Why Sir Jim Ratcliffe wants ‘marginal gains’ master Sir Dave Brailsford at Old Trafford

Mr Detail: Dave Brailsford (Getty Images)

Sir Dave Brailsford once had the floor of the British Cycling team truck painted white to spot dust more easily. The thinking was the quicker any impurities were identified, the quicker they could be cleaned up thereby not adversely affecting the bikes.

A surgeon was brought in to teach riders the proper way to wash their hands to avoid illness, long before it became commonplace with Covid. And mattresses and pillows were transported to competitions to ensure athletes’ sleep was not affected. Such nuggets are part of what became known as “marginal gains”, and there are myriad examples.

There have been sceptics including one of the recipient’s early success stories in Sir Bradley Wiggins, a gold medal winner on the track and Tour de France winner on the road. He once labelled marginal gains as “a load of old rubbish”.

But Brailsford still sticks by the philosophy of success being improved by an accumulation of a multitude of incremental factors, an approach that is likely to make its way to Manchester United. The 59-year-old has been tipped to join Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Joel Glazer on a three-man board deciding football matters once Ratcliffe’s 25 per cent stake in the club is finalised.

Ratcliffe goes on instinct regarding whether to trust someone … with Brailsford, that hasn’t manifested itself

Quite how Brailsford has got to a position to effectively co-run operations at one of the biggest football clubs in the world is something of a mystery. There is no denying he was hugely successful in cycling. Before his tenure, British Cycling had never won a single gold medal on the track. In 2000, Jason Queally was the first and afterwards the floodgates to a gold rush opened.

When Brailsford reached a ceiling of success in track cycling, he transferred his model to the road. The results didn’t come immediately but then followed a sustained period of success as Team Sky — since rebranded as Ineos-Grenadiers — dominated the major road races. In truth, Ineos have fallen behind in cycling. While Team Jumbo Visma and UAE Team Emirates have dominated the grand tours, Ineos can perhaps lay claim to being the fourth-ranked team at best.

Brailsford has clearly made an impression on Ratcliffe, who said he fully trusted him as Ineos’ head of sport despite him facing difficult questions over the doping verdict against Dr Richard Freeman at British Cycling and Team Sky. Freeman was struck off in 2021 after being found guilty of ordering 30 sachets of testosterone to Manchester’s National Cycling Centre. He was then given a four-year ban.

There was also the murky situation surrounding the bag delivered to Freeman in France in 2011 supposedly with the decongestant fluimicil. The Freeman case did little to back up Brailsford’s ambition of winning clean with his road race team. Ratcliffe likes to go on instinct regarding whether to trust someone. He talks about his antenna twitching if something seems awry and, with Brailsford, that hasn’t manifested itself. Away from his cycling successes, not everything he has had his hand in has turned to gold. Brailsford and Ratcliffe are part of a sporting WhatsApp group, which also includes Mercedes F1 team principal Toto Wolff and America’s Cup captain Sir Ben Ainslie, both of which Ineos has stakes in.

Sir Dave Brailsford has worked with Sir Jim Ratcliffe for years (Getty Images)

Mercedes have fallen from a period of F1 dominance to one of bouncing cars lacking the pace to win races, and the rumours are as Ainslie heads to Jeddah next week for an America’s Cup regatta, his sailing team are well behind their rivals in the development race.

The one area where things are on the rise are another Ineos sporting project, Nice, who lie second in Ligue 1 just a point behind Paris Saint-Germain. For a time, Brailsford was reportedly on site sleeping in a caravan. That is not to say the success will be sustained or that Ratcliffe can replicate it at Old Trafford where manager after manager has failed for any sustained success under the Glazers. There are perhaps echoes of Sir Clive Woodward, who took his Rugby World Cup-winning methodology to football with Southampton and ultimately failed. There is every chance Brailsford might yet do the same, and there are no shortage of sceptics.

Dan Ashworth, sporting director at Premier League rivals Newcastle, is not one of them. After having Brailsford in to speak to the players before the start of last season, Ashworth said: “I’ve known Sir Dave for a number of years, and he is without doubt the best in world sport at creating high-performance culture and turning that into winning.”

His bid to succeed at Manchester United will be an acid test.

Matt Majendie is sports correspondent


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