Ed Woodward was closer to the truth than he perhaps realised when he famously offered Jurgen Klopp the chance to replace David Moyes as Manchester United manager in 2014.
United was ‘like an adult version of Disneyworld’ United’s executive vice-chairman told the German manager, according to the new Klopp biography, Bring The Noise, by Raphael Honigstein.
And he was right; just maybe not as he intended. Presumably Woodward had in mind Disney’s Golden Age from 1937-1967 when films like Snow White.
Ed Woodward once described Manchester United as an ‘adult version of Disneyworld’
The club needed a dominant leader to steer them after Sir Alex Ferguson’s long reign
Bambi, Peter Pan and The Jungle Book were both critically acclaimed and commercially unsurpassed. Led by one dominant personality, Walt Disney, the company commoditised the business of escapism so well that it was effectively a cash machine, but one which also created sincere moments of wonderful fantasy across generations.
Trouble was, when that dominant personality died, in 1966, Disney faltered. They struggled to replicate the energy, creativity and passion their founder brought them and stumbled into what is known as Disney’s Dark Age in the 1970s and 1980s.
By now, most United connoisseurs will be following where this is going. United have had their own dominant individuals creating magical moments of escapism. And how United have commoditised those moments and their own wonderful story.
Disney is an industrial marketing machine but presumably it would blanch at sticking a sponsor’s logo on a banner purporting to be a memorial, as United did in 2013.
On Wednesday United may take a significant step out of their own Dark Age. The last time Manchester United qualified for the last 16 of the Champions League was in 2013 under Moyes.
Their record though is even worse than that suggests, because the signs of decline were evident pre Moyes. Since reaching the final in 2011, they have been in the latter stages of the competition only twice and only once since 2011 have they been in the quarter final stages.
The last time United qualified for the Champions League knockout stage under David Moyes
All this is music to the ears of Jose Mourinho. For when he leaves United – and based on his previous assignments, he has about two to three more years to run in the job – the one thing he is likely to be able to claim is that he rescued them from their Dark Age and restored the company (football club?) to what it should be.
United are constantly vying with Real Madrid to be the richest football club in the world. As such, it is really inexcusable to have been such a bit-part player in the premier club competition in the world.
Real Madrid had a similarly embarrassing period between 2005-2010, when they couldn’t get past the last 16. The difference was that they were at least qualifying for the tournament and the knockout stages and that in the same period they won La Liga twice, which softened the blow a little.
Still, like United, Real Madrid are a club made for Europe rather than for domestic consumption.
The signs of a return to the golden age in Europe after a dark period are there
The excellent new biography of Sir Matt Busby by Paddy Barclay is a reminder that the vision for making United great, from both the manager and the owner, Louis Edwards, was the be the best in the world, by which they meant winning the European Cup.
English clubs never existed in splendid isolation in those days. Their outlook was expansive.
Another of Woodward’s famous aphorisms is that United didn’t need the Champions League, arguing to investors that they had such a rich history, missing a few years wouldn’t affect commercial income significantly.
To be fair to Woodward, his job at the time was to reassure investors concerned about the prospect of a prolonged exit from the competition. And when you speak to shareholders you are essentially switching to a different language. Their concerns are all about the bottom line, understandably. Frankly, glory is immaterial as long as the money rolls in.
United remain a financial powerhouse that exports it’s product across the globe
But what investors presumably do understand is that you don’t get one without the other. Or rather, the extraordinary global success of United is down to the glory created in 1968 (and, of course, the uplifting nature of that success being forged in the wake of the 1958 Munich disaster).
That storyline received a fresh impetus with the remarkable nature of the 1999 victory with its own inspirational sub text, the rise of the Class of 92.
It is powerful myths – in the original sense of the word, a folk tale or legend which binds a community together – which can be commoditised and then sold across the globe. So ignore the football side of the bargain, and specifically the Champions League, and you essentially kill the golden goose.
Or to put in terms of Woodward’s own analogy, churn out unremarkable films such as The Black Cauldron (there’s a reason why you’ve never heard of it) and the dollars eventually dry up. Seen as Disney’s nadir. The Black Cauldron, released in 1985, cost $44m to produce and garnered $21million at the box office. That’s your Memphis Depay moment, right there.
The salutary lesson is that even corporate behemoths can die. The better news is that more often, like Disney, they throw enough money at the problem to attract enough good people to get it right eventually.
Disney bought Pixar, a smarter, smaller and more-successful animator behind the Toy Story trilogy in 2006, and then Lucas Films in 2012, which is your Paul Pogba moment.
The record signing of former Juventus man Paul Pogba is akin to Disney purchasing Pixar
If Gareth Bale joins Jose Mourinho’s side it would be similar to a blockbuster hit
Frozen, a traditional animation. released in 2013 has taken $1.3billion, the ninth biggest grossing film of all time. The Force Awakens (2015) had done even better and is the third biggest of all time at $2.06bilion.
Presumably this is what Woodward has in mind for United. The merchandising figures alone from those two films would give him palpitations.
Frozen alone took another $107billion, which is a lot of singing Elsa dolls. Woodward may need a Gareth Bale (if fit enough) or an Antione Griezmann to get to that moment, but eventually, by hoovering up enough talent, they ought to return to where they should be.
They are getting back to that: in the latter stages of the Champions League and in the top two in the Premier League. Of course, Jose Mourinho has a problem in that, just across town, his dastardly rival, Pep Guardiola, is making a better and much more-creative product, which is making it harder to sell the United revival as the real deal.
Manchester United may fall short over 38 games domestically but have a chance in Europe
But United are close to getting there. To demonstrate that they are really back and to seal Mourinho’s own legacy, United need the Champions League more than ever. A fourth Champions League trophy would an unarguable return to the glory years.
Bizarrely, that may come sooner than a Premier League title. They may not be ready yet to match Manchester City over 38 games. But taking them on over two games, with Mourinho in charge, evens up the odds a bit.
That’s not to say this is United’s year. But with Real Madrid faltering. Bayern Munich still recovering somewhat from Carlo Ancelotti’s departure, and given that United should top their group, they have every chance of at least progressing beyond the last 16. United are emerging from the Dark Age. Mourinho’s challenge now is to turn it into a Golden Age.
Mourinho is expected to guide United to a top place finish in their Champions League group