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TMCNet:  Woodward must hit the target himself: As the club enters a new era the vice-chairman has plenty to prove, writes Owen Gibson: ROUTE TO THE TOP

[April 26, 2014]

Woodward must hit the target himself: As the club enters a new era the vice-chairman has plenty to prove, writes Owen Gibson: ROUTE TO THE TOP

(Observer (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) While it was the epochal shift in the dugout that caught most attention at Old Trafford last summer, similarly significant change blew through the boardroom. As David Moyes walked in, Ed Woodward, the Essex-born investment banker who masterminded the feat of financial engineering that enabled the Glazers to buy Manchester United and load it with debt in the first place, officially replaced the long-standing chief executive, David Gill.


Then, Woodward hailed Moyes and said he would "soon become an integral part of United's unique culture and heritage". Ten months later it was the 42-year-old vice-chairman who led the discussions that ended in an early morning showdown with a furious Moyes at the Aon Training Complex (more commonly known as Carrington) on Tuesday.

Woodward's supporters point to his bold move to axe Moyes, to his nous in tying Adnan Januzaj to a new contract and to the cloak-and-dagger January pursuit of Juan Mata as evidence he is learning fast. His detractors claim he mishandled the Moyes sacking, ended up rewarding Rooney with an overly generous contract and overpaid for Mata. Both have a point.

All acknowledge he made mistakes during that first, disastrous summer. A combination of bad luck and bad judgment was exacerbated by the fact Moyes did not start until 1 July, then dithered over his targets. There are those who believe Woodward, who had spent eight years in United's London office, also risked upsetting the equilibrium of a well-oiled machine.

Having previously left Gill and Ferguson largely alone to run the football side of the business while he concentrated on growing commercial and media revenues in London, Woodward had to make a strong start in his new role. But for his critics, there was a jarring contrast between the command and control approach of Gill and Ferguson - circle the wagons, trust no one and do your business behind closed doors - and the Woodward era. Where Gill was an imposing presence, Woodward is said to be determined to be more consensual. But this has sometimes come across as naivety.

One football figure who knows Woodward well said he had "an enormous appetite for hard work aligned to a very sharp mind" and said he combined people skills with commercial acumen.

Among Woodward's priorities were to reopen lines of communication with the fans and to build bridges with the media. Despite, or perhaps because of, the antipathy towards the Glazers he has worked harder on both than his predecessor.

Gill, who once referred to critical fans' groups as the "anti-people" and could be as dismissive of the media, preferred to keep his cards close to his chest. In contrast, Woodward can be seen speaking with groups of fans on European away trips and is investigating the possibility of the return of safe standing and the introduction of a singing section. Yet all that will count for little unless things improve on the pitch.

United went into the new season with not only a new manager but a new chief executive by accident rather than design.

Ferguson was shocked when Gill, who remains an FA director and was elected to Uefa's executive committee in May, told him he planned to step aside and fretted that it might leave United "in the lurch" given his own plans to also retire.

Woodward doubtless wished he could have kept Ferguson for one more year, while Moyes wished for the same from Gill. While Moyes was soon privately bemoaning the threadbare nature of the squad, Woodward was humiliated as he dashed back from a pre-season tour in Australia to tie up deals that never happened. Woodward's position is secure, at least for now. He is remains close to the Glazers, speaking to Joel and Avram on average two or three times a day. They owe him - appropriately - a big debt. Woodward piloted United through the contentious 2010 bond issue that took the Glazers through the most precarious point of a leveraged ownership model under which the club's debt once soared to pounds 716m. It often fell to Woodward to defend the model publicly, insisting transfer funds were available and that the tide of cash from an ever expanding roster of sponsors would comfortably service the debt and leave money to spare. Furious fans point to the pounds 650m that has flowed out in interest and fees, and United's relative financial weakness compared to European rivals, as evidence to the contrary.

There is no doubting Woodward's commercial acumen. Using skills acquired in his first job with the accountancy giant PricewaterhouseCoopers and his second, buying and selling companies for JP Morgan, he minted a commercial model from the calm opulence of United's Mayfair office that soon became the envy of the football world.

The Glazers believe that by tying international sponsors to long-term deals, smoothed by former players who act as "brand ambassadors" and segmented according to category and geography, they can weather peaks and troughs in the team's performance.

A crucial kit deal, worth up to $1bn (pounds 600m), remains in the offing - although sources close to the process have latterly betrayed frustration with United's hardline negotiating stance. Yet even if the spreadsheets show United remain a good long-term bet, those deals are about emotional appeal as much as logic.

More than one season out of the Champions League would inevitably start to affect their value, not to mention United's ability to attract players. All the bridge-building exercises in the world will not help Woodward if he fails in his most pressing task: to find the right replacement for Moyes and deliver the players the new incumbent requires.

With Manchester United as his calling card, some may argue his relative lack of experience in the shark-infested European transfer market is overplayed. The 3D chess involved in big-money football transfers is not so different from the bluff of mergers and acquisitions at JP Morgan and too much can sometimes be made of the mystical notion of the "football man". But as he splits his time between homes in Manchester and London, Woodward has plenty to ponder.

Like other bankers who have succeeded elsewhere he has an ability to quickly calibrate risk and opportunity. But he has yet to stamp his authority on the club. Some senior football figures believe his lack of relationships within the game could yet prove fatal in a world in which "know your enemy" is a mantra. For all that modern football is a globalised business, it also remains something of a gentleman's club. Woodward's father gave him the middle name Gareth - as in Edwards, the Welsh rugby great. He will have to show some of his namesake's flair for getting out of tight spots if he is to recover from a baptism of fire.

Ed Woodward, 42, an accountant who worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers and JP Morgan, joined United in 2005 after advising the Glazers on their controversial takeover. He oversaw a string of sponsorship deals, then replaced chief executive David Gill last year.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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