time between London, where he lives in a £5million house with his German wife, Isabelle, and their home in Cheshire, necessary now Woodward also spends part of each week at Old Trafford. One insider notes a ‘change of tone’ at executive level since Woodward succeeded Gill. “There’s a willingness to engage now, especially with fans directly, that perhaps there hadn’t been for a while,” said the source.

Woodward has met fans groups, been supportive of a safe standing campaign, vowed never to sell naming rights at Old Trafford and promised to keep ticket prices down. “He knows that’s also good business sense as well as good PR,” said a source. “A full Old Trafford is a better Old Trafford.”

Supporters care most of all about results, of course, and they tend to depend on players. Nobody at United is pretending transfer business in the past year has been satisfactory. But the notion Woodward has no clout is rejected. “He’s the top man at Manchester United, for goodness sake,” insisted one colleague. “There’s not a club in the world who wouldn’t take his call.”

Woodward tried to sign Gareth Bale last summer, and would have paid £100m but the Welsh winger was set on Real Madrid. Woodward also put together an innovative package to try to lure Luke Shaw from Southampton for £24m while allowing Saints to keep the left-back this season.

But Saints then-chairman, Nicola Cortese, turned him down. “It wasn’t through a lack of seniority or trying that the deals didn’t get over the line,” said one executive. “But that doesn’t mean Ed’s not learning. He is, and players will be in this summer, definitely.”

Van Gaal, who will be free to start a new job when his role as Holland’s national manager ends after the World Cup, is open to keeping Giggs on staff, with Scholes in line for a first-team coaching role, while Butt and Phil Neville work with younger players. Gary Neville will not return to the club, given his responsibilities with Sky Sports and England.

Patrick Kluivert, one of the great Holland strikers, is expected to assist Van Gaal. The Dutchman’s favoured managerial approach is to have two assistants, one of them ingrained in the club, hence a place for Giggs. Sir Alex Ferguson’s position and influence must be in greater doubt. One veteran insider sees a divergence of opinion on the future between the old school – Sir Alex and his former players – and the emerging power of Woodward, backed by Joel and Avram Glazer. Ferguson seems to believe his protege’s are ready; the real power at the club disagrees.

Now Giggs may have to consider whether he wants to take a position under Van Gaal. The danger for the Welshman and his former team-mates is that they end up as window dressing for a Dutch takeover. With the number of incoming staff, it might become a bit crowded on the bench.

That said, United are aware that the ‘Class of 92’ hold a special resonance with fans and that gives them a power base of sorts. The question for Woodward and the Glazers is: How do they integrate them best?

It is the latest in a line of tasks for executive vice-chair Woodward to tackle. Nobody at Old Trafford doubts he will handle the challenge head-on. - Mail on Sunday


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