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Ed Woodward – Commercial Guru & Football Idiot

There have been some controversial people within professional football over the years no more than the infamous Manchester United executive vice chairman Edward Gareth Woodward.

Ed Woodward was born in Chelmsford, Essex in 1971 and attended Brentwood School in Essex from 1983 to 1989. There is very little known about Woodward’s privately educated upbringing prior to his enrolment at Brentwood School. It’s been widely reported that his father was an avid Derby County fan whilst Ed supported non-league Chelmsford City as a kid. He then studied Physics at the University of Bristol graduating in 1993. He worked a graduate job with PricewaterhouseCoopers upon his graduation before qualifying as a chartered accountant in 1996.

Woodward began his professional career working for PricewaterhouseCoopers in the accounting and tax department in 1993, before joining J.P. Morgan & Co. as an investment banker in the mergers and acquisitions department in 1999. Woodward immediately impressed many within J.P. Morgan & Co. with his business acumen, worth ethic and natural ability to effectively negotiate with clients. Woodward’s big break came in 2005 when as part of the mergers and acquisitions team he was appointed by J.P. Morgan to broker the deal in which Malcolm Glazer (President & CEO of real estate group First Allied Corporation) and his family bought Manchester United football club. The Glazer family notoriously bought United under a cloud of disarray only using £170m of their own money into the takeover, financing the rest with subsidised loans and roughly £265m secured against the club.

Robert O’Connor from the Bleacher Report stated: “the corporate minutiae that forced through the 2005 takeover were complex and delicate, and it demanded a dexterous financial wit to get the deal over the line. Woodward, assigned by Investment Bank J.P. Morgan to provide the accounting agility, won the minds and the hearts of the Glazers with his work to resuscitate a failing deal at the 11th hour. It is thought privately without Ed Woodward’s guidance the Glazers take-over of Manchester United would have collapsed”. The Glazers takeover deal was last minute and desperate in terms of interest levels and the loans necessary to pull it off – one condition was that the new owners’ shares in the club could have been repossessed had they failed to keep up repayments. Woodward’s work in structuring the deal to pull the Glazers out of a financial hole was the foundation of the high appreciation in which his employers view him in. Malcolm Glazer and his son Joel were extremely impressed with the ambitious Woodward and offered him the chance to join the club in a “financial planning role” in 2005 once the take-over was complete. In 2007, Woodward was promoted by Malcolm Glazer given control of the commercial and media operations of the club. It was in this role that Woodward really started to make an impression within the footballing world. He is credited for United’s stratospheric commercial growth world-wide across all platforms coinciding with tying up lucrative sponsorship deals with companies all over the world. When he took over the role in 2007 the club’s commercial revenue was £57.8m whilst last year’s commercial revenue was an eye watering £349.6m.

The next big step in Woodward’s impressive career was in 2012 when the Glazers appointed him to the board of directors and named him executive vice-chairman of Manchester United. Woodward’s rise to the top was carefully managed by the Glazers in the years leading up to David Gill’s retirement. The last year of David Gill’s role as chief executive Woodward was walking closely on a daily basis effectively preparing to take over the role upon Gill’s departure. Gill ran the football club and transfer business while Woodward was running Manchester United’s commercial and business dealings, once Gill stepped down in 2013 Woodward took control of all roles. It has been reported in David Gill’s last six months at the the club his communication with the Glazers became less frequent sometimes only touching base once a week whilst Woodward was in daily contact with the Glazers throughout this period. Woodward was promoted to the top operational role at Old Trafford in a restructuring of the club’s boardroom. He then promoted his life-long friend from his Bristol University days Richard Arnold from his previous role as a commercial director to overseeing all the club’s commercial and operational dealings. Another important appointment in the background was the arrival of Matt Judge, another of Woodward’s closest allies from his Bristol University days. He joined the club in 2012 forming an important close working relationship alongside close friends Woodward and Arnold. The change at the top also prompted a new aggressive direction in the Manchester United “brand”, leading to significant impedance on strategic marketing targeting the millions of Manchester United fans worldwide.

To elaborate, Ed Woodward turned Manchester United into a global commercial brand he has worked closely with Richard Arnold and a number of important confidants who advise on commercial opportunities to increase Manchester United’s popularity. Robert O’Connor described the commercial work Woodward done at United as “selling the diamonds”.

