Manchester United: Crisis, this crisis

MANCHESTER UNITED are in a mess. One of the world’s most popular, richest, celebrated and envied clubs is being mismanaged and is rapidly losing ground both domestically and internationally. The club’s 6-1 home defeat at the hands of Tottenham was a shocker, not so much because they were outclassed by a peer, but because it highlighted just how far they have fallen since 2013 when Sir Alex Ferguson finally retired.

It is no longer a surprise when they fail and they are rarely considered contenders for the top prizes.

Just over 24 hours after their humiliation at Old Trafford, United sought help from a 33 year-old forward as the international deadline drew to a close. Edinson Cavani is a talented, but short-term, hiring who has arrived on a free, but will doubtless be earning well. United will be hoping he can get them through their crisis and be as successful as Zlatan Ibrahimovic was.

Hide in your shell

It is a crisis, too, for upheaval is just around the corner for Manchester United and their manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, is likely to be first in the firing line. It won’t be long before rumours start circulating about the popular Norwegian’s successor.

Unable to get close to the club at the moment to vent their feelings, United’s fans are very unhappy and demonstrated near the stadium about the owners, the Glazers, and the deeply unpopular Chief Executive Officer and de facto director of football, Ed Woodward.

United have nowhere to hide. Their financials for 2019-20 are due any day now, but despite claiming they are staring at a big loss of income due to the pandemic, United cannot point to financial problems as the sole cause of their current malaise. Over the last five years, their net spend has been close to £ 500 million, a figure beaten only by their neighbours City. The trouble with many clubs that have resources is that they waste their money and United have certainly not spent wisely in recent seasons.

So many of the club’s headline-making signings have not worked out as planned: Fellaini, Di Maria, Depay, Sanchez, Pogba and Fred could all be classified as disappointing, although Pogba has produced the goods occasionally. But £ 90 million? When the history is written of the post-Ferguson period, Pogba will not look like good value for money. Even England centre half Harry Maguire and former Palace defender look like extravagant purchases at £ 78 million and £ 49.5 million respectively. 

Since Ferguson left, United have spent £ 1 billion on players, recouping £ 335 million in the process. They invariably miss out on the top names, witness the way they have unsucessfully trailed Jadon Sancho but were unable to meet his wage demands.

They also experienced rejection from players like Erling Haaland and Jude Bellingham who chose Dortmund instead of a move to Old Trafford – astonishing for a club of United’s stature. Their wage bill is already well over £ 300 million, the highest in the Premier League, but their revenues are of such a high level that the wage-to-income ratio is just 54%.

It’s raining again

How this looks when the club issues its 2019-20 financials is anyone’s guess at present. They had forecast £ 580 million in revenues but that figure has been withdrawn. The club is losing around £ 4 million for every game played behind-closed-doors. United had an EBITDA (Earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation) of £ 186 million, but the 2019-20 figure is unlikely to be close to that. The club has said they must not dip below an EBITDA of £ 65 million in a rolling 12-month period as it would trigger covenants around some of United’s bank borrowing. The club’s net debt had increased by £ 127 million to £ 427 million at the end of its third quarter.

It is worth asking the question about United’s long-term view. The seven seasons since Ferguson left have delivered just three trophies: the FA Cup in 2015-16 under Van Gaal and the Europa League and Football League Cup with Mourinho at the helm in 2016-17. This is the most unsuccessful seven-year period since before the Premier. Indeed, in the last seven years of Sir Alex’s reign, they won nine trophies, including five league titles.

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was appointed rather hastily after a interim period following the departure of José Mourinho. Everyone agrees Ole is a nicy guy and people are reluctant to talk negatively about him, but was he always just a stop gap? His win rate is 54.75%, which has only been bettered by Mourinho since 2013.

United have been outplayed in all their league games this season and were rather fortunate to win the points they have secured at Brighton. They looked decidedly second rate against Crystal Palace and Tottenham. But it is not all bad news (not quite), there are positives at Old Trafford, including the emergence of Mason Greenwood and the signing of Donny van de Beek and Bruno Fernandes. The squad does look like it is perpetual need of a clear-out, though.

Crime of this century

There is an underlying feeling that unless the club radically changes personnel in key roles, their fortunes will not change and United would be in danger of becoming one of European football’s fallen giants – rich, well supported, strong brand but unable to get it right on the pitch. Much of the blame is being pushed to the door of Woodward and his Bristol University pals, Richard Arnold and Matt Judge. Judgement around the recruitment of players is certainly an issue, but Woodward’s biggest “crime” could actually be that he is a former banker – not a species generally appreciated in the football industry!

