As hated figures go, Manchester United’s executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward seems to be an odd choice. There is little malevolence about him. No obvious aura of evil. He wears his scarf and he looks, perhaps, like a mildly disappointed deputy headteacher, or an over-keen middle manager.
In truth, the most egregious thing about him is probably his title. We don’t know what an executive vice-chairman is, precisely, but it doesn’t sound very trustworthy.
Yet he certainly gets up at least some noses. Over the last couple of weeks he, along with the Glazer family, have replaced “the Scousers” and “City” as the fuel in the moderately unpleasant United fan chant “Build a Bonfire.” Then earlier this week, a group of balaclava-wearing United fans turned up outside Woodward’s house. Woodward and his family weren’t home at the time; it is unclear whether those behind the balaclavas knew this.
A flare was thrown over a fence. There was some shouting. A video was posted on the internet, because can a thing truly be said to have happened if a video was not posted on the internet?
You don’t need us to tell you that lobbing flares over a person’s fence is a pretty antisocial thing to be doing, even with the most righteous of motives. And we’ll leave you to your own view on whether “being a bit crap at running Manchester United” is righteous enough.
Indeed, there’s a very decent argument that United, by general standards, are doing absolutely fine. Sure, they’re not great any more, and they’ve lost that Ferguson/Thanosesque inevitability, but they’re still fifth in the table, filthy rich, and have just bought another exciting midfielder for everybody to coo over. Plenty of clubs have fallen farther; plenty have landed harder.
But if we allow that there’s a certain amount of we were good and now we’re just ordinary and oh, oh, oh, I don’t like it about United’s relative malaise, then we might also wonder if there’s anything else. That vast and sprawling fanbase can’t all be spoiled babies. (No, they can’t. Stop it.)
And it’s here that Woodward swims back into focus. Not as a person — he didn’t appoint himself to his position, and it’s not as though he’s deliberately sabotaging the club — but as a symbol. The most notable thing about Woodward isn’t any one thing he’s done; it’s the fact he’s still there, doing them. Appointing a manager, to replace the manager he appointed. Making transfers. Handing out new contracts.
Did you know Phil Jones is signed up as a United player until The Year of Our Lord Twenty Twenty-Three?
From his actions, and the consequences of his actions, we must conclude he’s not particularly great at the director of football stuff. From the fact he is still in a place to act, we can deduce that his bosses don’t particularly care about the director of football stuff.
As such, Woodward has come to represent not just his own shortcomings as an executive vice-chairman, but an avatar of Glazernomics. That is, for a nakedly cynical model of football club ownership. A model that sidelines the football club in favour of leveraging the brand. A model happy to let Ed Woodward do an awful lot of stuff he doesn’t seem to be particularly good at, because it’s the stuff he is is actually good at that’s important. Sipping your Casillero del Diable as you drive your Yanmar tractor into the sea: that’s Manchester United™.
And this, perhaps, is the source of fans’ frustration. It’s not that United are run by Woodward; it’s that United are run by people who think Woodward is doing just fine. That’s not incompetence, which is forgivable. That’s negligence, a far greater sin.
This isn’t to say that lobbing a flare at somebody’s house is a justified, proportionate, or clever thing to do. But if there is anything to United fan’s dissatisfaction beyond the horrors of having to watch a not-great football team, it is perhaps this strongly-sensed and deeply-felt carelessness. Woodward isn’t responsible for it, but he is symbolic of it. He is the public face of the Glazers, and the Glazers are absentee landlords of the heart.