There has been a certain sense of inevitability about Manchester City’s rise over the past four years. After all, while football has its own financial peculiarities, a market is a market is a market. Money talks in football just as in any other industry, and City’s money is singing from the rooftops this season. On the brink of a first domestic title in 44 years, City can thank Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth for the club’s recent success.
It was odd though that Sir Alex Ferguson should choose the week in which City effectively secured a first title since 1968 to complain about the Blues’ spending. Here, a manager who has spent quite literally hundreds of millions in the market over the years, can hardly have cause to complain.
Moreover, the Scot’s complaint would have far more legitimacy – any legitimacy some might add – had the 70-year-old not spent the past seven years supporting a Glazer regime that has sucked more than £500 million out of Manchester United in debt related costs.
No wonder there has been renewed talk by supporters of the Glazers’ affect on United’s competitiveness in the week since City disposed of Ferguson’s side. The sight of Sir Alex’ team meekly surrendering the Premier League title at Eastlands, without managing a single shot on target, while Ferguson left some of his most effective players on the sidelines, was genuinely bewildering.
In truth United played scared; Ferguson running for the sanctuary of a scoreless draw that never appeared. United’s manager, much like the fans, is fearful not only of City’s superiority on the pitch, but seemingly the looming change in hegemony – as Roberto Mancini put it so eloquently this week – in Manchester and England.
Yet, Ferguson is unable to move on from the now tiresomely clichéd excuse that there is no value in the market. Only the foolish now buy into that line given the dozens of examples of ‘value’, let alone bone fide quality, which United has missed over the past six years.
“It’s been an insane transfer market for a long time and I think clubs like City create that,” said Ferguson.
“They can buy all the players and put a marker on all the players and that makes it difficult for clubs then to be reasonable. There’s no chance of that calming down and I don’t see how the financial fair play can work. No-one can match City’s financial power – no-one.
“It’s not just about the top line transfer fees, it’s about the amount of money clubs can offer in wages. Players are being offered stupid money, the type of sums that are hard to turn down. We can make a player a very good offer, but unless he wants to come to United for football reasons he is not going to say no to stupid money from somewhere else.
“We have to accept that, so we do it a different way. We’ll try to look at young players with the potential to develop in the club, which we’re good at, so we’ll stay with that.”
While City’s wealth will buy the club trophies, closer to home Ferguson has continued to deny that the Glazer family’s tight-fisted budget has made any impact on United’s competitiveness. This despite the family allowing Ferguson to spend less than half of the net amount per season invested in the six years prior to the 2005 Glazer takeover.
What’s more, the Glazers regime has impacted United’s budget not against a backdrop of Ferguson’s protest, but with his vocal support. United’s squad quality has eroded, while Ferguson’s ability to recover from transfer market misses.
Yet, the excuses come thick from those proffering an alternate line. United’s loss to Wigan Athletic last month, and the disastrous late capitulation against Everton, is little more than a ‘temporary changing of the guard’; a short-term ‘loss of form’ at the worst possibly time. Blame the players, blame the referee, blame injuries. Blame anybody bar manager and his paymasters.
The wider context of United’s cataclysmic European campaigns is relevant though, especially when taken together with the Reds’ performances against Manchester’s other team. When viewed in the prism of matches against City this season, or those with Europe’s second-tier clubs, United’s regression is stark. This is true despite the 86 Premier League points garnered in a relatively poor quality league.
Defeat to City has a way of clarifying the collective consciousness though. And while there is nothing United, Ferguson, or the supporters can do about another club’s financial model, the cumulative effect of £7.5 million net spent per season under the Glazer regime, while rival clubs pump investment into the team, could do little but reduce the club’s competitiveness.
It is a truism that not only City, but Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Sunderland, Aston Villa and even Stoke City have each spent more, net, than United since 2005.
And in the week that Cristiano Ronaldo secured the La Liga title, United supporters were given a taste of what has been lost – and not replaced – during the Glazers’ tenure. The Real Madrid forward has scored 45 goals in 37 La Liga games this season. Interesting, then, that Ferguson should believe Ronaldo still represents ‘value’ at £80, £160 or even £800 million.
“You can only assess value on success,” added Ferguson, who sold Ronaldo to Madrid in summer 2009.
“Like Real Madrid with Ronaldo. They’ll be saying ‘we’d have paid £160m for him with all he’s done’. At more than a goal a game he’s been a fantastic buy for them. At the time we thought £80m was not bad. Now I’m saying to myself it should have been a lot more. He’s been such a fantastic buy for them, maybe we should have asked for £800m.”
United didn’t genuinely replace Ronaldo, although there was once much talk of the ‘Ronaldo money’ being available for Ferguson to spend. Yet, mindful of working under the PLC regime that required layers of sign-off on every deal, Ferguson now enjoys working with a single paymaster, whatever the budget. His aggressive support for the American family may never fully be explained.
Increasingly, Ferguson has insisted, with no concern for historically accuracy, that United does not spend large sums on players, while promoting ‘youth’ as a method of bucking a market that offers no value. It’s hogwash of course, as those who completed the analysis presented in Soccernomics and Pay as you Play will attest. Money spent on transfers and wages counts for much: between 72 per cent and 89 per cent of success, in fact.
Record transfer signings, of one form or another, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Gary Pallister, Rio Ferdinand, juan Veron, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney might disagree too. Fergie has always spent money – some good, some bad. According to some he offers the best ‘value’ of any manager around. Who could disagree?
Which brings us back, not only to the Glazers parsimony over the past six years, but Abu Dhabi’s dizzying ability to outspend all others. ‘Tick tock’ mocked City’s supporters over recent years, suggesting that success was only a matter of time. Indeed, bar Queens Park Rangers pulling off a miraculous result at Eastlands in a week, United’s hegemony will have been broken.
Worse, those supporters hoping for a response by United in the market will be disappointed at early indicators of Ferguson’s likely transfer strategy this summer. While City may spend “insane” money, United will invest in youth. It may be some time before City’s superiority is matched.
Spending under the Glazer regime
United’s net spend 2005 – 2012 (in relevant financial year):
- 20005/06 – £1m
- 2006/07 – £4.1m
- 2007/08 – £26.55m
- 2008/09 – £33.75m
- 2009/10 – (-)£64.5m
- 2010/11 – £13.55m
- 2010/12 – £38.15m
Net spend under Glazer regime 2005 – 2012 = £52.6m
Net spend per season under Glazer regime = £7.51m
Net spend 1998 – 2005 (in relevant financial year):
- 1998/99 – £25.95m
- 1999/00 – £16.05m
- 2000/01 – (-)£8.3m
- 2001/02 – £29.3m
- 2002/03 – £27.05m
- 2003/04 – £13.35m
- 2004/05 – £21.35m
Net spend under PLC regime 1998-2005 = £124.93m
Net spend per season under PLC = £17.85m