What will ‘marginal gains’ guru Brailsford bring to Man Utd?

One of the most intriguing elements of Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s imminent acquisition of 25% of Manchester United is the key role Sir David Brailsford is set to play at Old Trafford.

The Ineos director of sport is best known to a wider audience for having led the revival of British cycling.

But having overseen the petro-chemical company’s sports portfolio since 2021, Brailsford is now set to sit on a powerful three-person committee running the football operations of one of the world’s biggest clubs.

It is the latest remarkable twist in a career that has featured much success, but also considerable controversy.

So how did Brailsford, 59, come to be in this position? Can he overhaul the way United is run? Will it work? And is it a risk?

The ‘marginal gains’ man

According to one of the most highly respected figures in English football, Newcastle United’s sporting director Dan Ashworth, Brailsford has what it takes to succeed in the sport.

“I’ve known Sir Dave for a number of years, working across various different sports and he is without doubt the best in world sport at creating high-performance culture and turning that into winning,” Ashworth said, after inviting him to speak to his Newcastle squad last season.

So where did Brailsford’s journey begin?

The Derbyshire-born coach started building his reputation as a high-performance specialist at British Cycling 20 years ago, credited with helping to transform it into a team of serial winners thanks to the concept of ‘marginal gains’.

“If you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together,” Brailsford told the BBC in 2012.

“There’s fitness and conditioning, of course, but there are other things that might seem on the periphery, like sleeping in the right position, having the same pillow when you are away. They’re tiny things but together it makes a big difference.”

Not everyone believed in the theory.

In fact, Sir Bradley Wiggins has since described ‘marginal gains’ as “a load of rubbish”.

But for many years it seemed to work spectacularly. Team GB cyclists won eight cycling golds at the London Olympics, matching the eight they had won four years earlier in Beijing.

Three cyclists won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year gong in five years, and Brailsford was seen as a genius, helping to turn Britain into a cycling nation.

In 2013, Brailsford left British Cycling to concentrate full-time on his leadership role at Team Sky, the British professional cycling team he had helped to found.

They became dominant, winning a staggering six of seven Tour de France titles between 2012 and 2018, with wins for team riders Chris Froome (four), Wiggins, and Geraint Thomas continuing the success Brailsford had enjoyed at the national governing body.

Since Ratcliffe took over Team Sky in 2019, such success has proved elusive, the Ineos Grenadiers failing to win a single Grand Tour since the Giro d’Italia in 2021.

That was the year Brailsford was asked to take on an elevated role overseeing the operations of the various sports teams Ineos either owned or sponsored.

In addition to acquiring one-third of Formula 1 team Mercedes, Ineos also owns French Ligue 1 football club Nice and Swiss team FC Lausanne, as well as the Ineos Britannia sailing team headed by Ben Ainslie. There is also a performance partnership with the New Zealand rugby team.

This summer, in a rare appearance during the Tour de France, Brailsford hinted at a new version of ‘marginal gains’, one which borrowed approaches from the various sports under the Ineos umbrella to improve performances.

“Take nutrition,” he told ITV Sport. “You can take the best learnings from that, and shift it across into football or into the sailing team…

“It could be the data and analytics or strategic planning of the F1 team and bring it here [to cycling]. So there’s a ‘cross-pollination’ of ideas… British Olympic sports, when I was part of that, did that ever so well. So to do that in a professional group of sports is exciting. I’ve been involved in that quite a lot.”

When asked about the prospect of getting involved at Old Trafford, Brailsford said, “We’d very much like to do it. To be custodians of one of the biggest sporting teams and brands in the world, and try to support the team and fanbase.

“I know Manchester really well, and you get a sense of what the culture’s all about and what the fans want.”

Controversy, but Ratcliffe’s ‘full backing’

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, left, with Sir Dave Brailsford

But for many, the ‘marginal gains’ theory Brailsford became synonymous with is now tainted.

As recently as August, doctor Richard Freeman – the former chief medic at both British Cycling and Team Sky – was banned from all sport for four years for violating anti-doping rules, in one of the most significant cheating scandals in British sporting history.

Brailsford, British Cycling, Team Sky and Team Ineos have always denied any wrongdoing, with Freeman described as having fallen short of the ethical standards required of him, but having acted alone. But this was merely the latest twist in a period of intense questions, suspicion and intrigue.

