The potential addition of the former United defender shows a willingness to change but one man alone won’t arrest the club’s recent slide
“He was just telling me the ins and outs of what he actually gets up to there,” explained Rio Ferdinand when asked by BT Sport on Tuesday what his pre-game discussions with Edwin van der Sar entailed.
Van der Sar has been a roaring success as Ajax’s chief executive officer, and after taking a first-leg lead in their Champions League semi-final clash away to Tottenham they are now on the verge of a first final since the 6ft 5in Dutchman kept goal for them back in 1996.
Ferdinand, meanwhile, is looking to follow his former Manchester United team-mate’s lead after it was revealed that the ex-England defender has had talks with the Old Trafford club in relation to the technical director role they are hoping to fill in the coming months.
The exact plan for Ferdinand is as curious as it is undisclosed, since United surely need far more adding to their management hierarchy if they are to right their wayward ship any time soon.
Many were quick to identify Van der Sar himself as an option for United when, on the same night that Man Utd were being eliminated by Barcelona in the Champions League, Ajax were adding Juventus to Real Madrid’s name on their list of scalps this season.
But the 48-year-old was quick to distance himself for the time being: “I know United is a much bigger challenge than Ajax. United is not just a big and famous club, but also a worldwide brand. United is a special place. Who knows, eventually? But for the coming years I’m here.”
And in any case, Van der Sar’s position at Ajax is just a part of a carefully-structured backroom setup at the Johan Cruyff Arena. In Marc Overmars, the 33-times Dutch champions have a director of football in the more common vision of the term. He is the person responsible for transfer policy and ultimately in charge of decisions made in the football side of the business.
Van der Sar’s role is more akin to a football affairs executive, helping to set the technical framework within which those decisions are made and providing a public face for the operation. In comparison to this, what United need to ask themselves is whether Ferdinand can contribute both aspects and, if not, to which of the two areas he is most suited to.
There is clearly an appeal in bringing Ferdinand on board given his high profile in the game, and it is something which is in short supply at management level in the club right now. Since the exits of Sir Alex Ferguson and CEO David Gill in 2013, United have been sadly lacking in compelling characters pitching transfers to potential targets.
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Ed Woodward’s strengths and shortcomings are a well-worn subject, and the pending recruitment of a technical director is a concession on his part that the football side of his mandate has not seen the same successes he has achieved on a commercial level.
But if Ferdinand is to take a lead role in transfer policy, that would leave a huge amount of responsibility on a man taking his first step into football leadership. Overmars, to be fair, was in the same boat when taking the director of football position at Ajax, but he has had Van der Sar to turn to for counsel since 2016 as the CEO and for four years before that as the club’s marketing director.
United undoubtedly miss Ferguson’s pull as a guardian of the game when attempting to attract new signings, and in manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer they have a respected former player but not somebody with the high-profile charisma to get players begging to become involved with the club’s future project.
Ferdinand has a far greater attraction level thanks to his outgoing, charismatic nature and his standing as one of the best English defenders of modern times. If he can transmit this in conversation with some of the stars of the current game like potential target Jadon Sancho – as well as those currently considering their future at United such as Paul Pogba – then there is a role for him to play. He also has a significant array of contacts in the game, making his network a huge possible addition to United’s portfolio.
Whether in his role as a TV pundit, his various commercial ventures, or even his short-lived bid to become a boxer, Ferdinand has remained front and centre in the public consciousness since his retirement from the game and as part of the BT Sport team he has come across as a considered and knowledgeable authority on the game.
But question marks will certainly remain as to his calibre as a transfer operator, if that is indeed earmarked as part of his potential remit. On the face of it, Ferdinand seems better suited for a role similar to that of Van der Sar rather than Overmars’ position as the chief football operator but, either way, he can’t do everything. And if it is to be the goalkeeper’s role he is to emulate, then will anything actually change if Woodward calls the shots when it comes to United transfers?
United clearly have a lot to consider, and perhaps this is why they have taken so long in pondering their options. The way that Woodward has taken power away even from Jose Mourinho – one of the most single-minded of managers in recent times – suggests that the club’s board wants to have a real handle on what happens on the football side, but some of that will need to be relaxed if United are to begin to get back on track.
And what role does Ferdinand play in that? If his potential appointment were to be the only addition, then United will be asking for trouble. Even Van der Sar has spoken about how much bigger a job guiding United is compared to Ajax, and there need to be multiple additions made if the Reds are to follow the Godenzonen’s lead in returning to the top echelons of the European game.
Now that the club have decided to create a ‘United Way’ of doing things, they need to ascertain exactly what that entails and it needs to be a lot more than just electing a former star defender into a position of prominence as a PR exercise. The transformation of Manchester United needs to be a very real, calculated realignment to suit the modern world.
Whatever the depth of his role, Ferdinand must be only the first step rather than the final piece in the jigsaw.