Driven and ruthless: The man tasked with transforming Man Utd

What was going through the mind of Sir Dave Brailsford as he watched from the stands as Manchester United limply lost at Nottingham Forest?

After conducting an audit of United’s operations and transfer business, perhaps the “inconsistent and awful” performance – as Sky Sports’ Gary Neville put it – came as no surprise.

Certainly, after seeing the team with his own eyes, spending months researching into every aspect of the club and, this week, beginning his work at Carrington in earnest, the scale of the most difficult and high-profile challenge of his career will be clear.

INEOS owner and soon-to-be confirmed United investor Sir Jim Ratcliffe has given Brailsford a leading role in overhauling the football structure and culture of the club. Brailsford's exact position is to be announced but it looks set to be significant.

This is the man who revolutionised cycling in Great Britain, transforming the Olympic team from also-rans into the dominant force on the track, before masterminding seven Tour de France wins in eight years as boss of Team Sky and Team INEOS.

A British rider had never won cycling’s most prestigious race before that era. Under Brailsford’s leadership, three won it across six of those editions.

But how will Brailsford approach this new, daunting task? And does he have the skills, personality and experience to have the same impact in the highly-scrutinised world of football as he did in the sport of cycling?

Peter Smith sat down with top cycling journalist Daniel Friebe to discuss the foundations of Brailsford’s success, how he’s dealt with and overcome problems in the past, and what impact he will have as he steps into a crucial - and long-coveted - role at one of the world’s biggest and most historic football clubs…

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More than marginal gains

For many, Brailsford is Mr Marginal Gains. His theory is success can be achieved by improving many areas of performance by one per cent, rather than trying to transform one component. But the catchphrase has also become a tool used by Brailsford’s critics. Bradley Wiggins called it “a load of rubbish”. But for better or worse, the idea has stuck.

“He wished he’d never used that term,” says Friebe. “Over the next months or years, any kind of negative outcome or positive outcome for Man Utd, people are going say, ‘It's because of the marginal gains’.

“But every great sports team manifests marginal gains. With track cycling in particular, they had that really great quality feedback [from data] so those marginal gains were crystal clear.

“It's harder to get good feedback - or was - in a sport like football. Now there are more tools - GPS monitoring, training load data and so forth - but I think there are far more soft factors in a sport like football.”

Managing those other elements of performance is where Brailsford’s personality comes in. Beyond the method there is the man and Brailsford is someone who demands success.

While he may have walked into a favourable environment when he first joined British Cycling – where there was both scope for rapid improvement and newly-launched lottery funding to fuel it – he also had the character required to install an elite culture. There are stories of athletes who suffered in the coldness of that environment – but the sporting results were emphatic.  

“Driven, ambitious, ruthless,” is how Friebe describes him. Three traits which will encourage United supporters. 

Brailsford with eight-time Olympic medallist and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins

Brailsford with eight-time Olympic medallist and Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins

Brailsford with Chris Hoy, who won six Olympic gold medals

Brailsford with Chris Hoy, who won six Olympic gold medals

Ruthless… just how Fergie advised him to be

Driven? Brailsford lived in a camper van at the Nice training ground as he tried to improve the fortunes of the INEOS-owned Ligue 1 side. Ambitious? The scale of his achievements in cycling and his move to work beyond that sport are examples of that.

Ruthless? You don’t oversee a programme which delivers 18 Olympic gold medals without making tough calls. Brailsford has made plenty of those – and he will have to make many more as he tries to right the course of Man Utd.

Interestingly, Brailsford’s strong decision making was encouraged by legendary United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Brailsford sat next to Sir Alex Ferguson during Man Utd's defeat at Nottingham Forest

Brailsford sat next to Sir Alex Ferguson during Man Utd's defeat at Nottingham Forest

 “I've known Dave for 15 years and interviewed him regularly when he was a fixture at bike races,” says Friebe. “Something you've always heard and always observed is this kind of ruthlessness. It used to come back in everything you'd hear about him.

