Shock doesn't begin to describe the feeling most Manchester United experienced when they first learned of star striker Wayne Rooney's demanded to leave the club that had nurtured his game to the top level of world footballers. The seemingly rapid deterioration of his relationship with the club has sent panic through the ranks of supporters, but mainly from a footballing standpoint. Rooney has been, since the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid two years ago, United's greatest chance of success and left them with very little of a Plan B in sight.
But there's a much larger issue at hand that indicated United's success on the pitch is really only a part.
In 2005, a few years after the club had gone public, Manchester United was taken over by American businessman Malcolm Glazer and his family. North American sports fans may know the Glazer's as the owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of the NFL. The sale of the club was heavily leveraged by the Glazer's, reportedly borrowing over £600m that was then in turn offloaded onto the club itself. This turn of events made the club, not the Glazers, responsible for these debts.
For years, however, the club's reassurances that all finances were in order and that the debt's wouldn't effect the health of the club seemed truthful, as evidenced by the strong buying power that United flexed in the transfer market and that the club was enjoying a highly successful spell where it claimed three straight Premier League titles. For most supporters, it seemed a case of out of sight means out of mind. If the team were doing well, how could there be a problem?
For many, the point at which Manchester United's financial struggles were brought to light was after the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009. United sold him to Real Madrid for £80 million and yet somehow only reported net operating profit of £20 million.
For the first time outsiders were scrutinizing United's books and wondering where United would have been had they not sold their best player for a record fee. With massive interest payments to be paid and the global economy worsening, it was still a shock when a marquee signing wasn't brought in to immediately replace Ronaldo.
Signs started indicating that things could be far worse than anyone predicted. Suddenly, doomsday theories were spreading throughout England.
But, the following season Wayne Rooney, now unquestionably the club's best player, was in the form of his life and managing to keep United in the hunt for another successive domestic title. The Manchester United Supporters' Trust (or MUST, of which the author is a member) began organizing Anti-Glazer protests in the hope of forcing a sale of the club.
The club's years of success distracted the supports and prevented them from realizing the problems at hand. In March, during a Champions League match against Bayern Münich, Rooney picked up an ankle injury that ruled him out for at least a few matches. United were unable to keep the pace with eventual Premier League winners Chelsea and were subsequently knocked out of the Champions League in the next tie with Bayern.
With Rooney declaring his desire to leave the club being made public, it raises some startling questions. With United having just recently announced an overall yearly loss of £83.6 million despite having been the first British club to post operating profits over £100 million, what is currently keeping the club out of the banks' hands?
United have been able to rely on a large sum of income from their annual participation in the EUFA Champions League, where clubs can be awarded upwards of €40 million plus TV revenue depending on performance. Participating in the Champions League requires a club from England to place in at least the top four domestically. With all of that being said, if Rooney is sold on for, let's say, £50 million, how much of that money will be put back into the club when interest payments on the club's debt currently stand at approximately £60?
Selling Wayne Rooney and not replacing him with someone who is immediately capable of dominating performances, if not improving the club's overall level of play, could be the death knell of Manchester United. It's not unlikely that a Rooney-less United could finish out of the top four.
As Liverpool proved last season, big clubs are not impervious to decline when they remain stagnant for too long. With Manchester City now having a seemingly endless supply of funds (not to mention possibly having Wayne Rooney at their disposal) and a surging Tottenham Hotspur who finished fourth last season, United cannot afford to get lazy.
Finishing out of the top four, and thereby not qualifying for the Champions League, or CL prize money, would then mean less money coming. When revenues fall, and money needs to be raised to continue to service the club's debt, the only logical sphere from which to raise money would be through the sale of players.
I don't think it's a difficult line of logic to say that by selling your most valuable players, you're directly putting the club's results at risk. The worse the results, the less money coming in, the more players need to be sold on which in turn hurts results.
It's a terrible circle that we've seen club's get caught in before. Notably with Leeds United, after a semi-final appearance in the 2001 Champions League, the club banked on continued success and invested large amount of money into the team. When the club eventually failed to qualify for the Champions League and as a result were unable to pay their debts, a firesale of players lead to a financial meltdown of the club, seeing them relegated to as low as the third tier of English football.
In some ways, this could be the best thing for Manchester United long-term. The reality that the Glazers may not be able to make a payment may result in the sale of the Reds to an owner in a better position to help. Such scenes would reminiscent of Liverpool FC that just last week were purchased by New England Sports Ventures, lead by John Henry who also own the Boston Red Sox.
Liverpool had been put into financial straits by American owners Tom Hicks (former Texas Rangers owner) and George Gillett (former Montreal Canadiens owner) and their own heavily leveraged purchase of the club. Liverpool supporters remain skeptical of another American ownership but with NESV's track record with the Red Sox, I think it's safe to say there's finally hope returning to Anfield.
For the first time in nearly 20 years United supporters may actually have a reason to envy their counterparts on Merseyside.