Ed Woodward was the Manchester United representative at the medal ceremony in Stockholm four years ago and it is just as well he was out of sight in Gdansk.
The Uefa president, Alexander Ceferin, was present to place the silver medals on United players’ slumped shoulders and would have relished commiserating Woodward, one of the ‘snakes’ in the Super League ‘s nest.
Woodward eluded photographers at the Gdansk Stadium, where his budding successor Richard Arnold waved cheerily. Woodward’s eight-year tenure as executive vice-chairman ends as it started: trophyless.
Ceferin had his neutral hat on but must be privately pleased Villarreal, whose only previous ‘honour’ was the Intertoto Cup – a competition that had no cup – had overcome one of the Super League rebels.
Sir Alex Ferguson, still refusing to condemn the Glazers family’s ownership, stood on behalf of United as player after player removed their medal as though a snake had dropped on their neck. They cared. Woodward and the Glazers seemingly did not after they devalued
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s pre-match press conference ran past the 20-minute mark and the post-match debrief clocked in at well under half that time. He hit all the right notes in defeat.
“Trophies matter and that’s what matters at this club,” he lugubriously replied when asked if United’s season was a success. “No, is the short answer.” And the correct one.
The trip down memory lane and the Ferguson factor was overplayed in the build-up to United’s eighth European final. Manchester City fans revel in taunting United they are ‘stuck in the past’ and the club is teaching more history lessons than Liverpool in their fallow years.
Solskjaer has at least been looking forward these past weeks, cranking up the pressure on the Glazers to invest sufficiently in the squad. He must be mindful of the last time United came second in 2018, when Woodward and the Glazers refused to back Mourinho and then sacked him before the end of the year.
The outcome of the Europa League final cannot have a bearing on United’s aims for 2021-22. Their Premier League progress demands a championship challenge, at the very minimum. The first XI is short of at least three upgrades if they are to reach the summit and stay there.
“I’ve been delighted with the effort, the desire, the determination of all of the players, I can’t fault them at all,” Solskjaer stressed. “We’ve probably done as well as anyone could imagine.
“We are here now, we need to do better, we need to work better, work harder, cleverer. But, as I said, two or three players to strengthen the starting XI and the squad all together is important for us to go even further.
“Because I’m sure our contenders or challengers will also want to improve and we want to improve as much as we can.”
City were planning on recruiting Erling Haaland and Jack Grealish as recently as last month, Thomas Tuchel is shaking things up at Chelsea and Liverpool will retaliate. The competition has not been this intense since Guardiola first strolled down Deansgate five years ago.
Solskjaer’s position is as safe as houses but there are nagging doubts he is The Man to make United champions again. The two cup defeats to Leicester and Villarreal were rife with mismanagement before and during the ties. Solskjaer got little right in Gdansk other than banking on his substitutes converting penalties.
Marcus Rashford, a dubious selection, produced the worst performance of his career yet lasted the full duration. Juan Foyth, deemed surplus by Tottenham, pocketed Rashford and the United winger repeatedly ran into him like a nervous learner driver ploughing into cones.
Solskjaer knew Rashford was flagging and clapped at him encouragingly. Rashford required treatment and stayed on. He has been overplayed over the last year.
The brutal truth is Solskjaer was not brave enough to remove a player as untouchable on the pitch as off it. United had Juan Mata, Donny van de Beek, Amad, and Daniel James in reserve. Three of those players are Solskjaer signings and James only emerged to replace Pogba.
“We felt the players out there – you’ve got Mason and Marcus, matchwinners in their own right. Bruno Ed, can create anything, Scott I felt was the best player on the pitch and Paul. It’s difficult to make that change,” Solskjaer explained. That was the patent problem with United’s XI – it was unbalanced. Still, the faceless social media trolls had demanded Fred’s demotion.
The mismanagement of the goalkeeping situation ultimately cost United silverware. If Solskjaer was not going to entertain removing Rashford he was never going to consider hooking David de Gea, infamous for his poor penalty record, for Dean Henderson.