The commercial operations at the world’s biggest clubs, including Barcelona and Real Madrid now look at Woodward’s business model at United as the setting standard commercially in world football. Ed Woodward capitalised on United’s world-wide popularity increasing the sponsorship count from 10 organisations when he took over as executive vice chairman in 2013, to 80 in 2020. For years, United’s huge popularity in places like India was a wasted opportunity that was being capitalised on. Fan numbers that ran into the millions were not converted into revenue because the brand as it was being used was too easy to counterfeit. Woodward continued Manchester United’s stratospheric global growth in 2015 when he negotiated a world record 10 season contract with Sportswear giant Adidas worth £750m. Adidas will provide training and playing kit to all the club’s teams and will have the exclusive right to distribute dual-branded merchandising products worldwide. The £75m per season Adidas will pay Manchester United is only £40m less than the Glazers paid to buy the club in 2005, you can see why they love Ed Woodward. Ed Woodward was also extensively involved in brokering a deal with Chevrolet as a shirt sponsor. He negotiated a £450m deal worth a record £64m per season when it was signed in 2012 – to sponsor United’s shirts from the 2014/15 until 2020/21 season.
It is quite evident that Ed Woodward is a commercial genius who has transformed Manchester United into a global commercial juggernaut worldwide and has been responsible for bringing United to a more global audience in part thanks to huge success across many lucrative sponsorship deals. However, an investment banker running the world’s biggest football club with no experience working within the game was going to cause significant problems.

Ed Woodward has faced severe criticism from fans, ex–players and respected pundits in the game over his running of the club in the past seven years particularly the recruitment of players and managerial appointments. Sir Alex Ferguson appointed his successor after his glittering 27 year stint ended in 2013 with David Moyes taking over at the Premier League champions. Woodward’s first transfer window in 2013 should have been a sign of things to come in which Manchester United only completed the signing of Marouane Fellaini from Everton on deadline day for £27.5m and failed to acquire David Moyes main transfer targets. Woodward ended up paying £27.5m for Fellaini at the end of the transfer window on an embarrassing deadline day even though the big Belgian had a release clause in his contract to leave for £23m if the deal could be concluded before the end of July. David Moyes supposedly told Woodward this however it was not acted upon due to failed negotiating nous. United had an aging squad with the likes of Rio Ferdinand, Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic approaching the last year of their contracts and restructuring of the squad was vital in Moyes’ first transfer window. However, Woodward failed to provide David Moyes with the right infrastructure to build a squad to challenge. David Moyes was ruthlessly sacked by Woodward in April 2014 after only 10 months in charge.

Since Ed Woodward replaced David Gill as Manchester United’s executive vice chairman in May 2013 he has overseen 37 major signings across 15 transfer windows. The first was fan favourite Marouane Fellaini for £27.5m, the most recent Facundo Pellistri, which was announced 41 minutes after transfer deadline day. Completing deals as the market nears closing is a reoccurring theme with Woodward, as is a scattergun transfer strategy that seems to change from year to year depending on the important Champions League qualification. There have been numerous briefings to the press particularly since Ed Woodward hired respected journalist Neil Ashton this year to improve his public imagine about the imminent appointment of a director of football. However, the director of football does not seem to be a priority for Woodward and his group of “football experts” who are in control of the farcical transfer recruitment for the past seven years. Already on his fourth managerial appointment with club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer after sacking David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho and having spent in excess of £1 billion on transfers in 7 years it is obvious Woodward has failed in terms of running the club’s football operations. He is despised by the majority of United fans which resulted in his Cheshire house being targeted by 20 thugs last January who showed up to his properties gate hooded holding flares and shouting “Ed Woodward is going to die”. Manchester United quickly condoned the behaviour of the “fans” stating it was unacceptable and provided significant extra security to Woodward’s house. The penny has finally dropped for the majority of United fans and with club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer now in charge of the club Ed Woodward will take the brunt of criticism if United do not mount a significant title challenge this season. However, as long as the Glazers own the club (whilst continually take their annual dividends) their golden boy Ed Woodward is going nowhere and that is bad news for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and all Manchester United fans going forward.

Read more: Ed Woodward: ‘Project Big Six’ was not a power grab

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