Man United to find out if Brailsford is marginal gains guru

Sir Dave Brailsford’s career has been full of medals and controversy… but is he a marginal gains guru (Bradley Wiggins didn’t think so) or a busted flush? Man United are about to find out

  • Sir Dave Brailsford is set to play a part in Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s project at Old Trafford 
  • His work has already begun, shown by his visit to Carrington earlier this week
  • Southgate’s loyalty to his players is an issue and a weakness – It’s All Kicking Off

A few years ago there was a catchy line used to describe Sir Dave Brailsford’s habit of emerging unscathed from troubling situations.

As Sir Jim Ratcliffe prepares to deploy him in his Manchester United rebuild, it is worth recalling.

The comment was spoken by Jonathan Vaughters, the team principal of one of Brailsford’s rivals in the cycling world, and it was delivered in 2018, when Sky announced they were getting out of a partnership in which they had spared no expense and won all there was to win.

‘He has an impressive ability to reach into the toilet and pull out chocolate,’ Vaughters said, and it was a sentiment that proved quite prescient.

As history shows, Brailsford’s Team Sky became Team Ineos and the loss of one wealthy backer was amply compensated for by the pockets of Britain’s richest man. In summary, more chocolate for a chap whose sporting legacy across the past 20 years is perhaps best depicted as a jiffy bag crammed full of medals, controversy, secrets and an unresolved mystery.

Sir Dave Brailsford is set to be deployed in Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s rebuild at Manchester United

Brailsford (second right pictured at Old Trafford with Ratcliffe in March) will imminently become influential at one of the biggest institutions in world sport

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That he will imminently become influential at one of the biggest institutions in world sport is a fascinating development indeed, both for what it might mean to United and also as the latest staging post in his career.

For Brailsford, the work has already begun, shown by his visit to United’s training ground this week and that will become a regular occurrence for a man who has previously described himself as ‘absent father’ lost to the obsessions of 60-hour working weeks.

Time will tell if Erik ten Hag can ride the barrage of suggestions that come into the bargain, and, likewise, if Brailsford will fall back on some of his favoured methods. Over the years he has dabbled in everything from bespoke, hypoallergenic bedding to the use of genetic markers to examine and minimise injury risk.

They were among the many ‘marginal gains’ that morphed into his calling card as Brailsford became omnipresent across the Olympic sector and professional cycling before he broadened into Ratcliffe’s svengali. 

To Ratcliffe, there is plainly a view of a genius whose principles could be applied to America’s Cup sailing, Formula One, endurance running and football; to others, such as Sir Bradley Wiggins, that particular element of Brailsford’s work has always had the ring of quackery about it.

‘A lot of people made a lot of money out of “marginal gains” and David Brailsford used it constantly, but I always thought it was a load of rubbish,’ the former Tour de France winner and five-time Olympic champion once said.

It is by no means an isolated view, but as a concept ‘marginal gains’ proved infectious and it went on to characterise Britain’s approach to Olympic sport for more than a decade, peaking at London 2012. 

As just one example of how widely it was adapted, a Mail Sport visit to Team GB’s skiing operation in 2018 revealed the existence of a £6,000 mannequin with hair styled to precisely mimic their best slalom hope for the purposes of wind-tunnel testing.

While Ratcliffe saw gold in Brailsford’s principles, the likes of Bradley Wiggins (left) didn’t see him as a marginal gains guru despite achieving success under his watch

Brailsford has rarely been viewed as the sort to drown his contributions in modesty and the perception for so long was of a sporting Midas and a master of innovation — 

British cyclists dominated the Olympics on his watch and that pattern continued emphatically in the Tour de France, where he controlled the biggest budget in the peloton and with it his cyclists reigned supreme. Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas would win the race six out of seven editions from 2012 onwards.

That their success occurred in a sport that has been riddled with doping gave rise to one notable question: too good to be true? It was necessary to recall how Team Sky vowed, upon their creation in 2010, that they would be the ones who did it clean.

Those words took on an awful weight when it was leaked in 2016 that Wiggins had received therapeutic use exemptions for the banned anti-inflammatory drug triamcinolone shortly before the 2011 Tour de France, his 2012 Tour win and the 2013 Giro d’Italia.

Before long the air was thick with cloud — there was the jiffy bag scandal involving Wiggins, a failed test for Froome (he was eventually cleared of wrongdoing) and one particular conversation between Brailsford and Matt Lawton, whose reporting in these pages did so much to cast a light on a troubling situation. 

Brailsford met Lawton and responded to his enquiries with one of his own: ‘If you didn’t write the story, is there anything else that could be done?’

Time will tell if Erik ten Hag can ride the barrage of suggestions that come into the bargain, and, likewise, if Brailsford will fall back on some of his favoured methods

The career of Sir Dave Brailsford 

  • Born in Derbyshire, Brailsford’s family moved to Wales when he was a toddler.
  • Raced for four years in France and also worked as an export sales manager before becoming a consultant for British Cycling in 1998.
  • In 2003 he became the performance director and under Brailsford Great Britain led the cycling medal table at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.
  • Brailsford was knighted in 2013. He also became Team Sky manager in 2010. Under Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Team Sky became Team Ineos in 2019 and Brailsford became director of sport. He has overseen 12 Grand Tour wins to date.
  • In 2021 he was embroiled in a doping scandal but Ratcliffe stood by him. Recently Brailsford has been involved with OGC Nice in Ligue 1.

This preceded a UK Anti-Doping investigation into the jiffy bag saga when a committee of MPs had given the disputed contents of that bag its focus.

By then the halo just didn’t have the same shine. When Richard Freeman, chief doctor at Team Sky, became the first doping casualty of the Brailsford era when he was struck off in 2021 for ordering 30 sachets of testosterone to the National Cycling Centre in 2011, it became a question of who knew what and when.

How could Brailsford, so famed for his diligence, allow this to happen under his nose and be so unaware?

That has become a defining aspect in his legacy, as has his failure to achieve any great success outside of cycling.

Will it work out for him at Manchester United? Are the catchy slogans as convincing as they used to be? They are unknowns as he reaches into the bowl once more.

The Glazer family remain in control of the club despite initially looking to sell their majority stake


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