Why Manchester United used a soft touch – perhaps too soft – with Louis van Gaal right to the end

24 May

Louis van Gaal delivered a tearful address to his Manchester United staff as the reality of his Old Trafford departure began to dawn on the Dutchman, the morning after the club’s FA Cup triumph at Wembley last Saturday.


Having called together his backroom team, and everyone from the club’s media department to catering staff who had enjoyed the post-Cup final celebrations at London’s Corinthia Hotel, Van Gaal spoke of the loyalty shown to him and praised the commitment and work ethic of the “team behind the team”.

Van Gaal insisted “everyone should cherish” the joy of ending United’s 12-year FA Cup drought at Wembley before sitting down for breakfast after the emotion in his voice had prompted tears to well in the eyes of many in the room — the 64-year-old included.

For all of the resentment and frustration towards the manager that had built up among Van Gaal’s players, the former Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach formed close relationships with many behind the scenes at Old Trafford and his dismissal continues to be mourned by those who accept the reality of football life, but nonetheless regret the manner of his exit.

Van Gaal earned the respect of the ground staff at the club’s Carrington training ground with his cheery morning greetings — “Much more polite than the last lot”, claimed one groundsman in a thinly-veiled dig at David Moyes’s coaching team — and enjoyed the canteen banter with head chef Mike Donnelly, who regularly offered Van Gaal an unfiltered opinion on performances and the importance of victories over Liverpool and Manchester City.

Ed Woodward, the man who was forced to dismiss Van Gaal in role as executive vice-chairman, also developed a close bond with the manager, which influenced his decision to drive to his Cheshire home on Sunday evening to break the news in person.

It is also why Woodward sanctioned the hiring of a private jet to carry Van Gaal and his wife, Truus, to the Algarve on Monday evening before the club confirmed his departure at 8.30pm.

There had to be an element of cold-headed ruthlessness for Van Gaal to be sacked — there can be no softening of the brutal reality when a job is being taken away — but United and Woodward attempted to make it as humane a dismissal as possible, which is ultimately as much a sign of weakness as strength.

For all of the criticism directed towards United in recent days over the public ordeal endured by Van Gaal and those close to him prior to confirmation of his sacking, the club had attempted to protect their manager ever since his position became the subject of daily scrutiny last December.

Throughout the past six months, United have consistently and steadfastly refused to brief on the manager’s future, straight-batting every enquiry about his position or the interest in Jose Mourinho.

When AS, the Spanish newspaper with close links to Mourinho’s agent, Jorge Mendes, reported on Saturday morning that the Portuguese would replace Van Gaal after the Cup final, United maintained their stance of saying nothing.

But Mourinho’s arrival at United has long been football’s worst-kept secret, with only Van Gaal seemingly oblivious to the reality that the man who worked under him as a coach at Barcelona would be taking his job.

So were United and Woodward right to keep Van Gaal in the dark or has his departure just been another case of a football club failing to sack a manager with dignity?

Van Gaal was at least spared the indignity of being sacked in the corridor, as Carlo Ancelotti suffered when dismissed by Chelsea following a defeat at Everton in May 2011, 12 months after winning the league and FA Cup Double.

But the run-up to Van Gaal’s departure bore uncanny similarities to Roberto Mancini’s dismissal at Manchester City in 2013, when the Italian patrolled the touchline at Wembley during the FA Cup final having woken to headlines from Spain that Manuel Pellegrini had been lined up to replace him.

Mancini’s City lost to Wigan that day, in contrast to United’s win against Crystal Palace, but his number was up regardless of the outcome of that FA Cup final.

Such is football management. Van Gaal’s name emerged as a successor to Moyes while the Scot was still in a job at Old Trafford, while Mancini had been hired to take charge of City before Mark Hughes managed his final game at the Etihad Stadium.

There is no easy or painless way to make a change.

If a club is ruthless, they are condemned, yet equally, criticism rains down when a manager is sacked after being given time to save himself, despite the seemingly inevitable conclusion, as was the case with United and Van Gaal.

Had Woodward dispensed with his services following a winless December, when United also suffered Champions League elimination, Van Gaal could have had no complaints and Mourinho may have been able to steer the team back on course for a top-four finish had he arrived at Old Trafford at that point.

But Woodward’s sense of loyalty to Van Gaal, and trust in his methods, prompted him to give the manager the opportunity to save his skin and United’s season.

Misplaced loyalty, perhaps, but Woodward also stood by Moyes when the wheels began to fall off during his tenure and only pulled the trigger once Champions League qualification was beyond his team.

With Moyes, Woodward also insisted on telling the former Everton manager personally that his time was up, even though the United executive had been beaten to the punch by the newspapers 24 hours earlier.

In the eyes of the supporters, both Moyes and Van Gaal had long been past their sell-by date by the time Woodward called time on their reigns, so if he has been guilty of anything, it has been a determination to ignore the noise and allow time for the situation to change.

Perhaps it is why Van Gaal felt moved to thanks United for their support within his post-sacking statement — a statement he insisted on making “to mark the end of his career”.

So on this occasion, United handled their manager’s departure with a light touch and as much respect as possible in the circumstances.

They will hope that it is a while before they have to make the next change, however.

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