Louis Van Gaal reportedly first heard of his sacking from his wife after she’d seen the BBC breaking news alert. Harsh stuff. Despite the FA cup win there clearly was no love lost between the Dutchman and the Glazer family.
As the bungled leaking of Van Gaal’s sacking showed –first he was out, then he wasn’t, then he definitely was- the club’s PR is stuck in the dark ages. Its communication with the media has been as cryptic and obfuscatory as a Panamanian tax return. Rather than putting forward eloquent spokespersons Manchester United delegate spin to maverick commentators like Paddy Crerand whose invocation of gas chambers and attacks on journalistic integrity wasn’t exactly a PR masterclass. Man U is not unique in its relentless pursuit of sponsorship –deals of which are contingent on Champions League-standard football. But the club’s readiness to chew and spit out managers and players, with little regard for the experience of the fan, is a stressful environment for anyone. In the premier league it now falls to managers –rather than the club machinery- to be meticulous at managing their images as well as their players.
This failure to communicate is mirrored by the growing trust gap in the relationship between owners, players and fans. Mourinho currently basks in the Glazers’ favour. He’s reportedly been on retainer since December- going to show how beyond redemption Van Gaal had become in the eyes of Manchester United. Yet this does not guarantee that the special one will win over the players and the fans.
In club football personality matters more than ever and this season has shown up a powerful contrast. On the one hand we had the Unhappy One losing his grip on Chelsea. By turning on his players Mourinho was putting himself above his club, and the 3-time Barclays Premier League winner cut a solitary, gloomy figure. And then there was Claudio. The Italian is the undisputed hero of the season; yet casting minds back to last July his appointment was met with bafflement. “Claudio Ranieri. Really?” tweeted Lineker, the first of many doubtful proclamations the MOTD star would go onto regret. The point of Ranieri is that he was able to charm the owners. He may have been in a career slump but the Thai family intuitively responded to his vision for the club. He also benefited from the support of his canny agent Steve Kutner who managed to get his client considered when others had long written him off. Like many super agents Kutner is one of the many behind the scenes fixers who are able to dictate the agenda.
The players were initially sceptical of Ranieri -say what you like about Nigel Pearson he commanded immense respect from his team. Yet the former Cagliari manager’s warm demeanour and ability to latch onto a hunger in his players that other managers would have overlooked won them over. The rest is, as they say, history. After Leicester won the BPL Owen Gibson of the Guardian wrote that the Ranieri story goes to show that “sometimes nice guys don’t come second”. The Italian’s charm -both of his club and the British media who delighted in his humorous press conferences and self-deprecating quips- meant that whatever the outcome for the Foxes goodwill was there for the manager.
The stakes will be high for Mourinho at United. He is there not because of style or charm but because he is a winner. Ranieri, in contrast, succeeded by repeatedly lowering the stakes. Gently, gently was his motto and the incremental approach focused his team. It was also an attitude shared by the club’s owners. Mourinho’s responsibility will be to shield his players from feeling the pressure that will be bearing down on him for results. This will be a significant challenge given the levels of hubris at Old Trafford.
Mourinho is a strategic genius and has a well-earned reputation. Yet the success of Leicester and, to an extent, Spurs has knocked the complacency of the old guard. The challenge of uniting the magic triangle of owners, players and fans arguably calls for new skill sets. Ferguson’s school of Harvard Management may provide some useful steers but, if the 15/16 season is anything to go by, there is no one model that fits all.