Back in May, 1921, Billy Meredith – a player with the rare distinction of being a legend for both Manchester United and City – made the final move of his epic playing career. Not for the first time in his career, this was an event that the outspoken Meredith would not let pass without controversy.
The root of this controversy was that United were demanding a transfer fee. A staunch union man, Meredith found this distasteful. His position was that he was not a piece of meat to be bought and sold. He ultimately got his way and he returned to City on a free transfer.
Like George C Scott refusing the Academy Award out of belief that he was not seeking to compete with his fellow actors, it was an appreciable stance but one which would rapidly fade from convention.
Almost one hundred years later, Manchester United would go on to pay in the region of sixty million pounds for the services of Angel DiMaria. This was the eighth time in United history that they broke the British record for a transfer fee paid.
We live in an age where footballer’s weekly salaries are in the tens, if not hundreds of thousands. Their transfer fees are frequently in the millions if not tens of millions. Billions are earned yearly by clubs through TV deals, sponsorship and merchandise. This is not new phenomenon. This has been the situation for decades.
Man United are no strangers to this. In fact, they’ve been at the forefront from the beginning. There has been a megastore bolted to Old Trafford since 1994 and you’ve been able to procure just about anything with a Man United logo on it for almost as long, from garden gnomes to wine.
We as fans have enjoyed the fruits of such merchandising. The revenues have aided the club in perpetuating itself as a dominant force and global name in football.
Yet there are voices among those fans, past and present, that cite the Glazer family’s corporate and commercial motives for wanting them away from the club.
There’s also this notion that these same fans protest out of concern for the club, that they want a leader with true connection to Manchester United. Martin Edwards was about as linked as you could get, inheriting the club in the wake of his father Louis’s death in 1980.
Within four years, Edwards was already deep in negotiations to sell his stake in the club. When that deal fell through, he again came famously close to selling to Michael Knighton five years later. If not for backers pulling out late in the game, the club would have changed hands.
A couple of years later, United were then floated on the London Stock Exchange.
Though I was a kid throughout all this, I don’t recall any mass protests at having a man at the helm who seemed eager to cash in on his share in the club. Nor was there a push for fans to buy shares en masse. That wouldn’t happen until many years later, when Shareholders United (now MUST) freaked out over Rupert Murdoch attempting to buy the club.
I know that defending the Glazers is controversial. I fully understand the concerns over the debt. Don’t think that this is a position I have arrived at hastily or without great thought.
I’ve outlined this in other blogs and forums but as this is a new one, I should cover it here.
My initial reaction to the takeover was one of caution. The debt was a worry. It certainly seemed unfair that some guy could waltz in and buy the club with a big chunk of the fee secured against it. Then again, it’s not like debt isn’t common when huge organizations change hands. I decided to wait and see what happened.
When it was revealed a few years later that the debt had actually increased I was shocked and deeply concerned. What was going on? Were the Glazers in trouble? Was the club in any kind of danger?
I almost signed up with MUST. Then it occurred to me that aside from knowing they wanted the Glazer family out, I didn’t know that much about them. Certainly not enough to arbitrarily nail my colours to their mast.
Then came a series of reported offers. The Red Knights with one, a foreign investment group with another. Offers were reported as being between one and two billion pounds. The Glazers appeared to just dismiss them. This was a watershed moment for me. If these guys were prepared to leave that money on the table, then they couldn’t be on the skids. It stood to reason that they must have some kind of plan.
This of course, turned out to be true. The plan was refinancing and sponsorship. It was a plan that seems at this point to have been successful.
Yet a couple of weeks ago, in the wake of the Glazer family reaching it’s tenth anniversary as Man United owners, MUST framed the occasion with their usual scathing diatribe.
They claim that a billion pounds has been taken from the club over that time. However, they make no mention of the fact that the revenues generated from astronomical amount of sponsorship that the owners have aggressively pursued, will amply cover that amount.
What truly annoyed me about the statement though, was the claim that the debt forced United into a period of “austerity”, that our 2008 Champions League winners had to be dismantled, that without the debt we would have been up there with Barcelona.
Those statements are false and intellectually dishonest. Cristiano Ronaldo was sold for one reason and one reason only: he wanted to go. The club resisted for as long as they could (years) but his mind was made up. No amount of money was keeping him in Manchester.
No amount of spending was going to prevent that Barcelona team from being what it was. We’re talking about a set of players that will go down in legend, a set of players that also went on to form the nucleus of a dominant Spain.
United took on Barca with Ronaldo in house. In 2008, just prior to that FCB coming of age, we were able to overcome them. A year later, like so many other teams, minnows and elite alike, we were outclassed.
The austerity claim is flat-out laughable. United’s spending patterns didn’t change. Their targets in the Glazer era have been no different. Whatever the Glazers took out, it didn’t alter Sir Alex Ferguson’s MO.
United didn’t stop pursuing elite players from glamour clubs abroad: they never really started. In Fergie’s entire tenure, I can think of one or arguably two players who were deemed to be the very elite in their positions and already established at top non-EPL clubs. Those two were Juan Sebastien Veron and arguably, World Cup Winning goalie, Fabien Barthez.
Aside from that – and SAF seemed so burned particularly by signing the former that he never tried it again – Man United tended to restrict top, high-profile name purchases to those with proven EPL pedigree or highly-touted up-and-comers looking to break into a top league. Rather than pursuing Cannavaro and Zidane, they were more interested in Ferdinand and Van Nistelrooy.
The key for me at this point is that to date, we have never seen the slightest indication that any coach has been denied funds. Whether it’s 7m for a Portuguese forward that nobody has heard of, 30m for a Belgian that could have been acquired for a lower fee weeks earlier, or 60m for an Argentinian World Cup star, we’ve never seen any evidence that the Glazers have said no.
Could we have theoretically spent that claimed billion on improving the team? Of course. If the Glazers had left that money in the club, would we have used it? Based on our transfer activity before, during and after the takeover, unlikely. In essence, stating that United would be better now if the Glazers hadn’t taken money out of the club is a bit like saying that MacDonalds could have sold more burgers if they didn’t pay dividends to shareholders.
The fact of the matter is, MUST, the Green and Gold Movement and those people who walked away and formed FC United, were wrong. The most understandable beef that they could have is perhaps that ticket prices have gone up but even that seems a trifle churlish when the prices of matchday and season tickets aren’t especially astronomical compared to our competitors.
The debt hasn’t truly effected us in any practical way and at this point, it likely never will.