by Jerrad Peters
Turn a Manchester United shirt inside out and you’ll notice the word “Believe” inscribed on the crest. No doubt your first thought, unless you happen to be a United supporter, will be something along the lines of, “Believe? Believe in what? Believe in winning to the point where it’s cliché? Believe there will always be money available to sign this player and that? Believe in the biggest brand in sports?”
United, at least to a certain generation of fans, is belief made easy. Their ground, after all, is styled the Theatre of Dreams. It’s not where dreams “might” come true; it’s where they “will” come true. If ever there was a football club where setting the standard was merely par for the course, ho-hum, it was this one. “Believe.” It really is a curious choice of word.
But that doesn’t mean it’s an inappropriate choice, especially when considered in recent context. The past two weeks have been the most difficult in six years for the club, both in results and the losses of key personnel.
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It was a fortnight ago that United were knocked out of the Carling Cup, at home, by Championship side Crystal Palace, in the late, dramatic style usually reserved for themselves. Three days later they beat Aston Villa but lost striker Javier Hernandez to a long-term injury. Four days after that they went crashing out of the Champions League in Basel and, as if to compound their misery, learned that captain Nemanja Vidic, who suffered a knee injury in the 2-1 loss, would miss the remainder of the season. And while they rebounded from the disappointment by trouncing Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday, they revealed on Tuesday of this week that Darren Fletcher would be unavailable for selection for an indefinite period as the midfielder battles ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel condition.
That’s an awful lot of woe for a fortnight, and if United supporters are honest with themselves they’ll understand that silverware will be especially hard to come by this season, not only because they’ve already been ousted from two competitions, but also because they’re unlikely to make meaningful squad enhancements in the January transfer window. Belief, at least in the short term, would seem to be in limited supply.
The subtext to everything Manchester United do as far as business is concerned, and many fans and observers conveniently forget this, is the unstable financial situation of the Glazer family that owns the club. It’s common knowledge that Malcolm Glazer purchased United in 2005 with nearly £800 million of borrowed money and split the debt burden between the family business and the football club, and it’s no secret that the financial downturn of 2008 and 2009 took a massive toll on Glazer holdings, which are primarily in the retail and real estate sectors. And while there have long been rumblings that the financial misery of the owners would one day come to nest in the United transfer kitty, did anyone bother to wonder if that day had already come?
The quick, £53 million outlay for Phil Jones, Ashley Young and David De Gea early last summer conveniently draped a financial reality that is only getting worse. Since Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid in 2009, Manchester United have spent a net -£7.55 million on player acquisitions (financial data courtesy transferleague.co.uk). That’s -£1.51 million in each of the five transfer periods since. In other words, they haven’t spent anything—not a nickel—and are operating at a profit in a ledger that, under normal circumstances, should serve as a club’s investment arm.
Of course, it’s a great convenience to an owner who lacks cash in the wallet, nevermind the club’s opponents. Over the same period Manchester City have spent £282.5 million (net) on player acquisitions, and even thrifty Fulham, perennially mid-table, have parted with £14.1 million. Packaged another way, for every pound Fulham have spent on players since 2009 Manchester United have saved 54p. It’s a dumbfounding reality, but the proof is in the maths.
Allow a slight deviation. In 2005 United were experiencing troubles similar to what they’re now going through. On December 7 of that year they were bounced from the Champions League group stage at Benfica and proceeded to win just five of their next 10 matches. Important players had been lost to injury and manager Sir Alex Ferguson was forced to go into the January transfer market for replacements.
He ended up spending a combined £12.5 million on Vidic and Patrice Evra, both of whom would be central to the club’s next run of dominance, which was just around the corner. (Although it’s worth pointing out that Ferguson’s net spending for the 2005-06 season was just £1 million.) The club also had some talented youngsters coming through, notably Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo. When they won the Carling Cup that February it was seen as a signal of a new chapter in the United story.
Now it would seem that chapter has come to a close. Ronaldo is gone, his transfer fee not even reinvested in its entirety, and injuries have exposed a lack of quality depth at the club. Tom Cleverley and Danny Welbeck hold promise for the future, but neither is a Ronaldo or a Rooney, both of whom were 20-years-old six years ago and poised to win everything club football had to offer.
No, the next chapter in the fascinating story that is Manchester United will probably be something the club’s younger generation of fans have never read before. After all, United were never predestined to dominate the English game—a fact that’s easy to forget after two decades of unparalleled supremacy. And as long as the Glazers are in control, it’s unlikely they will again.
Follow Jerrad Peters on Twitter @peterssoccer
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