Ed Woodward on transfers, Covid-19 impact and Manchester United's role in Project Big Picture

United's executive vice-chairman tells fans forum club are lobbying for supporters to be allowed to return to watch games at Old Trafford

Manchester United’s leading executive, Ed Woodward, has explained the club’s situation to a recent fans’ forum held at Old Trafford.

United endured a poor start to the season before an upturn in recent form.

“What happens on the field is clearly our top priority, and while it’s not the same without fans in the stadium, we’ve seen lots of highs since our last meeting in April [the previous forum meeting], with that 14-game unbeaten run to finish third in last season’s Premier League and great wins against PSG and RB Leipzig on our return to the Champions League this season,” said Woodward.

“Of course we recognise and accept there’s more hard work ahead to achieve the consistency needed to win trophies. But we’ve seen enough positive signs on the pitch and the training ground to reinforce our belief in the progress being made by Ole [Gunnar Solskjaer], his coaching team and the players.”

United were criticized for their summer transfer inactivity before a flurry of signings on deadline day.

“I told this forum back in April that we remained committed to strengthening the squad, while being disciplined in our spending during the pandemic,” said Woodward. “I believe we’ve delivered on that, with the additions we made during the summer taking our total net spending to over €200m since summer 2019 – more than any other major European club over that period. We will continue to support Ole with a planned, long-term approach to recruitment, focused on the summer windows.”

United, like all clubs, have been hit by the impact of Covid-19, as Woodward explained.

“While our strong commercial business puts us in a more resilient position than many clubs, these remain exceptionally challenging times for everyone in football, and especially for clubs in the lower divisions. We have been pushing the rest of the Premier League to provide emergency assistance to the EFL [English Football League] on a no-strings-attached basis and we will also remain at the forefront of discussions about reforms to improve the long-term financial sustainability of the entire English football pyramid.

“A strong Premier League and a financially sustainable and robust pyramid are both crucial to the health of the national game and that’s the principle we will continue to pursue within the strategic review recently launched by the Premier League.”

He was keen to talk about United's role in the heavily criticised Project Big Picture. "Those objectives were at the heart of our involvement. It's important to reflect that these were work in progress. This is not a behind-closed-doors power grab, only draft proposals and a discussion document. The next step would have been to roll them out to all stakeholders in search of consensus."

United are also involved in talks about the future of European football with several bodies.

“We are also at the centre of discussions about the future of European club competitions and, as with the reporting of Project Big Picture, context is important,” said Woodward. “Most of my time in this regard is focused, through the ECA [European Club Association] and the UCCSA, on the strengthening of existing Uefa club competitions. The dialogue focuses on them continuing to be predominantly midweek games having little or no impact on the Premier League. We believe that any changes to European competition post-2024 must be complementary to thriving domestic leagues. Other domestic leagues feel the same way, reflected in conversation with our counterparts in other clubs and countries.”

Woodward wanted to reassure match-going fans who are concerned about any changes.

“What I can assure you of is that we will keep match-going fans firmly in the centre of thoughts, whether with the Premier League, ECA or Uefa, and across our decision-making processes overall, because the past eight months has reminded us all of just how crucial you are to the fabric of the game. This game without fans is nothing.”

Those fans will return to Old Trafford this month if Manchester drops from the UK government's Tier 3 to Tier 2 status. Initially that will be just 2,000 fans in a 75,000-seater stadium.

“As a minimum we are asking that government treats football consistently with other sectors,” said Woodward. “It seems strange that a non-league game with 600 fans is allowed whist crowds at games further up the pyramid are not. There is also clearly inconsistency with aeroplanes and cinemas vs a game outdoors. We believe the risks associated with watching football in the outdoors at Old Trafford will be significantly less than in many other leisure settings and we will continue to work with fan groups to strongly make this case. We trust our fans and know that they will maintain social distancing. It can be frustrating if the game becomes a political football.”