Manchester United’s interest in recruiting Dan Ashworth is long-standing, with the club having offered him role at Old Trafford prior to him joining Newcastle as their Sporting Director.
When Richard Arnold was appointed Chief Executive at United in February 2022, The Athletic reports he conducted a “root-and-branch review” of the protocols and structures in place at the club. Arnold was said to have asked particularly “hard questions” about United’s recruitment, believing the return on transfers amounting to £1 billion of spending to be poor.
The result of the inquest was the removal of two of the club’s chief scouts – Jim Lawlor and Marcel Bout. The executives described as the “main architects” of the structure at Old Trafford – John Murtough and Steve Brown – remained in place.
As part of the process, Arnold had consulted both Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill for their opinions on the systemic issues at the club. Ferguson – who considered Lawlor a long-term friend – advised the Arnold to “scrutinise” Murtough, and personally recommended an approach for Ashworth.
Ashworth’s success at “building a club structure at Brighton”, as well as his previous work at West Bromich Albion and for the English Football Association, were thought to have impressed senior figures across the Premier League, including Ferguson.
Arnold adhered to this salient advice and informally contacted Ashworth about joining the executive branch at Old Trafford, before he had agreed to relocate to St James’ Park.
Laurie Whitwell reveals, however, the role structure Arnold had outlined for Ashworth – “working under Murtough rather than as his superior” – led to the executive declining to enter formal talks. He agreed to take up the Sporting Director position at Newcastle shortly after.
The Tyneside club’s transfer success the season following Ashworth’s appointment, which saw Newcastle spend in the region of £140 million on Nick Pope, Sven Botman, Anthony Gordon and Alexander Isak, stands in flattering comparison to the same amount Murtough sanctioned on hastily-arranged moves for Antony and Casemiro last year.
Pope, Botman, Gordon and Isak fit a consistent mould of young athletic players capable of dropping straight into the clearly-defined play style Eddie Howe has cultivated at St James’ Park. All four have been integral parts of the first-team since their arrivals. The only consistencies between the Antony and Casemiro signings are ones of nationality and overpayment.
Howe even went as far as publicly acknowledging the influential role Ashworth has played in his press-conference today:
“I think whenever someone is in the role of importance that Dan is, hugely important and he’s done a really good job in helping us in loads of different ways, building departments, the training ground, he’s connected with everything that goes on in terms of the decision making at the football club.
“He’s hugely important and has been a really calming influence behind the scenes, his vast experience has really helped.”
It’s a similar story at Brighton – a club continuing to enjoy the fruits of Ashworth’s influence, nearly two years after his departure.
The Seagulls sold their midfield pairing of Alexis Mac Allister and Moises Caicedo this summer for a total of around £150 million, though this fee may still grow depending on future add-ons. By comparison, both players arrived at the Amex Stadium under Ashworth’s watch for a combined outlay of only £11 million; a near fourteenfold profit margin.
When was the last instance of a player signed by United who maintained their initial market value while at Old Trafford, let alone increased it?
Caicedo was even a player tracked closely by scouts at Old Trafford, with former winger Antonio Valencia said to have given a “glowing” assessment of the midfielder. United officials considered a move but deemed the process “too messy” due to complications in Caicedo’s representation.
Brighton – with Ashworth’s guidance – did not agree, instead striking a skilfully-negotiated £4 million deal for the Ecuadorian three weeks after United had described the situation as an unresolvable “clusterf–k.” This description feels particularly ironic given how aptly it applies to the executive branch at Old Trafford themselves. Though it may not be one which holds true for much longer, however.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s minority stake ownership bid is drawing increasingly closer to be ratified. The deal is said to include his INEOS sporting team assuming full control over the football operation at Old Trafford.
Though a careful and comprehensive overview of the current structure will be conducted by the new ownership team, led primarily by Sir Dave Brailsford, sources close to the deal indicate a new sporting director and a transfer specialist will both be appointed, regardless of the findings of this internal audit.
Ashworth is thought to be at the front of the queue for the director’s role, as explained in greater detail here. He is a “close friend” of Brailsford and is believed to have particularly impressed Ratcliffe, who appears more willing to accept the sage wisdom of Ferguson than Arnold was.
The executive’s current contract at Newcastle will make his pursuit a costly one, however. Ashworth has twelve months remaining on his £1.5 million-a-year deal and does not have a set release clause installed in his contract. Consequently, Newcastle would “demand far more than [this]…to release him early.”
But when you consider how badly United have wasted a staggering £1 billion on recruitment over the past decade (the same decade in which Murtough’s influence at the club began and has steadly grown since), a few extra million to secure the right person at the head of the football operation quickly becomes a bargain.