European club football always has its faded clubs but United have all the tools necessary to shake off this malaise – there are some similarities to the last time they drifted into mediocrity in the post-Busby – but will their ownership structure permit them to boldly change their approach? The fans certainly think they know what’s needed to recalibrate the club.


Photo: PA

Crisis breeds consolidation – but would football allow it?

THERE ARE simply too many professional football clubs, that was the view of advertising guru Sir Martin Sorrell, the former head of WPP and head of S4 Capital, speaking at the World Football Summit’s online conference.

In many industries, a crisis like coronavirus would spark off a chain of mergers as companies come together to strengthen their financial base, expand customer bases and improve competitiveness. Sorrell said football, in the current climate, is ripe for consolidation.

Sport doesn’t lend itself very easily to mergers, even though some clubs are the result of consolidation – any team with “United” in its name is invariably the result of two clubs combining forces. In fact, 20 of the 92 clubs that were due to start the 2019-20 season in Britain had a merger tucked away in their history.

But football is a game of emotions and irrational behaviour and any attempt to merge clubs is met with resistance and obstacles. It is a brave chairman that announces his or her club is about to join-up with another entity, mostly because the public reaction would be negative and undoubtedly trigger-off protest, suspicion, hatred and denial.

Sorrell called for football to be run more efficiently and professionally and predicted that the possibility of a world club championship or European Super League has an air of inevitability about it. “The ramifications of both would be huge and would send ripples through football,” he said.

In a subsequent session involving officials from Bari, Brighton, Orlando City and Emilio Butragueño from Real Madrid, Paul Barber of Brighton felt club failures are inevitable in the coronavirus crisis.

Heading off crisis?

If consolidation is a way to stave-off the threat of financial disaster in football, would the fans embrace it, or would historic ties, family traditions and local bias prevent steps being taken to keep the eco-system intact?

Not that mergers and acquisitions in the business world are always successful. In financial services, they are rarely profitable and often expensive and laden with irritation. Although football’s history is littered with amalgamations, most were created to provide substance and the critical mass needed to make a club more relevant. Any football merger today would be in response to a financial crisis and therefore be founded on business grounds.

As broadcasting becomes more and more influential in the game, the pressure to merge crippled clubs would come from multiple directions, with TV one of the drivers. If that was the case, what mergers would make sense and would create a better product? It is doubtful if any transaction would be seen as acceptable by supporters of the clubs involved, especially if the two parties happened to be fierce rivals.

In London, consolidation would certainly be championed by those wanting to reduce numbers and build a set of “super clubs”. For example, a south London club could be constructed that brought together Crystal Palace, Charlton Athletic and Millwall and create something that could look Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham in the eye. London actually has more professional clubs than virtually every major European capital city and south London has a huge population.

Further north, you could see consolidation in the midlands, perhaps a Birmingham club that could really leverage the “second city” status. And Bristol – how would a combination of City and Rovers fare – arguably better than the clubs would independently?

There are other possibilities – Leeds & Bradford; the East Midlands, Sheffield, the North-West and East Anglia. While the marketing men might salivate at the prospect of consolidation in the big cities, the truth is, the real problem of under-funded institutions is found in smaller, off-radar communities that are in earshot of larger, more successful football clubs.


Frankly, it would be a near-impossible task in normal circumstances, prompting something close to civil unrest in Britain’s towns and cities. But what if it meant survival, a change to the normal diet of soldiering on, the drudgery of just scraping by, punctuated by periodical financial crises? “I’d sooner be dead than red,” a supporter with a blue scarf might say.

But what would happen if football’s lower orders ran out of willing benefactors, the type of philanthropic people who prop-up league one and two – folk who are not oligarchs, oil barons or Asian retail billionaires? In other words, people who might be drastically and mortally affected by a financial crisis? There are signs that the generous, ask few questions sugar daddy may be a thing of the past, but who can blame anyone not wanting to pour money down a dark hole?

This past year, for various reasons, the UK has seen Bury drop out of the league, Wigan Athletic go into administration and growing fears for the future of Oldham Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Southend United  – among others.  And let’s not forget that only Wigan can be considered a coronavirus victim, the wheels were starting to come off the wagon long before anyone had heard of Wuhan.

In reality, mergers would be an act of last resort. They would be risky and, for example, if it was suggested that club A (a healthy club), merge with club B (a club on its knees), the fans of A would probably not welcome the move, let alone club B’s loyal band. If you remember back to the days when comics amalgamated, the name of the inferior product was included as part of the masthead for a while, before gently drifting away. The fear for fans, the emotional stakeholders, would be that their club might do likewise. Once more, we have to acknowledge that mergers won’t make sense, because football is like no other business when it comes to pragmatism. In fact, some fans would probably be happier that their club hit the wall rather than merge, because at least they could launch a phoenix club, retain their identity, and rise from the ashes.


Photo: PA