In 2018, Brailsford appeared before a parliamentary committee to answer questions on the contents of a mystery “jiffy bag” Freeman had instructed be delivered to Wiggins before a 2011 race, amid an allegation it contained the banned anti-inflammatory drug triamcinolone.

This followed the revelation Wiggins received therapeutic use exemptions (TUEs) for triamcinolone to treat asthma and allergies shortly before three major races.

Freeman and Brailsford maintained the bag contained legal flu medication, and ultimately a parliamentary committee said it was unable to determine what was inside the jiffy bag. But in a final report in 2018, the MPs accused Team Sky of “crossing an ethical line” in its use of TUEs more broadly.

“Contrary to the testimony of David Brailsford in front of the committee, we believe that drugs were being used by Team Sky, within World Anti-Doping Agency rules, to enhance the performance of riders, and not just to treat medical need,” its report concluded.

Team Sky issued a firm denial in response, along with Wiggins and Freeman, and reiterated their commitment to clean cycling.

But British Cycling, for so long the country’s best-funded and respected sports governing body, was accused of a “serious failure” to keep basic medical records, a failure the report deemed “unprofessional and inexcusable”. How did that tally with the sport’s fabled attention to detail?

In 2021, Freeman was found guilty by a medical tribunal of ordering banned testosterone in 2011 “knowing or believing” it was to help dope an unnamed rider.

In her summing up, Freeman’s lawyer had described Brailsford as “the spectre missing at these proceedings”. The former Team Sky technical director Shane Sutton told the BBC it was “absolutely ludicrous” that “people are calling for Dave’s head”, and insisted neither he nor Brailsford had known anything about the testosterone.

But that did not stop the former shadow sports minister Clive Efford MP calling for Brailsford to be suspended, pending an investigation.

Such criticism has not deterred Ratcliffe, who said Brailsford retained his “full support.”

“Your antenna starts pinging if you’re uncomfortable about something” Ratcliffe told the Telegraph in 2021. “My antenna doesn’t start pinging when I’m chatting to Dave. Quite the opposite.”

Can he restore United after a decade of decline?

Sir David Brailsford and Sir Jim Ratcliffe

Since then, Brailsford has become a familiar presence alongside British billionaire Ratcliffe. In March, the pair were part of the Ineos delegation that toured Old Traffordexternal-link during United’s year-long takeover saga.

For some fans, the prospect of Brailsford’s prospective role at United has echoes of former England rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward’s infamous spellexternal-link as technical director at Southampton in 2005-06.

More recently, Todd Boehly’s struggles as co-owner of Chelsea, despite his stellar reputation in US baseball, serve as another reminder of the unique challenge English football can pose to outsiders.

But others will be excited to see what difference Brailsford can make to recruitment and scouting, strategy, culture and sports science at a club regarded as under-performing, especially as there are signs of the difference he can make in the sport.

Brailsford conducted an audit at Nice in 2021, which was followed shortly after by the departure of the club’s director of football Julien Fournier and CEO Bob Ratcliffe, Sir Jim’s brother.

This led to Brailsford having a greater hand in recruitment than originally anticipated, with former Premier League players Aaron Ramsey, Ross Barkley and Nicolas Pepe among those he helped bring to the club in 2022 having hired controversial former Cardiff City and Crystal Palace director Iain Moody as a transfer consultant.

The following season, the club dropped to ninth place in the league, down from fifth the year before. However, there are signs this season that Nice are on track to achieve Champions League football – one of the main aims expressed by Ineos.

After a period of upheaval, they are currently second in the league under young coach Francesco Farioli – who Brailsford helped to recruit – one point behind Paris St-Germain and unbeaten after 12 games played.

Despite the controversy attached to his time in cycling, Brailsford continues to command significant respect as a guru of performance and innovation, and remains in demand.

Last year it emerged he was under consideration for a role in the ECB’s high-performance team.

“One of the greatest winners of our generation” was how he was introduced during an appearance on the ‘Diary of a CEO’ podcast in January 2022.

During the interview, Brailsford spoke about how he got “super-excited about wanting to do big, bold ambitious things. And then afterwards I think ‘ah, wow, what have I done? Now I’ve got to make it happen…let’s get after it’. That drives me.”

It does not get much more ambitious than trying to restore the fortunes of Manchester United after a decade of decline.

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