How should Manchester United have dealt with manager speculation?
Since his arrival at Old Trafford less than two years ago, Louis van Gaal has struggled to convince the Manchester United faithful that he is the right man to replace Sir Alex Ferguson as the club’s long-term manager.
Despite a CV that includes coaching Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, as well as the Dutch national team, Van Gaal’s brand of football and man management has come under the kind of close scrutiny he would have expected at a club the size of United.
Following the failure of the club to mount a serious title challenge or progress in the Champions League and having spent £250m on players, most of whom have been underwhelming to say the least, speculation has mounted that Van Gaal would be replaced.
And with Jose Mourinho looking for a new team, his name has been bandied around in the media as a possible successor almost since his departure from Chelsea last December.
But it is a public relations disaster for news to leak that he was to be replaced almost before his team had even changed out of their playing kit after savouring an extra-time victory at Wembley.
The fact that Van Gaal apparently had no idea that he was to be relieved of his duties added to the fact that this episode has not been managed well, with reports that his wife told him the news after reading it online soon after he lifted the trophy last Saturday.
United clearly had not learnt from their previous mistakes, with David Moyes having learnt of his own dismissal in the media before the club made it official.
So what should United have done to improve their handling of this situation?
1. Ensure all staff understand the importance of confidentiality to prevent more leaks. Reports before and since the FA Cup final have talked of player disillusionment and arguments over tactics
2. If the speculation was untrue, United should have issued an immediate response underlining their commitment to their manager, denying the media speculation and confirming that Van Gaal would remain in charge next season
3. If the rumours were in fact correct as we now know, they should have planned ahead and prepared a statement in advance in case their plans to relieve Van Gaal of his duties leaked to the media. That would have given them the opportunity to take a proactive approach, retain some control and buy some time even if the new managerial appointment had not been signed and sealed
4. At the same time, senior executives should have ensured that a meeting with Van Gaal was held quickly to ensure that he was appraised of the situation
Van Gaal’s seemingly inevitable departure will surprise few.
His team has not played the exciting brand of football Manchester United fans expect. In fact, they scored only one more goal than Sunderland this season, who left it until very late to secure their top flight status.
He has fallen out with the media and criticised some for asking questions which would appear to be perfectly reasonable; responded as if the performance of his team was far better than that which everyone else had just witnessed; and used language that confused and bemused at times.
Following in Sir Alex Ferguson’s footsteps is always going to be a challenge, even when given the sort of transfer funds Van Gaal was provided.
One wonders if Ferguson would have been given the time he needed to bring silverware and titles to Old Trafford if he had been appointed in the past five years, given his initial struggles at the club.
United’s executives and communications team certainly have lessons to learn after this episode – once is careless but for it to happen twice does not reflect well on a club of United’s stature.