One more time: How not to sack a manager

May 24, 2016

Louis van Gaal

Louis van Gaal is sacked as manager of Manchester United. At least, that is what a thousand media reports said soon after his team won the FA cup this weekend Read the rest of this entry »

Why Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal reminds me, in some ways, of Brian Clough

May 20, 2015

Last night I found myself comparing the leadership style of Manchester United’s Louis van Gaal with that of the great English manager Brian Clough

The occasion [May 19th 2015] was the Gala night at the end of the season, at which seven hundred of the club’s supporters, players, and staff gather at the Old Trafford Conference facility to honour the players for their achievements. Money raised for various charities is the tenuous justification for a glitzy and boozy night out.

This year there were several unusual factors at play at the Players of The Year (POTY) do. The season was not quite finished. The team had barely reached the minimum goal set its new manager, of a top four Premiership position. This was achieved in a nervous draw against Arsenal in the penultimate match a few days earlier. The team will now compete [in a pre-qualifying match] to re-enter the European Cup competition for the 2015-16 season.

Mingling with celebrities

Some seven hundred participants were gathered at the tightly packed tables to enjoy a meal together with carefully-controlled mingling with the world’s top footballers. The award ceremonies, large screen replays of memorable moments, and auctions for involvement at celebrity events were conducted with varying degrees of attention being paid from the tables.

An early highlight was the arrival of the first team squad led by Captain Wayne Rooney. The team members were wearing dinner suits (no team numbers on the back) and black ties. Some looked as if they had been issued with the wrong suits.

Don’t spoil the party

An important unmentionable was a developing story which threatened to spoil the party. Throughout the week rumours had been increasing that the team’s brilliant goalkeeper David de Gea was to be attracted back to Spain by Real Madrid. In the match that secured United’s access to the European Cup, de Gea had kept United ahead in the match with a serious of typically spectacular saves, then limped off injured. Arsenal pressed and scored a deserved equaliser, almost guaranteeing them third position above United. The evening was to turn into a remarkable attempt to demonstrate how much the fans supported de Gea. It also turned into the Louis van Gaal show, as the manager made his own unique contributions, and the comparison I began to draw with Brian Clough, the great but eccentric English Manager.

The Damned United

In an earlier post [2010] I described the documentary The Damned United. It dealt with the tumultuous late career of Brian Clough including his rejection by Manchester United, and his ultimate failure at Leeds United where he was unable to overcome the influence of Don Revie, the previous manager of Leeds (and of England)

I had noted that

Brian Clough is fondly regarded nowadays, not because he was ahead of his time but because he was very much of it, despite upsetting football’s authoritarian old guard with his cocky contempt for them. He would never have got away with his genius in today’s world of agents and multimillionaire egos. With copious footage, this documentary traces his rise from a dazzling young centre-forward scythed down in his prime, turned brilliant, self-assured manager, to the ruddy-faced figure he cut in his sad decline.

When the film was first released, Prof Szymanski of CASS Business School told the BBC “It was socialism if you like …You do see this idea in business sometimes. The focus was on the needs of his players. These were his frontline staff – they’re the ones under the pressure, they’re the ones who deliver, so you need to meet their needs whatever it takes. … [however] he was a very overbearing employer, incredibly paternalistic – like Stalin and just as frightening.”

When Van Gaal was appointed to United , there was a special factor which bears comparison with the situation facing Clough at Leeds. He was arriving in the shadow of one of the most famous and successful of football managers, Sir Alex Ferguson.

In just over a year of appointment he also shown himself to have a self-confidence and idiosyncratic public persona which reminded me of that of Brian Clough.

I would add, however, that Clough denied he had some secret system, whereas Van Gaal repeatedly insists that his success is grounded in his ‘philosophy’ which cannot be easily explained in a media interview.

Inevitably at the Gala Night the hidden agenda surfaced. The players voted De Gea the United player of the year for the second time in succession. Van Gaal spoke in his elliptical way which appeared to grant De Gea the greatest accolade, the approval of Louis van Gaal.

The Jolly Green Giant

At that point, he handed over the award to a puzzled-looking De Gea. It seemed to be a statue of the club’s greatest icon, Sir Matt Busby in churchyard Verdigris, and in the style of trophies awarded on the ATP Masters tennis competitions. The Louis Van Gaal show was only beginning.

The Louis Van Gaal show

Some three hours into the evening’s entertainments, the table guests were showing signs of fatigue. Many were getting ready for the obligatory smart exit from Old Trafford so necessary on match days. It was then that Van Gall showed that flash of genius in his closing remarks.

Viewers who have watched Van Gaal’s press conferences would have had some expectation of someone who communicates while speaking in a fractured form of English. Brazilian friends used to tell be that the hugely popular Lula, [Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva] when President, had a similar impact while speaking in his own homely dialect.

