Manchester United the football club belong to another time. For all their smart facilities, record-breaking contracts and stable of internationals they are, at heart, almost a Sunday league team: one guy did it all. Picture: Phil Noble

We were sitting in a meeting room near Edward Woodward’s office at Old Trafford when his mobile phone rang. It was the night of the Capital One Cup semi-final against Sunderland; the match that was lost on penalties, another unforeseen calamity in a season full of them.Juan Mata’s transfer was going through, but had not been completed.

The last round of negotiations were at a delicate stage. Woodward was a busy man, but this coffee had been some time in the making and he honoured the commitment.

Since taking over as Manchester United chief executive, Woodward had taken several such meetings with journalists, at his request. He seems a decent chap and keen to get his point across. Manchester United are not going to fall into the sea on his watch is the message.

‘I’m sorry, I’ve really got to take this,’ he said, as his BlackBerry lit up — and promptly pressed speaker phone by mistake.The caller’s voice could be heard, perhaps about to reveal some trade secrets. An expression of panic spread across Woodward’s face. ‘Hold on, hold on, don’t speak, don’t speak,’ he gabbled and ran from the room, desperately punching the keyboard to kill the noise. As an assurance of business as usual at Old Trafford, exiting in the manner of a man whose trousers were on fire was not the most auspicious start.

Look, these things happen. They probably happened to David Gill, too. No businessman, however successful, is an unfailing model of efficiency. There will be mornings when Bill Gates can’t find his keys or drips coffee down his nice, clean shirt, be sure of that. Everybody knew the Mata deal was as good as done by then anyway. This little vignette served simply to act as a reminder that it is not just the manager at Manchester United who is finding his way.

Yet Woodward is no fool. If he left the club tomorrow, rivals wishing to utilise his business acumen would stretch down the street. He is chief executive because, as commercial director, he proved to be quite brilliant. And that, in a way, is the root of United’s problem.

Threatened by the prospect of a season out of Europe, Woodward knows instantly what to do. Faced with large gaps in the midweek calendar and a financial hole, United will exploit their brand with exhibition matches abroad.

Clubs in the Middle East, Asia and America will be clamouring to play them. It is, commercially, a brilliant idea and will no doubt be adopted by other members of the elite in bleak seasons.

Liverpool could have done it this year, for instance. Yet has the fact they did not, that they stayed fresh, untroubled by midweek commitments,contributed to their revival?

Would United’s football benefit from several 6,000-mile round trips, however lucrative? Would this not make the road back harder?

Woodward knows United the commercial enterprise, but what about the needs of a football club? The two sides have operated as separate entities at United for too long. And it has caught up with them this season.The terrace song is incorrect. There is not only one United. There are two. There is the brand, which is the envy of the European elite — innovative, astute, impressively exploited and monetised until its pips squeak — and there is the football club, which is 20 years behind the times. This is nobody’s fault; not even that of Woodward or David Moyes.

What were Manchester United supposed to do when the greatest manager in the modern game was delivering trophy after trophy, across the best part of three decades, using an antiquated model of dictatorial control? Tell him to stop? Ask him to change? Order him to adopt a more collegiate approach so that his departure did not leave football’s equivalent of a sinkhole in the middle of its operation?

Manchester United, the business, are modern, modern, modern. They have a growing network of partners across every field of commerce, and in every country.Beeline Vietnam, Bharti Airtel Limited, Du, Globacom, Hutchinson 3, PCCW and STC can all claim to be telecommunications partners of United, depending where you are in the world. Bay, Danamon, Maybank and Shinhan all offer United-endorsed financial services. This way of doing business will one day be the model for all.

United the football club, meanwhile, belong to another time. For all their smart facilities, record-breaking contracts and stable of internationals they are, at heart, almost a Sunday league team: one guy did it all.

Over at the park at weekends it might be a determined old boy who gets the game on. He clears the pitch of dog mess, makes sure the fixtures correspond, paints the white lines, hangs the nets, checks player availability, even gets the odd one out of bed. He organises the raffle on fund-raising nights and gathers in all the subs.

