It transpires that what seemed like a baffling action from a Manchester United chief executive had a very potent logic to it, after all.
In the aftermath of the club’s dismal 2-0 Champions League defeat at Olympiakos in late February, Ed Woodward was pictured taking what some interpreted to be a selfie with his camera phone in the Karaiskakis Stadium. It was actually the scoreboard he was photographing, while director Mike Edelson sat in the seat beside him, head buried in hands. It was the most desperate night of the many United have encountered these past 12 months, on which the players were just not interested, and Woodward wanted to capture the moment, as a screensaver to remind him that they would never, ever stoop this low again.
There is certainly some self-belief restored. It is the humanity of Louis van Gaal which has been most immediately striking to those ancillary staff who are not having to go through the new manager’s daily double training sessions out here. Small details – like the Dutchman’s touching affection for his wife Truus – have deconstructed the over-simplistic image of Van Gaal the autocrat.
But Woodward knows better than most about football’s uncertainties, having just emerged from a crash course in them. So convinced were United in Sir Alex Ferguson’s judgement that they sanctioned the ‘Chosen One’ banner for his anointed successor. Woodward appreciates that was a mistake now and there is a marked change in outlook on the 2014/15 season, too. Only hours before that disaster in Athens, United were talking about storming back from their season of hell to clinch the 2014/15 Premier League title, though now it is a different story.
“We don't have a target this year,” Woodward says, from a seat in the air-conditioned hotel interior in Beverly Hills, where this is his last meeting before leaving for transatlantic jet out home to Britain and the uncomfortable heat of the football environment. “I am not sitting down and giving targets to anybody. We want to strive to win. That is what we want to do. That expectation comes with the history of the club. You have to accept that. I have to accept that. Everyone has to accept that. But let’s be totally clear. We don't have a target…”
Targets are one of the ropes that they hang you with, in football. Louis van Gaal wouldn’t welcome one and Woodward, who needs only four words to describe the Dutchman’s strong personality - “Have you met Louis!?” - is wise to avoid one. But a return to the top four is the minimum requirement to him building up a personal credibility with fans. He says of Van Gaal’s appointment that “it never felt a difficult decision… I felt it was a smooth process” and yet, for all Woodward has done in building up the United’s commercial juggernaut, he now finds his reputation – perhaps his future – shackled to Van Gaal. He “can’t think” of a bigger decision than this appointment.
But Woodward has things to prove, as well. As he prepared to leave town, the Real Madrid caravan was moving in, buoyed by the £63m signature of James Rodriquez from Monaco – more evidence of how domestic and European rivals have outspent United. Adidas have just paid out more to provide United’s kit (£750m) than the Glazers have shelled out for the club (factoring in legal and administrative charges) and fans want to see the footballing benefits. It feels anachronistic that £37m Juan Mata should be United’s record signing; one of only two players the club have broken into the £30m bracket for.
The desire to sign Gareth Bale last summer proves that a willingness to go big was there. “Of course” spending £70m on one player is within United’s capabilities, Woodward says. And “no” the club is not afraid of doing that. "But Van Gaal seems adamant about establishing what talent he has got before going for more; confident enough in his own methods not to be banging down Woodward’s door. “I want to see what these players can do,” he said last week. “Then maybe then I shall I buy other players.” The emphasis was on the ‘I’ in that last sentence.
“I think there is a philosophy in the club that the board, the owners have which is we want to see the best players play for Manchester United,” Woodward says. “But we are not imposing that on anybody. It was never imposed on Sir Alex, it was not imposed on David [Moyes], it’s not going to be imposed on Louis. If Louis says I want a player, get X, Y, Z and it’s achievable and it’s viewed by you as a top player then we’ll end up with a top player. We’re not sitting on our hands waiting for Louis. He is very good at communicating clearly what he wants.”
The Dutchman has ice in his veins, too. Though United’s state-of the-art Toshiba medical systems have told the club that the injury-plagued defenders Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans are likely to enjoy their most untroubled campaigns yet, in 2014/15, it is a fragile science on which to base a Premier League campaign. Defenders are needed desperately.
Woodward has faith, though he does reject Van Gaal’s contention – made by the new manager last week- that commercial commitments risk damaging United’s football. “If you look at the standard Premier League contract every single Premier League player has six hours a week carved out of their contract for commercial and charitable activities,” he says. “Our average over the last couple of years has been about 0.7 hours per week.”
Woodward’s inference was that the demands of Bayern Munich and Barcelona, where Van Gaal has also been the custodian, were nothing compared to this club. “We are a different sized club. Almost anywhere else you have been you have not experienced what being a Manchester United manager is until you have been Manchester United manager.” You can say the same about the role of Manchester United chief executive. Woodward has hired a serial winner but the journey may be a little bumpy. It will most certainly be interesting.