On the face of it, it’s the sensible move. Perhaps the only move. United’s transfer window ended with an angry manager flinging misery around and then demoting himself, while his boss — presumably also quite peeved — was letting the press know that everybody thought the manager’s ideas were expensive and bad. There’s an obvious need for somebody to fill the space between those people, if only to stop a fight.
And the scattergun nature of United’s recruitment over the last few seasons presents an inarguable case that some kind of coherent strategy is needed. Time and money spent fixing the mistakes of the previous manager is time and money that isn’t being spent elsewhere.
There’s also the question of long-term planning, and whether that can reasonably be left to somebody with a job expectancy of a few seasons at best. As the Guardian reported, United’s powers-that-be were reluctant to sanction big spending on “a short-term fix”. Currently the club are in an awkward position: Jose Mourinho certainly knows more about football than any of his bosses, yet thanks to both character and circumstance is thinking no further than the end of the season.
But all this sensible thinking shouldn’t obscure what a significant change this is, in terms of United’s history. In 1945, when Matt Busby took over, he demanded — and was given — complete control over the footballing activities of the club. He would appoint his own staff; he would pick his own teams; he would, as manager, manage. As his biographer David Miller put it:
Most managers were foreman draughtsmen, seeing their players once or twice a week. [Busby] was the first to establish indisputably that he and not the directors was in control of all team affairs, at a time when directors were all-powerful and to stand up to them was unprecedented.
Busby wasn’t the first manager to seek greater power; Herbert Chapman, back in the 1930s, had already wrested control of team selection from the suits. But United’s first European Cup-winning manager was the pivotal figure in the transmutation of British football managers into the all-powerful all-controlling god-kings they became.
And United’s second European Cup-winning manager, Alex Ferguson, was one of the last of the kind. In a sense, the move to appoint a director of football brings to an end the single overriding concern of Manchester United since 1945: the search for the one man who brings the whole thing together. Find Busby. Good. Now, find the next Busby. Nope, nope, nope, nope … ah, here he is. Hooray! And there he goes. Right. Find the next Ferguson.
Turns out Fergusons, as with Busbys before him, are scarce. Since 2012, United have only managed to find pale imitations: they tried the flinty Scottish thing, and then the elder statesman with a pile of medals thing, and are currently investigating the ‘driven by an internal hatred that burns hotter than the sun’ angle. The first two failed, and the third is wobbling.
Perhaps the most important job of a director of football is to ensure that failures, which will always happen, don’t then beget more failures; that each new manager or coach doesn’t have to spend their first season or two patching up the mistakes of their predecessor. In a sense, this represents a redistribution of patience. Once, when football was small enough for god-kings, that patience went to the managers. Busby won the league title at his sixth attempt, Ferguson at his seventh.
Now, that time to take the broad view is given to the directors of football, with the coaches beneath them freer, in some senses, yet more disposable. The era of the god-kings is finally drawing to a close, and United, once early adopters, are playing catch-up. First in, last out.