 “People have said, ‘Oh, he's not easy to work with’. I've known people who have worked with him and have talked about, rather than things that he said, more his silences that are more frightening or intimidating.

“I remember talking about conversations he'd had with Sir Alex Ferguson. This is going back maybe 10, 15 years. I think one of the things that Ferguson used to say that Dave definitely retained was: ‘Get rid of the disruptive influences, get rid of people who aren't working in the same direction as you’.

“Dave, as far as I could see, really assimilated that. And that was one of the pillars of the team’s success, knowing when to get rid of people, knowing when people were not on the same page as you.

“Speaking with physios, mechanics, that is something that happened at Team Sky. They wouldn't necessarily do anything egregiously wrong but Dave would get to a point and think, ‘This person is not for us anymore’ and out they would go.”

You will probably see quite a lot of players who are perceived to be bad apples kicked out
Daniel Friebe on Sir Dave Brailsford's ruthless approach

It is intriguing to wonder where, after making his assessment and audit, Brailsford sees the cuts he needs to make at Man Utd. As Friebe says, that policy may stretch right down through the organisation. But it certainly suggests he will be willing to make important decisions influencing which players are sold and which stay.

“I would say you will probably see quite a lot of players who are perceived to be bad apples kicked out,” says Friebe.

“The team I support, Arsenal, have done that very, very effectively in three or four high profile cases. It was short term pain for long term gain and I would expect United to have to do a bit of that.

“Some of their star players are on long term contracts and they'll be expensive to get rid of but if they really want to pivot they probably have to do that - and I certainly don't think he'll be afraid of doing that.”

 A long-held ambition to get into football?

During his days as British Cycling chief, did Brailsford cast his eye across Manchester from the velodrome to Old Trafford and imagine a future role in football? Perhaps it wasn’t as clear a vision as that but it seems he has long held ambitions beyond cycling.

“It's always been on his radar,” says Friebe. “I remember a conversation amid the post-mortem of England's exit from the 2010 World Cup and talking to him about Fabio Capello and him suggesting what he would do in that situation.

“I've heard about conversations with colleagues, where he talked about, ‘I’d want to be a general manager of…’ these world renowned franchises such as the New York Knicks.

“And then he started to move in these circles of football managers, directors of football, these sports gurus, tsars.”

Brailsford was invited to give a presentation to the Newcastle squad ahead of the 2022/23 season

Brailsford was invited to give a presentation to the Newcastle squad ahead of the 2022/23 season

Ready for resistance? 

But if Brailsford can be tough, how will he handle the severe scrutiny which will be coming his way?

 From doubters about his football credentials to critics of the controversies of his time in cycling, there is going to be more noise around and focus on Brailsford and his work than ever before.

 Friebe expects it will fuel Brailsford’s fire even more.

 “He will be very aware that there will be the scepticism about him,” says Friebe. “His awareness of that will probably peak over the next few weeks and months.

 “We're going to hear ‘Jiffy bag’ mentioned dozens of times over the next few weeks, often by people who haven't really followed the story. It's just become this kind of byword for doping or something nefarious, when in actual fact, there are still a lot of questions to do with that whole story that will probably never get answered."

The 'Jiffy bag' story refers to the controversial delivery of "a medical substance" to Team Sky at a race in France in 2011.

“A lot of people in football will be saying, ‘This guy doesn't know what he's talking about’ as soon as they lose a game.

“All of that will stoke his pride and it will make him want to succeed even more and raise a middle finger to anyone who's saying that.”

But for Brailsford to silence those doubters, he will need buy-in from the players, management and staff at United.

His impact at Nice has been mixed. After underwhelming seasons and unconvincing transfer business, there is progress in this campaign and Brailsford was reportedly behind the left-field appointment of young head coach Francesco Farioli who currently has the team second in the Ligue 1 table.  

Early success at United will be key to opening the door for Brailsford to implement his long-term vision at Old Trafford.

