Over the previous eight years, Ed Woodward has become accustomed to those difficult conversations that end with Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman telling the manager he has lost his job.
Woodward has already had to tell David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho that their time is up. In the next couple of months, Woodward will leave his role, but he might yet have to slay a fourth manager in his time at Old Trafford.
The 50-year-old hasn’t always handled those conversations as he might have wanted. In his book, Patrice Evra said Moyes was angry he found out he was being sacked from the media, while it was a similar story when Van Gaal was relieved of his job after winning the FA Cup for United in 2016.
In the next couple of months, Woodward might have to break similar news to Solskjaer. The Norwegian looks to be a lame duck at United right now and it’s probably more a matter of when rather than if he’s sacked.
This conversation might be the toughest yet for Woodward, who along with the Glazers has staked so much on Solskjaer being the right man for the job. From rushing his permanent appointment in March 2019 to sticking with him through several difficult spells, when first Mauricio Pochettino and then Antonio Conte, two managers with much more convincing CVs, have been ready and available to step in.
To sack Solskjaer now would be an admittance that the faith was misplaced, even if the former United striker has done some good work at the club, restoring a positive culture and building an excellent squad. But to everyone outside of United what has to come next is obvious. The start of the season has confirmed that the 48-year-old has taken this squad as far as he can.
It would be understandable if Woodward was hoping to avoid this decision, hoping that Solskjaer can limp through until United have a more obvious replacement lined up and the executive vice-chairman has left the club, handing the reins over to Richard Arnold. Woodward’s departure was announced in May and he is set to leave before the end of the year, but no departure date or successor has been confirmed publicly, despite Arnold being the obvious replacement.
For now, the task of sacking a manager would be expected to fall to Woodward, although it would make sense for others to be involved in recruiting a replacement. The final decision on Solskjaer’s future won’t be made by the departing Woodward, but he will have a say in conversations with co-chairman Joel Glazer over what should happen next and as the man on the ground, he will deliver the bad news, just as he’s done three times previously.
To the Glazers, Woodward’s eight-and-a-half-year reign at the club might well be judged a success, given the drive in revenues that has occurred since 2013. But he’s overseen a prolonged spell without significant success and if he has to deliver the bad news to Solskjaer before the end of the year he will leave with the club no closer to finding the final piece of the jigsaw.
To suggest David Moyes is now the right man for United is obviously wrong, but it would sum up the mess Woodward has overseen on the pitch if he was to leave the club having sacked a fourth manager, while the first of the fallen four is the flavour of the month and is turning West Ham into genuine top-four challengers.
Much was made of the poisoned chalice Moyes was given when he was hand-picked by Sir Alex Ferguson to replace him and it’s true he was probably always destined to struggle. Woodward had an equally hard time replacing David Gill and when it comes to football matters he’s fared little better than his first manager. In nearly nine years he’s failed to find the right figurehead and there have been too many transfer market missteps.
But as he discusses the next move with the Glazers, Woodward has to make sure he gets his final decision right. Both parties have invested so much in Solskjaer but it’s now become clear it’s not working. Matchgoers will never turn against Solskjaer, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to try and limp on when the situation is becoming untenable.
One final sacking in his last few weeks as United’s executive vice-chairman would probably be a fitting way to end Woodward’s time at United. From Moyes to Van Gaal, to Mourinho to Solskjaer, there has been little sense of continuity in managerial appointments and no obvious hint of a long-term plan.
After the disastrous flirtation with the Super League in the spring, Woodward might have been hoping for a quiet exit out of Old Trafford. He’s only attended a couple of home games this season.
But his in-tray might yet be filled with one more significant call to make and any confusion over his own handover shouldn’t cloud judgements on a decision over the role of United’s manager.