Is a fire sale of Red talent the only route left open to the bean counters at Old Trafford, tasked with steering United away from financial meltdown?
Day after day, the Red faithful has been forced to take its breakfast with huge dollops of doom from the nation’s fourth estate, which has devoted hectares of column inches to United’s bleak finances.
The club’s books were laid bare this week. Figures showed the champions made an annual net profit of £48.2 million. Alas, if the £80 million income from the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo is discounted, United would have made a loss.
Crikey! Just five years ago, United were the richest club in sport!
If that was not bad enough, according to the Guardian, the Glazer family has “taken £22.9 million in management fees and loans out of the club” since the takeover and might even be ready to flog the training complex at Carrington.
United’s ruinous financial prospects are not down to reckless spending by Lord Ferg on expensive strikers with asymmetrical hair cuts, as anyone who sat through United’s lumpen performance against Birmingham would testify.
It’s all down to the purchase of the club in 2005 by the Glazer family. It neither comments publicly on its running of the club, nor even bothers to visit Manchester these days.
Into the information vacuum steps a legion of Red nay-sayers who proclaim with ever more conviction that United is on the verge of collapse.
Mind you, they have been saying the same for years. Few fans bothered to listen as United ran away with three titles, a league Cup or two, and a European gong. Even Fergie lost his caution and began to dance to the Glazer rhythm.
But with the world’s best player no longer on the payroll, and the team looking stodgy and in need of a lift, the siren calls of impending catastrophe are increasingly hard to resist.
Chief among the Jonah tunesmiths is The Guardian’s estimable David Conn. His withering assaults on the Glazer family’s stewardship of United continued with a splash on how the club has been plundered close to ruin.
“Lurking in the full, heart-sinking detail of the Glazer family's proposal to borrow £500 million, a partial replacement for the £700 million debts their takeover has loaded on to Manchester United, is a page documenting the millions United have paid out to the family members themselves,” he stated.
Conn followed up his exclusive later in the week with another gut-churner. Fans knew what to expect from Conn’s opening salvo. He wrote:
“When navigating the thunderously depressing proposal by the Glazer family to load Manchester United with £500 million of debt for the third time since their takeover in May 2005, it helps to imagine where United might be had the Glazers never turned up in the first place, to buy the glory, glory club with all their borrowed millions.”
Conn had no difficulty answering his own question.
“Had the takeover never happened, how fearsomely United could now be swaggering? Three times Premier League champions and European champions in 2008, with a record income of £278 million (although it would probably be lower, because without the Glazers, ticket prices would not be so high), with a £91 million operating profit, not plundered to meet the interest. On top of that, £81 million from selling Ronaldo.”
“Would the manager, in those debt-free circumstances, really spend the autumn years of his brilliant career grumbling about the price of players? Can he be pictured allowing Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez to depart, leaving him to admit that United's thinner strike force is seriously reliant on one player, Wayne Rooney?”
There was more, but whom among the United fan base had the stomach to read on?
Even the Manchester Evening News, normally a staunch cheerleader, was worried to the point of desperation.
“Supporters have been shaken to [the] core by financial results,” a sports hack declared. Carefully, the hack connected the dots between imperiled finances, on-field troubles and the looming succession.
“With United now seeking £500 million investment in the form of bonds, they have been forced to reveal the risks associated with buying into the club,” the article claimed.
“Primary among them is the fear that Sir Alex Ferguson’s impending retirement will prompt a downturn in performance and a failure to 'attract and retain' top players.
“United’s hierarchy have also pointed to the likes of mega-rich rivals like City and Chelsea as major threats to their continued dominance, while possible UEFA regulations on debt could 'limit our ability to acquire or retain top players.'"
With the United fan base retreating back to bed en masse, it was left to The Sun newspaper’s business hack Steve Hawkes to assume the position of the punditocracy’s "Sunny Jim."
To the strains of "Don’t Worry, Be Happy" Hawkes described the Glazer family’s trawl for debt relief as “sound financial housekeeping.”
So, that’s all right then!
However, Hawkes cheery disposition did not manage to convince his colleague on the sports desk Neil Custis. The footie hack did the Red maths, concluded United cannot hope to survive as a contender for honours if the club must surrender its treasure to meet annual interest payments, and reasoned that Wayne Rooney might soon be heading for the exit.
“With Ronaldo gone, who will the club sell next to meet the Glazers' legacy?” Custis asked?
Not surprisingly, an answer was forthcoming, but not before the boot had been put into disappointments in United’s squad.
“With the interest on the club's £711.5 million debt rising, it seems only a matter of time before United are forced to sell again,” Custis stated. “But flops like Dimitar Berbatov and Nani would not bring in a fraction of what United paid for them—or what Rooney could rake in.”
There was also speculation of the liquid lunch variety, which ventured that Lord Ferg was planning a summer clear-out, with the aforementioned Berbatov and Nani and the misfiring Anderson, Carrick and Vidic destined for the guillotine.
United do need to rejuvenate the squad, now revealed to have been carried for at least two seasons by Ronaldo’s mammoth talent. Indeed, no one will be surprised to see the Vidic mock Tudor mansion up for sale next Spring, but the idea of a mass exit of talent is surely wide of the mark.
It’s the debt, you see. United just can’t afford to buy anyone of stature.
That might be even truer as United is headed for the courts to slug it out with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs over the "image-rights" contracts the club gives to players.
Defeat will cost United more than £5 million, if The Sun is to be believed.
With the country snowed in and the Red faithful forced to dine on the meagre rations of a point at Birmingham, a distraction was needed.
So it was that some juicy transfer speculation appeared in the press linking United again with a move for Benfica’s Angel di Maria.
Only those fans with an obsession for late night sports broadcasts on minority channels had even heard of Di Maria, so it was back to the drawing board for the spin-meisters in the PR department.
After a session at the pub, inspiration was found and The Daily Mirror’s football desk was willing enough to accept a fanciful steer.
“Sir Alex Ferguson will be handed £75 million to spend on new players by Manchester United's owners in a bid to haul the club out of its financial crisis,” it thundered to the sound of laughter.
“The Glazers have borrowed the money and will give it straight to Fergie to spend on his squad in a bid to encourage investors to buy £500 million worth of bonds.”
So, let’s get this straight. The Glazer family is trying to raise £500 million so it can give a huge portion to a soon to be retired manager to bring in new players? That’s the same Glazer family that promised to invest £25 million a year on new players and er, didn’t?
Yes, declared the Mirror hack, just before the school bell chimed. He reasoned that “United's owners have taken the decision to increase their borrowing as they attempt to make the bonds more attractive to potential investors. They believe the scheme will have more chance of succeeding—and bringing down their overall level of debt—if Fergie is able to strengthen his squad with big-name signings.”
For once, Sir Alex might have been glad his club’s shocking financial position was the main talking point of the week. For over at Eastlands, Manchester City’s erstwhile Red Carlos Tevez, was yet again haunting Fergie with another goal feast.
The Argentine bagged a hat-trick in a 4-1 romp against lowly Blackburn. Teammate Nigel de Jong was quick to plunge the dagger between Fergie’s shoulder blades by suggesting that Tevez’ feats could take City to the title.
Midfielder De Jong said: "Tevez is on fire. He is so important. He got a hat-trick, but his workrate is unbelievable, and he gets his rewards."
Will the sale of Ronaldo and Tevez without adequate replacements leave United with their just desserts?