“He’s coming into a world that is not his world, or has only been his world in the last two or three years,” says Friebe. “You would imagine there's been a certain amount of circumspection on his part - he knows that there's a sort of diffidence towards him as an outsider.

“It will be much more difficult to change cultured paradigms in football. There will be much more resistance.

“The stakes are much, much higher and the world of football and Man Utd is so vast and sprawling and well established that it might be more difficult.

“But obviously, if you're successful, then it becomes easier because people become more receptive to your ideas.

“The great benefit that he had in cycling was that there is relatively little scrutiny, there aren't these huge fan bases that are discussing every decision ad infinitum on social media and so on.

“He was beholden to a certain extent to Team Sky, but they were getting exposure anyway, so he had a year, year and a half of grace. The first year they struggled and then cracked it after about 18 months. He'd had the luxury of the teething process, which you might not feel he has that luxury in football.”

As Team Sky boss, Brailsford faced scrutiny at the Tour de France...

As Team Sky boss, Brailsford faced scrutiny at the Tour de France...

...but the media focus on his work will increase significantly with his role at Man Utd

...but the media focus on his work will increase significantly with his role at Man Utd

Big budget transfers and working with agents

While the finances in football and cycling are worlds apart, Brailsford has experience of managing a team with one of the biggest budgets in their respective sport.

 But it could be his approach of working with a leading agent which is most instructive as to how he could influence the recruitment strategy at Man Utd.

 “You always have to caveat any discussion about Team Sky and their recruitment with the reality that they had by far the biggest budget and therefore, if you were being unkind, you would say that finding and signing riders was relatively easy,” says Friebe. “They were signing riders who would have been leaders and stars [at other teams] and they were making them deputies.

“Maybe there was an emotional intelligence level, they had to be careful of where everyone fitted into the hierarchy and they were good at that. And there were a couple of examples where they did unearth these diamonds, like [Colombian] Egan Bernal, who won the Tour de France.

“Interestingly, what happened in professional cycling from about 2015 to 2020, the most influential agent in cycling at that time, a guy called Giuseppe Acquadro - who was kind of the Mino Raiola or Jorge Mendes figure - Dave cultivated an incredibly tight relationship with him and his riders made up pretty much half of Team Sky at one point.”

In his role at United, Brailsford will need to form bonds with top agents. It will be intriguing to see how those collaborations work and whether one agent wins his trust in the same way Acquadro did.

Can someone be a successful innovator twice?

Brailsford’s impact at United will be seen in both the tangible and intangible. The former could be addressed quickly: facilities, resources, structures. The latter – culture, ethos – may take longer.

But Brailsford will be aware time and patience are rare commodities in the world of football.  

“A lot of the things that Cristiano Ronaldo talked about in the infamous interview with Piers Morgan, they'll be addressed quickly and they'll be addressed effectively,” says Friebe. “Two years from now, United will probably have the best training ground in the world.

“Football is so volatile and so dependent on results,” says Friebe. “He has to have an impact pretty quickly, I would say in the first six months, or else it might not go much beyond that.

“Changing culture is something that takes probably years. So he has to have his eye on that, while also knowing the next six months are really vital as well in terms of moulding people's perceptions.”

Friebe believes that five or six years ago football lagged behind sports such as cycling when it came to physiological training. But he suggests that gap may now have narrowed.

So what is the scope of improvement Brailsford could realistically have in football? The seismic transformation he delivered in cycling may be a trick that’s impossible to repeat.

“Can someone be a pioneer, trailblazer and a reinventor twice in a career?” asks Friebe. “He did that once in cycling. Are there many examples of people doing that twice in two completely different ways?

“The ideas and the philosophy that led to your success the first time, that can become calcified. Meanwhile, someone's come along on a parallel track with a completely different idea, a completely different philosophy, and they're thriving now. And how do you pivot to do what they're doing?”

The time for observation is over. Brailsford will now get to work. United supporters will be hoping the gains he can deliver at Old Trafford are substantial.

You can follow Daniel Friebe @Friebos on X and listen to him on The Cycling Podcast