Man United feeling the pinch as Sir Jim Ratcliffe makes changes

It was in early January that Sir Jim Ratcliffe was able to finally address Manchester United staff directly following the official announcement of his £1.3 billion investment in the club.

Gathered in a lounge at Old Trafford, the 71-year-old British billionaire and CEO of INEOS said he wasn’t interested in making money from United and that his only goal was to reestablish them as a genuine challenger for the most prestigious trophies at home and in Europe. The same staff were used to speeches from former CEO Richard Arnold, who would talk via Zoom in front of a background of memorabilia from his favourite sport — rugby.

Ratcliffe’s approach and his promise to focus on creating a winning team rather than commercial success were so well-received that he drew a round of applause. Sources have told ESPN that staff left that January meeting with a sense of optimism that had disappeared almost completely during nearly 20 years of Glazer ownership.

But five months on, the mood at United is different. Staff have received emails from Ratcliffe pointing out what he described as “untidiness” around the Old Trafford stadium and the training complex at Carrington. They were also told in May that a flexible work-from-home policy would end, with everyone expected to permanently return to offices in Manchester or London by June 3.

Traditional perks such as an all-expenses-paid trip to the FA Cup final at Wembley have been scrapped, with employees told to “contribute towards coach travel” and reminded that “lunch will not be provided.” Three days after a 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the final, all non-football staff were emailed with a link allowing them to apply for redundancy with a promise that anyone stepping forward would receive their yearly bonus early.

In one email, Ratcliffe said the cost-cutting measures were necessary “to ensure we can invest as much as possible into the club over the coming months to achieve our goal of returning Manchester United back to the top of English, European and world football.” A number of sources have told ESPN that many staff feel they are being made to pay for two decades of mismanagement under the Glazers and that the edicts from Ratcliffe have only served to create an atmosphere of anxiety and nervousness inside the club. Aside from internal emails, Ratcliffe has continued to talk about a glowing future for the club but fans are ready for action rather than just words.

There have been other missteps. Not one of Ratcliffe’s inner circle attended the Women’s FA Cup final at Wembley in early May to see United beat Tottenham Hotspur 4-0. Instead, the team was honoured with a congratulatory post on the INEOS X account. In contrast, sources have told ESPN that there were so many employees linked to Ratcliffe and INEOS in attendance at the men’s final that some other club-ticket holders had to be moved to different parts of the stadium.

There has been dismay, too, at how manager Erik ten Hag has been treated since the cup final. He was congratulated on the day by Ratcliffe, who sat in the Royal Box, with a handshake — while Pep Guardiola, the losing manager of United’s local rivals, was given a hug.

Ratcliffe opted against referencing Ten Hag by name in a statement released after the game and refused to answer questions about the Dutchman’s future. During an INEOS-led end-of-season review that lasted more than two weeks, Ten Hag — on holiday in Ibiza — was left in the dark about whether he was still the club’s manager while talks, some of them extremely detailed, took place with other candidates.

Having eventually decided to stick with Ten Hag, United sources highlighted the 54-year-old’s “dignity and professionalism” as one of their key reasons. Privately, some staff have questioned whether Ratcliffe and INEOS have treated Ten Hag in the same way. Many have been left feeling sorry for him and wondering whether he will be able to wield the same authority after being so openly undermined.

Against the backdrop of uncertainty surrounding the manager, sources have told ESPN that there is a feeling among agents and intermediaries that United are already behind with their summer transfer business compared with other clubs. United have denied that’s the case, although there is an acceptance that recruitment will not be “up to full speed” until Dan Ashworth is in place as sporting director. Ashworth has been on gardening leave from Newcastle United since February, with no end to the stand-off over compensation for his recruitment in sight.

Despite concerns among club staff, there is still plenty of hope among fans that Ratcliffe’s arrival and the Glazer family taking a backseat will trigger a revival. It’s been more than 10 years since United last won the Premier League and more than 15 years since they lifted the Champions League. If Ratcliffe can end those droughts relatively quickly then the tough start to his Old Trafford reign will soon be forgotten.

With Ten Hag now confirmed as manager for the foreseeable future and transfer business picking up pace, a successful summer reshaping the squad will quickly bring back the wave of optimism on which Ratcliffe rode in.