News, Culture & Society

Battle tearing Manchester United apart as Jose Mourinho, Ed Woodward and former players wage war

When Gerard Houllier was sacked by Liverpool in 2004, he blamed it on the number of club legends scrutinising his work on screen and in print.

‘You must understand there are 28 former Liverpool players and coaches who collaborate with the media,’ he complained.

It is just as well for Houllier he is not connected with Manchester United right now.

Internal divisions are tearing Jose Mourinho's Manchester United apart early in the season

Internal divisions are tearing Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United apart early in the season

Jose Mourinho's rift with chief executive Ed Woodward is one of a number of problems

Jose Mourinho’s rift with chief executive Ed Woodward is one of a number of problems

The Class of 92, particularly TV pundits Gary Neville and Paul Scholes, carry enormous influence and have become key figures in the latest Old Trafford wars between Jose Mourinho, Ed Woodward and Paul Pogba.

One day film makers will make a blockbuster drama ‘Manchester United after Fergie’, featuring plot lines about money, power, rivalry and treachery.

People already know many of the central characters; the managers David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho struggling in Sir Alex Ferguson’s shadow, the superstar players Wayne Rooney and Pogba, the unpopular Glazer owners and their henchman Woodward.

Less discussed but equally important to the story of how United have reacted to their gradual decline is the power wielded on camera by the group of homegrown players who dominated English football and now see themselves as custodians of the United way: the Neville brothers, Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt.

Manchester United face Tottenham at home in the Premier League on Monday

Manchester United face Tottenham at home in the Premier League on Monday

Midfielder Paul Pogba's (pictured) situation has also been a concern for some at Old Trafford

Midfielder Paul Pogba’s (pictured) situation has also been a concern for some at Old Trafford

When two or more of them work in tandem, whether it be Neville on Sky, Scholes on BT and Giggs on ITV, they usually get their way.

Moyes and Van Gaal were axed by United after sustained criticism from the Class of 92 but what is interesting this time is that their ammunition is being deployed against those in the posh seats, notably Woodward and Pogba’s agent Mino Raiola, rather than Mourinho.

Though they are not natural allies of the sulky Special One, they are helping to bail him out. And make no mistake, Neville’s intervention last Monday night 24 hours after United’s humiliating 3-2 defeat at Brighton was a game-changer.

Mourinho had been lambasted by supporters on social media and phone-ins for poor tactics and even worse motivation.

Then Neville dramatically outed Woodward as having been the source of briefings against Mourinho’s transfer plans — a breach of etiquette planned to take the heat off the manager and onto the ownership of the club. And it worked.

From that moment, Woodward has had no choice but to back his manager rather than flirt with Zinedine Zidane or Antonio Conte.

There has been talk of a fans’ protest plane against the executive vice-chairman, while Mourinho, for all his many faults, will receive a great welcome at kick-off from United fans before he is pitted against Tottenham.

Significantly, while Neville was applying his own pressure to suggest Mourinho had been let down by lack of summer transfers, Scholes leapt in like one of his bad tackles to take the manager’s side against Pogba, who has appeared to be making a power grab of his own.

The Class of 92 will know Ferguson detests Pogba’s bullish representative Raiola and sees him as a malignant influence.

So Scholes’s accusation that Pogba lacked leadership qualities was a kick in the ribs and prompted Raiola’s Twitter response: ‘Paul Scholes wouldn’t recognise a leader if he stood in front of Sir Winston Churchill.’

Mourinho will face trial by Monday Night Football after his side face Spurs at Old Trafford

Mourinho will face trial by Monday Night Football after his side face Spurs at Old Trafford

All very unedifying for a club of United’s stature. Revered as local lads who conquered Europe, the Class of 92 first stretched their power muscles under Moyes.

When the defensively-minded Scot abandoned his usual approach to beat Olympiakos 3-0 in the Champions League, Giggs made the point afterwards: ‘When you have got pace and power around you it is a joy to play in.’

Moyes was gone 32 days later but the venom increased under Van Gaal particularly when there seemed a chance one of their own, Giggs, could get the top job.

‘Every time you come to Old Trafford, this is what you see. Negative football,’ said Scholes. ‘His style of football is not suited to United. Fans would rather see a bit more excitement.’

After Neville said United had got away with murder by beating Southampton, Van Gaal witheringly described him as an ex-legend.

But there was only one winner —within minutes of winning the FA Cup, Van Gaal was gone.

So now we have the peculiar situation of the Class of 92 having to give Mourinho the benefit of the doubt despite his football failing to thrill the Theatre of Dreams.

Ferguson’s mantra of always supporting the manager is back in vogue. Neville has said that if Woodward gave Mourinho a new contract last season, he had to follow it through by getting the players the manager wanted, even though United have spent £711million on players since Fergie left in 2013.

Ex-players including Gary Neville (left) and Paul Scholes (right) have been vocal critics

Ex-players including Gary Neville (left) and Paul Scholes (right) have been vocal critics

There is an interesting dynamic between Neville and Woodward, the former player outsmarting the so-called business expert to build Hotel Football next to Old Trafford against the club’s wishes.

The hotel is co-owned by Scholes, Giggs, Phil Neville and Butt, who is head of United’s academy and driven by giving local talent an opportunity. None of them will forget Woodward twice overlooked their comrade Giggs for the top job at Old Trafford.

United’s players are not always thrilled by the high profile of their predecessors. ‘I think the criticism was a bit harsh, particularly from people who have played the game and have probably made mistakes themselves during their career,’ said Eric Bailly after he was fingered for the hapless display on the South Coast a week ago.

But Ferguson is proud of the influence his former players have. ‘Rio is running television alongside Scholesy. Gary runs the city of Manchester now, buying everything,’ he said before a charity match last year.

The legendary boss is recovering at home from a brain haemorrhage. It is significant that in a video he recorded to thank hospital staff for saving his life, the only individual afterwards to get a name check was Mourinho.

It suggests he and the Class of 92 are for now supporting this manager more than they did Moyes or Van Gaal. And as long as that continues, Woodward’s hands are tied.

Responding to Houllier’s suggestion all those years ago that the former players should be cheerleaders, not critics, Reds striker John Aldridge retorted: ‘We know the game inside out. That’s why we were lucky enough to play for those successful Liverpool teams in the first place.’

The influence of Neville and Co runs even deeper. There are two hurdles for Mourinho, Woodward and Pogba to overcome tomorrow: facing a difficult game against Tottenham at home and then having to listen to what Neville says on Sky’s Monday Night Football.