Manchester United’s issues run far deeper than Ole: Neil Humphreys
The rot at Old Trafford starts at the Glazers, not at the sacked Norwegian manager
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was the ideal manager for the Glazer family. He was house-trained and submissive, a grateful puppy for greedy owners.
And putting down the puppy doesn't generally stop the house from falling down.
But that was never the point, was it? It's not about the house. Indeed, the Theatre of Dreams is tired, rundown and in dire need of renovation, a visual metaphor that is almost too obvious for a club in a mess entirely of its own making.
Solskjaer was a symptom at Manchester United, a by-product of something far more malignant that's been allowed to fester for years, so it's a little late to feign ignorance when he's inevitably sacked.
Forgive me if you've heard this one before, but the Glazers do not care about football, formations or an erratic transfer policy. They are a gaggle of Ted Lassos without the folksy charm, just a slavish devotion to annual returns.
Last week, according to the Manchester Evening News, United's net debt had risen to £439.7 million (S$805.1m), but dividends of £23m were paid to the owners in the 2019/20 financial year. The Glazers are set to receive around £9.4m as part of the latest biannual tranche of dividend payments in January, according to The Athletic.
Greed is the word. Conventionality belongs to yesterday. Dysfunction is today's state of play at Old Trafford. The manager is practically irrelevant at this point.
And has United ever endured a less relevant manager than Solskjaer?
Beaming in his club blazer like a class prefect suddenly promoted to school principal, the Norwegian took on the impossible job with a pre-pubescent enthusiasm that was almost cruel to watch. Sadly, the 48-year-old confused club loyalty with Glazer loyalty.
Solskjaer thought he was building a football club, when the owners have, of course, been building an omnipotent, corporate brand, slapping United logos on tins of paint and pillows and mattresses to service grotesque debts and pay out those dividends.
As long as regular Champions League qualification was guaranteed and enough social media influencers were signed, then little else mattered, not even trophies.
Incompetence was tolerated throughout United's crumbling football hierarchy as the Glazers positioned their compliant buffers to take the hits for them.
Solskjaer won nothing and said nothing. So he survived longer than his experience and results merited (the threat of losing Champions League cash finished him in the end).
Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward instigated plans for the repugnant European Super League, conducted transfer negotiations like a tourist at a pasar malam and promised to walk away more times than Frank Sinatra. But he survives.
He provides a punching bag for his absentee American employers, taking the relentless blows from press and punters alike. He blunders from one misjudged signing and managerial sacking to another, never taking the team forward, just propping up the brand.
Indeed, nothing encapsulated the regressing club like Cristiano Ronaldo's signing.
At Liverpool, Juergen Klopp wanted a leading goalkeeper and centre-back to win trophies. He got both. At Manchester City, Pep Guardiola searched for a centre-back to guide his club back to the summit. He achieved both.
At United, Solskjaer clearly needed a holding midfielder and defensive cover to build on last season's second-placed finish. He ended up with a 36-year-old striker who promised regular goals in an irregular system as Ronaldo no longer pressed in a counter-pressing league.
On the plus side, the Red Devils' social media figures were astronomical, no doubt increasing sales for their official mattress provider in China.
Ronaldo's signing felt like the tipping point in United's existential crisis. What exactly is the club's purpose now?
From hiring fading names like Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho to inexperienced club legends like Solskjaer, the Red Devils are stumbling towards irrelevance like a bizarre hybrid of Real Madrid's Galacticos of the 2000s and the Harlem Globetrotters.
They'll pack out global stadiums for pre-season exhibitions, fill sports bars from Mumbai to Melbourne and boast a social media footprint that is the envy of rivals still focused primarily on building a long-term coaching and playing framework.
But there is no football plan. Still. There is no coherent goal. There is nothing tangible beyond a commitment to shareholders. United, a magnificent sporting institution, is no longer handled with care.
Solskjaer's replacement may well apply a Band-Aid for a bit. Van Gaal, Mourinho and even the Norwegian all performed that trick, convincing supporters that it was just a flesh wound.
Of course it wasn't. The rot set in years ago, when a proud club was hijacked and turned into a private ATM.
At least Solskjaer left with his dignity intact. The Glazers will not be able to say the same.