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Lessons learned as Woodward finally delivers

Ed Woodward must be strolling around Carrington in a leather jacket, strutting like The Fonz. After twelve months of justified criticism regarding his handling of incoming transfers at Manchester United and concerns about his suitability for his position as Vice President of the club, the marketing man has finally earned his spurs in the field of player acquisitions. The beginning of the summer off-season was a continuation of a trend of worrying behaviour, with regular press briefings and bragging about stellar signings, but after the confusion that surrounded a potential move for Bayern Munich’s Toni Kroos, Woodward appears to have taken a vow of silence. Whether this was at the behest of Louis Van Gaal or his own decision it was a welcome development, a return to the old school Old Trafford omertà. Weeks later he and United are reaping the rewards, as first Ander Herrera and then Luke Shaw were acquired for approximately £60m in a frantic 48-hour period. The latter signing had been long rumoured, but the former was a bolt from the blue, a fiendishly complicated deal, the preparation for which was completed almost exclusively behind closed doors. Both players go a long way to addressing the existing holes in the club’s squad and restore credibility to a man whose career at United must have been under serious threat.

The contrast could not be more stark. With two days to go at the end of the 2013 summer transfer window, David Moyes and Ed Woodward machine-gunned emails around Europe, making offers for numerous players. One of those was Ander Herrera. Depending on who you believe, either a single lowball offer for the player was rejected or lawyers and agents spent a farcical last day of August attempting to extricate the player from his contract at Athletic Bilbao. United had totally underestimated the ferocity with which the Basques would fight to retain their young midfielder and the complexities involved with invoking the release clauses which are compulsory in Spanish players’ contracts. After a summer in which manager David Moyes had dithered over targets and allowed Thiago Alcantara to move to Bayern Munich, the move for Herrera appeared to be an afterthought. Journalist Graham Hunter claims that the Scot contacted him only a few days before the deadline to ask about the player’s qualities and temperament. The move was played out in the press and the eventual failure to complete the deal heaped further embarrassment on the coach and Woodward. Herrera, so set on the move, was left devastated and was banished from the Bilbao first team for a period as a punishment for stating his desire to leave. He also had bridges to rebuild with the club’s support.

Ten months later, everything was so different. Fans and the press alike were surprised by stories which emerged in the Spanish press stating that Herrera was set to join United. Much of the early ground work was done entirely in secret, the silence finally broken by a leak from within the Basque club. It appears that by then the deal was virtually done. Woodward, rather than approaching cautiously and holding some chips back, had gone all in, providing the money for the player to buy out his contract and working hard with lawyers behind the scenes to deal with the complex tax issues and sell-on fees involved in such a course of action. Within 24 hours of the deal becoming public, Herrera was at Carrington, a medical having been completed in Spain, and the next day his signing was officially announced. It was a textbook move and at last United had the complete midfielder that the fans had craved for years.

The Shaw deal had been a much longer game, the groundwork having been done prior to the World Cup. As soon as England exited the tournament and the player returned home matters were swiftly concluded. The enormous fee and reported £100,000 per week wages again demonstrated a willingness to pay what it took to make the transfer happen.

Whilst departed manager David Moyes, currently in Turkey for talks regarding the vacant job at Galatasaray, must be distinctly unimpressed by the efficiency with which his old club have gone about their business, for Woodward the last few days will have resulted in deep personal satisfaction and will vastly improve a battered reputation. The question at the start of the summer was always going to be whether or not he had learned his lessons from the debacle of 2013 and it appears that that is very much the case. Of course, having such an experienced and revered manager in place in Louis Van Gaal can only make the club more attractive to potential targets, but it was Woodward who secured the Dutchman’s services, something for which he must also take credit. The Herrera signing in particular is extremely impressive. Bayern Munich can attest to the complexity of buying out an Athletic Bilbao player’s contract, the signing of Javi Martinez dragging on for weeks and resulting in threats of lawsuits and a decree by FIFA some twelve months later that the German club must pay an additional fee to the player’s former club, Osasuna. When the Bavarians purchased Thiago from Barcelona last summer the Catalans were willing to negotiate a fee to suit both parties, avoiding potential tax implications and training fees becoming issues. Bilbao, in contrast, do not negotiate with anyone for any player. This was a transfer that had to be completed the hard way, a task which United and Woodward managed almost entirely in secret and with the minimum of fuss.

There is widespread euphoria at the signings, their talent and the competence with which they were secured, but some Reds and supporters of other clubs have questioned the fees paid for two players largely untested at the highest level. Such thinking is absurd, particularly from United fans long since accustomed to Glazernomics, a lack of ‘value in the market’ and prudent but unambiguous signings (RVP apart). Many have forgotten the days when the club happily overpaid for targets that would otherwise be unobtainable. Sir Alex used to refer to the amount over the market rate which he often had to pay for players as the ‘United tax’. The club had a lot of money. Other clubs knew it. This was accepted and, where necessary, extra was stumped up to bring the desired footballers in. After all, which is better, footballers on the pitch or money in the bank? Having seen hundreds of millions of pounds drain from the club in recent years to service and refinance the debt and to meet legal costs, it is about time that the Glazers invested some of the money United generates from the fans into the product on the pitch for which they pay. With the new TV deal and ever increasing commercial revenue, the club can most certainly afford to invest vast sums in player acquisitions and we should be grateful that it is at last being used in the right ways. In Louis Van Gaal, United also now have a coach whose judgement should be trusted. His record demands that his decisions be backed.

What’s more, United’s last accounts show that there is much more where that came from. And there needs to be. Even with Shaw and Herrera on board the squad is three or four players short of a genuine shot at the title, which Woodward told investors would be the aim this coming season. At least one, maybe two centre backs, another midfielder and a winger are required for that to happen. Woodward can quite reasonably bask briefly in his success, but there is much more work to be done. By completing these two deals he has proven that he has learned some important lessons and is now up to the task at hand. For the first time since he succeeded David Gill as negotiator-in-chief the fans can have some genuine confidence that the finance and expertise is in place to get the club back to the very top. Louis Van Gaal is a world-class coach and with the right players at his disposal there is no reason to believe that that is not an achievable goal. Optimism is rampant. Let’s hope that the summer continues in such a positive fashion. If so, the 2014/15 season should truly be one to look forward to for Manchester United fans.

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