The Glazer family has never been ones for the details of running Manchester United.
When he first arrived at Old Trafford with his two brothers 15 years ago, behind the tinted glass of a Volkswagen people carrier, Joel Glazer grabbed the first products he could lay his hands on in the club store — a £27 blue away shirt plus a few ‘I love Man United‘ T-shirts — and rushed off for his next engagement.
His brother, Avie, went for an £18 plastic United rucksack.
It was something Joel said the following day in the Old Trafford International Lounge after gathering 550 staff — from the tea ladies to chief executive David Gill — for a 15-minute briefing which proved prophetic in light of all that has followed.
‘Our view is that this club has such a rich history and tradition that we’re not looking to change,’ declared Joel who, like Avie, their brother Bryan and late father Malcolm, has refused any media interviews about United from that day until this.
Concerns that the Glazers would bleed the club dry of transfer market investment after their £790million leveraged buy-out have proved spectacularly unfounded. Gill’s successor Ed Woodward has presided over a bigger outlay than Paris Saint-Germain in the past five years.
It is the Glazers’ absentee status and neglect — an indifference to any suggestion that the club might need to change — which has proved so devastating when fellow Americans Fenway Sports Group (FSG) have delivered such impressive strategic oversight down the M62 at Liverpool.
There were certainly grounds to leave things alone when Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson navigated the ship in the first eight years of Glazer command.
Consider, for example, the legendary quiz nights at the team hotel which always took place on the eve of European away matches.
Set by the club photographer John Peters, they were monumentally competitive, with Nicky Butt and Roy Keane incandescent with rage if they felt they had been wrongly denied points.
They reflected the extraordinarily tight nature of a club in which everyone understood the question-master’s sometimes obscure references to British life and culture.
It was around 2008, when the team become more multi-national and some players did not understand the questions, that the quizzes were faded out.
The decision-making processes were supremely tight back then, too. At 8am every Friday, Gill would meet Ferguson at the Carrington training ground for the weekly meeting at which gaps in the squad and ongoing conversations about targets would be discussed. Football success is about judgment and they all trusted each other.
Jim Lawlor, the chief scout, ambled into Ferguson’s office one day to say it had struck him that Henrik Larsson’s season at Helsingborg was about to finish and he might be a stop-gap solution to the temporary problem of an injury to Louis Saha. ‘We’ll do it,’ said Ferguson. He and Gill always acted decisively.
The Glazers’ decision to allow Ferguson and Gill — the brains trust of Manchester United — to leave in the same summer said everything about what happens when owners are semi-detached.
If Woodward had operated with Ferguson for a few years, the outcome may have been very different. He and Gill had mapped things in such a way that the club only liked to make one or two changes each year.
But the managerial revolving door since Ferguson left has brought coaches with no time for many of the players they have inherited — particularly Jose Mourinho — and left Woodward constantly shipping them in and out in big numbers while lacking the football knowledge to cope.
There are occasional chinks of light. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s last summer transfer window was arguably United’s best since Ferguson stepped down. But the emergency stop-gap striker Odion Ighalo, who has spent the past three years in China, on £165,000-a-week wages — was a far cry from Larsson.
The deal asked questions about what on earth United’s player acquisition system has come to. Woodward, a physicist, is a great believer in data. He likes to throw resources at decisions and be presented with empirical evidence — numbers — as to why a player should be signed.
Part of the expanded United scouting system is the creation of a battery of reports on virtually every player. There can be too much information, say some who know United well.
Gill, an economist, tended to apply science to the real world, as individuals in that profession often do. There would be an element of human judgment.
For Woodward’s Radamel Falcao, read Gill and Ferguson’s calamitous Bebe, the unknown signed in 2010. Both players are thought to have been hired after deadline-day phone calls from Jorge Mendes. Falcao was only marginally the better.
Yet the Glazers appear utterly oblivious to the fact the club is listing and lacks direction, while FSG have inserted Bostonian Mike Gordon — a significant figure at Anfield — and British-American Peter Moore.
United are torn between wanting to send a message to the market that they will not overpay and a need to spend.
They waited an entire window to buy Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon and ended up getting him for the same price they would have paid in the first place.
The same fearful decision-making applied to the signing of Harry Maguire.
When Liverpool were thwarted in their attempt to buy Virgil van Dijk from Southampton, they simply went back later and upped the offer by £15m — and got their man. They know what their priorities are and act accordingly.
To owners with a modicum of curiosity, Woodward’s track record would now be coming under scrutiny. He did sharpen up the commercial operation when he took charge. But, contrary to popular belief, it is group managing director Richard Arnold, not Woodward, who has been bringing in noodle sponsors and myriad other deals which have made United a fortune.
A broader, more strategic perspective would also tell the ruling dynasty that Woodward has presided over Old Trafford becoming an aged, careworn place, in desperate need of upgrade and renewal at a time when Arsenal’s and Tottenham’s arenas place them miles ahead.
The technically challenging expansion of Anfield is something FSG have applied themselves to and the stadium is hugely enhanced.
Now is the point of greatest opportunity to install a director of football. There will not be the kind of opposition from Solskjaer that a signature managerial appointee like Mauricio Pochettino would present in a quest for power and authority.
Delegating responsibility to a board director who knows the game would also give Woodward greater justification for retaining the services of Solskjaer, who has struggled.
These are decisions for the invisible men who took the club over, but no one is expecting a revolution.
After that souvenir hunt in 2005, the brothers beat a hasty retreat through the Old Trafford North Stand door, squealing off up Sir Matt Busby Way minutes later in the people carrier.
At that point, Sir Bobby Charlton ambled out into the sunshine, where he was accosted by fans deeply concerned about what the future might hold with the Glazers. ‘I don’t expect we’ll see much of them,’ he said.