Second placed in the Premier League, in the semi-finals of the League Cup and in the last sixteen of the Champions League may not seem like too bad a place to be at the start of January, but questions are now starting to be asked about what is going on at Manchester United, both on and off the pitch. What is worth remembering, however, is that there is an intrinsic link between the two. How well Manchester United do on the pitch is in no small part determined by how well they are doing off it and the long term stability of the club is guided by a greater and greater requirement of success on the pitch.
On the pitch, Manchester United have been looking shakier than they have done for some years for much of the season. In this respect, a home defeat in the FA Cup by Leeds United is more than just a cough or a splutter. It is a symptom of a fragility that has been visible in many of their other matches this season, including matches that they have won. They have been fortunate that the other more plutocratic Premier League clubs have also stuttered this season. Chelsea, for example, might have been runaway leaders this season were it not for the fact that they have won just five of their ten away league matches this season. Arsenal have lost four matches (compared to six in the whole of last season) and will go second if they win their game in hand over Manchester United. The less said about Liverpool’s season, the better. With six defeats already this season compared to two over the whole of last season, their collapse has masked some of the problems at other Premier League clubs.
To an extent, of course, some of their problems have been beyond their control. Their injury list has been horrific, but this often shown up gaps in the depth of the squad. Sunday’s defeat was a decent reference point. Alex Ferguson had certainly made changes from the previous week’s win again Wigan Athletic, but this wasn’t a Manchester United team made up of youth team players. The tough question that Ferguson may be having to ask himself this week is this: are the likes of Gabriel Obertana, Danny Welbeck, Jonathan Evans and Fabio da Silva really good enough to bolster the team in a second half of the season that will be more difficult than the first half of it was?
Regardless of the lack of strength in depth of the squad, a more pressing concern for them may turn out to be the more established players. They have been lucky that, for example, Ryan Giggs has enjoyed an Indian summer that has lasted longer than anyone would have dared to hope, but Giggs isn’t getting any younger and neither are Paul Scholes or Gary Neville. Wayne Rooney is becoming the finished article as a striker, but Michael Owen seems unlikely to be a twenty-five goal per season striker again and Federico Macheda still needs a couple of years to prove that he can fulfil his undoubted potential.
Then, of course, there is the continuing enigma that is Dimitar Berbatov. Berbatov has started to attract a number of detractors this season, and it is easy to see why. His languid style of play is an easy target for those that choose to criticise him, especially considering the £32.5m that Manchester United paid for him. To date, he has managed fifteen goals in forty-nine goals for the club – not enough for a striker at a club that wins the majority of its matches. Whether he can – or will want to – change his style of play to suit his critics is debatable. Ultimately, though, Manchester United’s continuingly increasing depencence upon him is due to a lack of real quality in depth. To put it another way, there still seems to be a Cristiano Ronaldo-shaped hole at the heart of their current team.
Many of these problems can be attributed, whether directly or indirectly, to financial condition of the club. Over the last five years, Manchester United have had every conceivable financial advantage that a club could have. Massive prize money from continuing success in the Premier League and the Champions League. Capacity crowds of 76,000 for more or less every home match. One of the – if not the – most bankable brands in the global game. They paid £12m for Cristiano Ronaldo in 2003 and sold him for a world record transfer fee of £80m last year. Yet they start 2010 with question marks again being raised over their financial standing. The club itself insists that debt is not a problem because their profits cover the cost of the interest being accumulated against it, but the devil here is in the detail.
In 2008, Manchester United made a profit of £72m to be offset against annual interest costs of £69m. The implications of this are serious. Firstly, it means that one of the few properly profitable football clubs in the world is only just, in practical terms, managing to the balance the books. Secondly, it means that they need to keep performing at the same commercial level if they are to avoid a crisis. They have to keep getting to the latter stages of the Champions League. However, the corporate hospitality seats aren’t selling and a waiting queue for season tickets is a thing of the past after savage price increases over the last four years or so. With the interest rates at 14.25% per annum, they cannot afford – in a most literal sense – anything less than to be at the absolute top of the global leaderboard.
And all of this is without considering the moral considerations of it all. Where has the soul of Manchester United Football Club. A sizeable part of it is lodging in digs up the road at Gigg Lane. FC United of Manchester are not setting the Unibond League alight this season. They are third from bottom (one place above the relegation places) in the table but, having played just seventeen of their thirty-eight league matches so far this season, they are still only eleven points behind fifth placed Ashton United with six games in hand and a superior goal difference of thirteen. Plans are slowly moving forward towards a ground of their own. Those that turned away from this world of leveraged buy-outs, bond issues and hedge funds have had their rise from the North-West Counties League tempered over the last couple of seasons, but much of the original spirit of Old Trafford remains intact with them.
External factors may well be hitting Manchester United hard at the moment, but it is impossible to have any sympathy with owners that chose to play stock market rules to mortgage the club to the rooftops in order to acquire it. The club’s actual capital debt (around £700m) hasn’t even been touched – the big profits that have been being made have only been paying interest on this debt. Reducing the capital of the debt itself remains the question that no-one has been successfully been able to answer. Manchester United supporters who continue to look at the trophies that their club has won since the Glaser take-over as being proof that they have been successful should probably pause to consider what might have been possible had they had the extra money to spend that has already vanished into a vast pit with somebody else’s name written upon it. The decline and fall of Manchester United may been overstated and there is certainly a case to be made for saying that the soul of the club is ebbing away. Now, though, there is a chance that several altogether more practical chickens may be coming home to roost.