It’s not often that the United board have received praise on this website over the past five years. But praise they must receive after Sir Alex Ferguson and Managing Director David Gill played hardball for more than a year in the face of Real Madrid’s relentless pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. It was a game of brinkmanship that – while ending in the inevitable transfer of the Portugese winger to United’s European rivals this week – ensured a world-record fee and a massive profit on the player. The board must now follow through and provide all of the funds to Ferguson for squad strenghtening. The alternative – ploughing the funds into the black hole of the club’s finances – would be an admission that United’s £669 million Glazer-induced corporate debt now comes first, and success on the pitch second.
But United haven’t always been so successful in their transfer dealings. The move of David Beckham to Real Madrid in 2003, for example, was criminally undervalued. Beckham, who in 2003 was at the peak of his physical and commercial powers, was sold for just £18 million plus bonuses. United eventually accepted a flat £23 million fee for Beckham and Madrid laughed all the way to the club shop, on the back of a massive increase in commercial revenues. United were then led by Peter Kenyon, now a director at Chelsea, and many fans and pundits felt that it was his incompetent handling of the deal that ensured the Reds were at least £10 million short of a fair market price for the player.
Incoming transfers have been poorly handled too. The year before Beckham’s departure to Madrid, United paid more than £30 million for Rio Ferdinand. While Ferdinand has proven to be an excellent acquisition over the long term, his then central defensive partner at Leeds United, Jonathan Woodgate, moved to Newcastle for a third of the price later than season. Leeds were in desperate need of cash, and United had no competition for Ferdinand’s signature. Moreover, it was widely believed that Leeds’ asking price for the player before the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea had been less than £20 million.
Bad deals are not the preserve of the Kenyon era however. There is also last summer’s transfer of Dimitar Berbatov, in which United blinked first when Manchester City threatened to muscle in on the deal at the 11th hour. After waiting all summer to sign the Bulgarian, in the hope of striking a more favourable deal with Tottenham Hotspur, United eventually paid five million pounds over than their original ceiling for the striker. The player himself paid a heavy price by missing the entire pre-season training programme.
The Reds’ board must now be as hard-nosed in their summer recruitment as they have been with Real Madrid over the transfer of Ronaldo. The club’s pursuit of Antonio Valencia, Franc Ribéry, Karim Benzema and others will now come with additional media scrutiny, and knowledge on the part of the selling clubs that United’s management have cash in their pockets. If United truly believe that the older Ribéry is in a similar bracket to Ronaldo, for example, then Bayern Munich are right in holding out for a reported £60 million fee. About £30 million too much it would seem.
Meanwhile, new President Florentino Peréz believes that Real Madrid can once again increase commercial revenues to cover the cost of Ronaldo’s acqusition. But contrary to Peréz’ claims, the club’s €600 million debt (similar sums have been written off twice in 2001 and then 2007) suggests, despite a massive increase in commercial revenues over the past five years, that the spend, spend, spend policy is unsustainable. But if it goes pear-shaped, at least Real will always have the local council to bail them out.