22 Nov 2021 | 10:36 | Football
With Man Utd searching for their fifth manager of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, Gary Neville assesses how his old club ended up here again, the credentials needed to turn things around at Old Trafford, and what the road to recovery must look like on a special edition of Off Script…
There is an all-too familiar sense of deja vu engulfing Old Trafford. David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer have had the axe wielded on their tenures, and, for the fourth time in eight years, Manchester United are searching for a new manager.
Eight years have passed since Sir Alex Ferguson claimed his 13th and final Premier League title before handing the keys to his Manchester United empire over. Just three major trophies have been brought to Old Trafford since, the last of which came five seasons ago.
United remain a colossus of English football by name and revenue only, matters on the pitch delivered a painful ending to Solskjaer’s commendable attempt to restore the glory days, and the Old Trafford club are left wondering how they got here, and in which direction to turn next.
Speaking on a special edition of Off Script, former United captain Gary Neville, the winner of eight Premier League titles and two Champions Leagues, explained how endemic poor decision-making and a cultural crisis have rocked Old Trafford, and why cultivating a Manchester United vision is the only route out.
“Lack of good decision-making on the football side, no doubt about that. There is a cultural problem at the club.
“Ole has taken a battering over the last few months, that is what you get when you are a manager of a football club, particularly one the size of Manchester United. But the reality is that once he leaves, the focus of attention will be elsewhere.
“It will be on the football executives, it will be on the decision-makers, it will be on the owners. They have proven that without Sir Alex Ferguson that they cannot operate properly as a football club.”
“If you spend over a billion pounds, you bring in world-class managers in Mourinho and Van Gaal and they struggle to get the success the club wants, there is something fundamentally wrong at the club that means they are not winning.
“Something has got to change for the club to get to where it needs to be. We could be reasonable and say the work that Ole has done is building the bridge back to a better future and someone will pick it up, run with it, and go and win the league, but I’m not sure.
“I live in Manchester city centre. When I drive to Manchester City, not only do I see a football stadium, I see a DJ playing music outside the stadium, I see an atmosphere building, a fan experience, a spirit.
“I see a new 25,000-seater music arena being built [on the Etihad campus], there’s a world-class football academy, world-class facilities, there’s a mini stadium which the academy and women’s teams use. They have built a football empire here, where everything threads through, and they make good decisions on and off the pitch.
“Yet over the road at Old Trafford, where they have got the best asset in the world in Manchester United, the biggest football club in the world in my opinion, and certainly the biggest football club in this country, you’ve had a lot of money being spent over the past eight years, but the decision-making has been really poor.
“Three out of those four managers were given long-term contracts or extensions and sacked within a few months. It can happen, once, but it can’t happen three times.”
“There are a number of things the club need to do. They need to appoint a great manager, they need to get this next appointment right to build on the work that has happened in the last two to three years, where they have been more measured in the transfer market and made better decisions.
“However, off the pitch, they need to build a vision for a football club. A vision is creating fan experience, putting Manchester United back to a point where there is a connection right the way through top to bottom.
“There’s regeneration; a new stadium, new training facilities, a women’s stadium, an academy stadium. You’ve got to make everyone believe they are on a journey to excellence and that culturally you’re connecting with people not just on a local or national level, but globally. Locally to start with, then you build a national community, then you build an international community.
“Manchester United talk regularly about building digital communities; I’ve been very critical of them in recent weeks, they seem to look a lot at algorithms, analytics and the sentiment of fans. But they need to get the core right.
“Who is communicating the message of the football club to fans? I don’t know one person who is still actively operationally in the football club who can communicate what that club is to the fans. There are some people in the boardroom and a couple of people who know the club, but they haven’t got the ability to be able to communicate that vision to a group of people who love this club – the fans.”
“At the end of the day at this moment of time I won’t be going back into Old Trafford, that just won’t happen. It’s not right.
“You can achieve the values and a culture of a football club without necessarily being the biggest fan in the world. Jurgen Klopp has done that at Liverpool, Pep Guardiola has created a culture and vibe at Manchester City that is special.
“It doesn’t need to be the local kid or ex-legend coming back home, it needs to be somebody who can grasp what this football club means. Sir Alex Ferguson came down from Aberdeen in 1986 not knowing what Manchester United was; he’d never lived in Manchester and had never worked at the club before, but he grasped it, he got it straight away, understood it and put it into everybody else and created a dynasty.
“I’m not saying Manchester United need to create a dynasty, but they need to find a manager who can build something from the roots up, communicate with the fans, and understands the culture, the values, principles, the entertainment, the risk – everything that Manchester United is.”
“Ed Woodward is leaving, they are going to have to appoint a new CEO, and that CEO has got to make sure they have got the right people operating the football side of the club. That’s it, the first job.
“It may be Richard Arnold, who has worked with Ed over the last 10 years, and he’s got to distance himself from what’s happened in the last eight years, put his own footprint on it and make sure that he doesn’t become someone who takes over what’s already been happening, he’s got to assess everything that is going on at the club.
“I think they are making sure the right football people are in there, and they can then get the right manager at the end of the season. If he does come in, Richard Arnold has to assess that very quickly.
“I’ve lost faith in the owners being able to do it, they are over in America and are so distant and disconnected with the football club it is untrue.”
“I’m not saying Manchester United don’t need strengthening in a few areas but this is a very good group of players who should be able to achieve a lot. They are so talented, there’s a lot of youth, but they need someone to come in who is able to harness them, bring them together as a group, get them to believe in a way of playing and get some results before the end of the season.
“At the end of the season, I would imagine Manchester United are going to appoint a brand-new manager, and he will have to take them forward. But I don’t think Manchester United need upheaval in the dressing room. They maybe need strengthening in central midfield, you could argue there is a right-back issue developing and Aaron Wan-Bissaka needs some competition.
“But, other than that, I would say if Manchester United could get the players they have got fit on the pitch, they will have a great chance of winning a lot of football matches.”
“Fans at any football club are the most important people. Manchester United fans are among the most loyal in the world. Ultimately, they will respect that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has given his all in the last three years.
“Manchester United will always be here, people will come and go, but the club will always be here irrespective of the personnel who are transient through it. The fact of the matter is, in good times and bad times, it is still our club and you support it.
“I grew up for 18 years not seeing my club win a league title, I’m used to it, I have no problem with it. I then spent the most incredible 20 years of my life being part of something where we won plenty of titles. I’ve seen both sides of it, and I am not in a rush, I’m not going anywhere, I’m still going to be a Manchester United fan until the day I die and that will never change.
“Ole Gunnar Solskjaer losing his job is a sad day, of course it is, he’s a legend of the club, but there will be worse days than this. Manchester United will be Manchester United fans long after today, irrespective of who plays for the club and what happens in the future.”