At Manchester United, in a more professional manner, that old boy was Sir Alex Ferguson. He picked the team, he bought the players, he knew the whole family by name — academy kids, too. He courted the parents, and would drive to take tea with them at their little house in Edinburgh, as he did with Mr and Mrs Fletcher, Darren’s parents.

United were Ferguson FC really, right down to the fact that his brotherMartin did a lot of the scouting. So while one part of Manchester United moved forwards at an incredible speed, developing areas of the commercial market thatothers had never considered possible, the football infrastructure was from a bygone age — an age when one man took responsibility and carried it through sheer will alone.

The final stepping stone to this season’s disaster was that this man happened to be a football genius, capable of inspiration on such a scale that nobody would truly understand his greatness until he was gone.United were a poor side by the end. Who knew?

Nobody, because Ferguson never let it show. He dragged that team over the line, time and again. He was the difference between seventh and winning the league by 11 points.

And the club were so busy making money that they really thought another manager could do it, too; just like him.Want to know how in thrallManchester United were to Ferguson? Who picked Moyes? He was not so much appointed, as anointed.

The departing manager chose his replacement, even recommending the terms on which he was employed.United gave Moyes a six-year deal to ensure stability, because that is what Ferguson valued. In its way, it has served its purpose because, had Moyes been awarded a shorter deal, speculation over his future would have overshadowed United’s season almost from the start.

It is only this commitment that has kept United stable — but nobody envisaged how poor Moyes’s first year would be. It meant the prospect of sacking him at vast expense was not discussed. United, instead, thought about the future in quite old-fashioned, almost sentimental, terms — that if they simply stayed loyal and supportive, it would all work out for the best.

Yet they never leave business to chance like that.

This is the club who had a 40-year relationship with Umbro, then deserted them with two years of a contract to run, agreeing to sign with their main rivals, Nike. That was in 2000. In 2007, Nike bought Umbro.

As of 2012 Umbro existed only as a subsidiary of the Iconix Brand Group. They currently have one English football team under contract: Stockport County. Of course, United have scouting networks and contacts like any other elite club. Ferguson wasn’t operating from a potting shed at the bottom of his garden.

Since his arrival, however, Moyes has felt the need to install a high-tech scouting facility, and new recruitment staff. Computers and high-definition screens now display data on the perfect replacement for Nemanja Vidic from sources around the globe.

Whether these same gadgets can come up with a reason to sign for a team currently 11 points off a Champions League place is another matter.

A director of football is not the answer. The role is over-rated and often divisive. Ferguson worked without one and was right in thinking Moyes should, too. One look at the struggles of Tottenham Hotspur and, previously, Liverpool show that the club’s vision should be that of the manager, not some executive buffer.

Yet, clearly, when Manchester City have engaged senior executives from Barcelona, and Chelsea can rely on Roman Abramovich and his network of pirouetting agents, Woodward and Moyes are innocents abroad.

The first transfer window, we can now see, was a disaster, United’s hierarchy failing to identify and patch the shortcomings in the squad, and Moyes indecisive to the last.The next had a marquee signing in Mata but, as the defeat against Olympiacos proved, there are more pressing problems at the back and in the defensive heart of midfield.

Whatever logistical issues United are encountering, Moyes cannot wriggle off the hook. Some of the numbers from Athens were simply shameful. Robin van Persie passed to Wayne Rooney once all match — from the kick-off after the first goal. Ashley Young gave the ball away 24 times.

The players are letting him down, but Moyes is responsible for these teams.

Yet United’s problems run deeper than what is seen on the field. A 10-year-old Ford Transit limps along in the slipstream of a juggernaut commercial section. Woodward will know exactly what to do if United are not in Europe next season. Yet unless he also knows how to return them to the summit, top of the bill in Saudi Arabia will swiftly turn into panto in Salford.Right now, United’s football is playing catch-up; and that is no way for a club to be run. – Daily Mail