In May 2018, Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward gave a very simple and straightforward answer to the question of whether success on the pitch has affected the club’s earning potential: The performance of the games doesn’t have a big impact on what we can do on the business side of the business.
Time will tell if Woodward’s claim about United’s commercial strength in the absence of success is true. Last week United announced a new five-year sponsorship deal with TeamViewer, which the club says is worth £47m a year. However, the deal costs £17m a year more than the expiring contract with Chevrolet and according to a Bloomberg report last weekend, TeamViewer appear to have spent €35m (£30.02m) more on marketing by 2021, so only the final publication of the club’s accounts will reveal the exact amount United have paid.
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Still, let’s get back to football. After all, that’s what Manchester United is all about. Two days after Woodward’s comments in 2018, Jose Mourinho’s United lost the FA Cup final to Chelsea and for the past three years the club has not come close to winning the trophy or even reaching the final.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team lost 3-1 to Leicester City in the FA Cup quarterfinals on Sunday (replay on ESPN+ in the US). United’s only hope of a title this season is the Europa League, where they face Granada in the last 16 next month, before meeting Ajax or Roma in a possible semi-final. The Europa League – a competition designed for clubs not good enough to count themselves among Europe’s elite – was the last trophy United won when Mourinho’s side beat Ajax in Stockholm in 2017.
The last time United were without a trophy for so long was when the club went through a drought ending with FA Cup victories in 1985 and 1990. If Solskjaer fails to win the Europa League this season, Solskjaer’s team will have to wait five years to break that streak, until 2022.
However, Solskjaer said last week that winning cup competitions is not necessarily a sign of tangible progress.
As for the League position, see if there is any progress. It’s always about the nuts and bolts of the season to see how you handle the ups and downs. Every cup game can get you a trophy, but sometimes it’s the egos of other managers and clubs that are more important to finally win something.
But we need to see progress and if we play well enough, the trophies will come back to the club. The trophy doesn’t say we’re back, no. Sometimes cup games can hide the fact that you’re still struggling a bit.
Manchester United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said winning the trophy was sometimes more of an ego boost for other managers. Oli SCARFF / POOL / AFP via Getty Images
On the one hand, Solskjaer is right. Arsenal won the FA Cup last season with Mikel Arteta, but the Gunners are now ninth in the Premier League and light years away from playing against their former club’s legendary teams, notably the Invincibles, who won the Premier League title undefeated in 2003/04.
But big clubs like United and Arsenal are ultimately measured by trophies, and Arsenal have won their 14th. FA Cup by beating Chelsea in the final. It is the club’s fourth FA Cup triumph in seven years and an extension of their success record in the league. Even when Arsenal were struggling in the league, at least they did what big clubs do by winning something.
For Arsenal, these cup victories have not been the catalyst for more success. Even the Europa League and Carabao Cup victories in 2017 didn’t bring back the title or the Champions League, but at least they kept United in the conversation when it comes to big clubs actually winning trophies.
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However, success gives players, managers and clubs the feeling of winning, and that is what United are currently lacking. The two decades of glory under Sir Alex Ferguson began with the FA Cup win in 1990, while Mourinho’s Chelsea began their own period of dominance with the League Cup in 2005. Manchester City have been winning since they won the FA Cup in 2011.
Success has to start somewhere, but given Woodward and Solskjaer’s comments, it’s hard to say exactly where that starting line is at United. Can United finish in the top four, qualify for the Champions League and advance to the second round of the cup? Comparing championships year after year is certainly a sign of progress, but it won’t fill the awards room.
But when the manager and vice-chairman suggest that the basic principle of winning trophies is not the most important criterion for success at Old Trafford, it should come as no surprise if the message gets across to the players and they continue to fail in the quarter and semi-finals, as they have done under Solskjaer.
The Norwegian United manager was one of Ferguson’s favourites during his 11-year career at Old Trafford, and Solskjaer has rarely concealed the fact that many of his principles have been shaped by his former boss. But Ferguson always wanted to win. Every trophy counts.
Winning a trophy is good, Ferguson once said. Whatever the trophy is, you have to take it.
Other clubs have picked up on this message, but it seems to have eluded Manchester United.
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