Van Gaal’s performance went viral. The audience was swept up by his surreal eulogy to Manchester United. In football today, the effect might only be matched by the media efforts sometimes of Jose Mourinho after a rare Chelsea defeat.

As with other charismatics , Louis dominated the occasion with the utter self-belief of the inspired leader, intoxicated by the power of his own vision.

To be continued

I am still reflecting on the leadership lessons (if any) are be drawn from this rumbustious end of season party.

The video clip of the Van Gaal performance is now not available.  MUTV has exercised a copyright claim.

Change at Manchester United

September 14, 2014

by Paul Hinks

Manchester United’s current turmoil provides a platform to explore how leadership dilemmas are influencing events at the world famous football club


On the 10th Sept 2014 the BBC reported Manchester United’s annual revenues They had risen by 19% to £433.2m -but they also reported an 84% drop in Man Utd’s profits.

Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward directed attention towards a new shirt deal with Adidas. When a club of Manchester United’s stature is discussing shirt deals instead of trophies there’s implicit recognition that it has fallen below its own high standards of achievement.

Change vs Inertia

Sir Alex was manager of Manchester United between 1986 and 2013 – his teams became synonymous with success, dominating footballing headlines for all the right reasons. Trophies symbolized the success; fans and pundits alike enjoyed watching an entertaining style of football which also delivered results – to the envy of rival fans, this was the ‘Manchester United way’.

Manchester United’s culture, discourse and identity

Reference the ‘Manchester United way’ and it has a different meaning to different people – perhaps a benchmark for free-flowing attack minded football, or a fan’s recollections of an important victory against a fierce rival; perhaps somebody referencing the successful development of Man Utd’s youth into world class talent?
A great attribute of sport – and football in particular – is that it provokes opinion and debate effortlessly. For a club of Manchester United’s stature, any deviation from their own high standards of success amplifies the process of inquiry.

Alpha Males and Autocratic Leadership

The appointment of David Moyes as Manager is increasingly reflected upon as a transition period which didn’t go to plan. The swift and recent appointment of Louis van Gaal as Manchester United’s manager [19th May 2014] takes the club in a different direction again. In some ways Louis van Gaal’s leadership style has parallels with Ferguson’s: strong values; clear standards; absolute authority. In Ferguson’s time those who crossed him, or fell short of Manchester United’s standards, quickly found themselves playing for another club. Louis van Gaal maintains a similar reputation.

The ‘Make or Buy’ dilemma

In his short tenure, Louis van Gall his has spent in the region of £150m bringing in new players. He’s also started the process of shaping his team, which includes the controversial sale of highly rated home grown player Danny Wellbeck to Arsenal for £16m. Are we witnessing the start of a new ‘Manchester United way’ – one where success is bought rather than developed in-house?

The Guardian provided additional commentary on the situation:

Ryan Giggs has denied Manchester United’s recent transfer policy represents a betrayal of Old Trafford traditions, although Nicky Butt, the club’s reserve team manager, admitted promoting homegrown talent must take a back seat under Louis van Gaal.
United have spent £215m on new players over the past 12 months and off loaded the academy graduates Danny Welbeck to Arsenal and Tom Cleverley to Aston Villa on the day Colombia international Radamel Falcao arrived on loan from Monaco .

That turnover prompted Mike Phelan, United’s former assistant manager, to accuse the club of losing their identity, while Eric Harrison, the ex-youth team manager who brought through the famed “Class of 92”, said United were losing “their soul” as a consequence.
There’s a certain paradox and tension between retaining tried and tested methods versus embracing new and different ways of working.

Like any organisation, Manchester United has various metrics to measure its success – trophies remain the currency that most fans prefer to use – but perhaps here is one of the biggest misnomers of football – football is increasingly commercially focused. Sure the fans crave the bragging rights that go with winning, but there are other stakeholders to consider too.

‘Something Special’

Sir Alex had an enviable reputation for developing the potential in players, nurturing youth into world-class talent; examples include: Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Gary and Phil Neville and Nicky Butt – there are others too. Perhaps aged 63, Louis van Gaal perceives time is not on his side? Perhaps his experience helps him recognize the urgency in returning Manchester United back to be serious challengers for honours? If he doesn’t succeed quickly, perhaps another candidate will be afforded the opportunity?

Manchester United’s various stakeholders – its fans, directors, owners, sponsors – and indeed its closest rivals all expect Manchester Utd to be serious contenders for honours. Few other clubs have history and expectation to deliver success – Louis van Gaal is shaping the future of club which many regard as ‘something special’. How he delivers will be watched with great interest.


July 14th 2014 

The Adidas shirt deal is worth £750 million over ten years.

September 14th 2014

Manchester United beat Queen’s Park Rangers 4-0 Van Gaal’s team with its costly Galacticos win in style at Old Trafford. Move from 17th to 9th in league table.

September 15th 2014

Disenchanted Ronaldo wants move back to Manchester United.