In these times of global difficulty I think one common thread tying us all together, as well as the humanitarian aspect of the crisis, is the concern that there is a general mistrust of authority.
As far as that extends to sport, well, as humans do, we tend to concern ourselves with our own interests first and then consider the wider picture. So anyone reading this column will be familiar with the concept of null and void because nobody wanted Liverpool to win the league.
They’ll be familiar with the praise Manchester United rightly received for not culling staff during the pandemic where others did. With the kudos gained for their approach in the earlier weeks of it – supporting staff and fans with players calling season ticket holders and other supporters to wish them well.
And then, with time and the attempt to get back to normal, we have gradually tried to return our expectations and judgements to normal too, with the understanding of how things have been impacted by what we have all been through.
At Manchester United that has extended to being sympathetic of the club’s refusal to pay £108m for Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund have no obligation to sell and have no obligation to be sympathetic of the global plight when it comes to the valuation of their own assets – just as, as business dictates, they would seek to exploit that very line themselves. That’s football. Jadon Sancho played for England and did nothing to light a hasty fire to accelerate such a move. Even United’s defeat to Crystal Palace did not signal the alarm bells.
But that’s okay – because £108m for Jadon Sancho even in a normal market would seem excessive.
In his programme notes at the weekend Ed Woodward discussed the impact the pandemic has had on the club.
“Disruption from the pandemic is continuing to create huge economic pressures from the top to the bottom of the football pyramid,” he said. “While we are fortunate to be in a more resilient position than most clubs, we are not immune from the impact. Despite this, we are delighted to have brought in Donny van de Beek from Ajax, adding further quality to a midfield already strengthened by the recruitment of Bruno Fernandes in January.”
“Both Donny and Bruno are players we had been tracking for some time and their signings reflect out long-term approach to blending high-quality recruits with homegrown talent to develop a squad capable of winning trophies playing attacking, entertaining football.
“As part of that process, we have also awarded new contracts to Nemanja Matic and academy graduates Dean Henderson, Brandon Williams, Scott McTominay and Mason Greenwood over the past year. We have also continued to strengthen our thriving academy by attracting several promising young players from across Europe, including Marc Jurado from Barcelona and Alvaro Fernandez Carreras from Real Madrid.
“Together, these investments reinforce our optimism about the future, and we will continue to build on these strong foundations. However, we must also be responsible in our use of resources during the most extraordinarily challenging time for everyone in football.”
All of which would be just fine. But the pandemic is a convenient smokescreen and just a couple of days later Patrice Evra, a United legend and good friend of Woodward, posted an impassioned video on Instagram where he seemed to place much of the blame at the hands of Matt Judge, suggesting that clubs were unable to get in contact with him to conclude transfers. Who knows – perhaps that is true. But Evra also defended Woodward and claimed that Avram Glazer loves the club, which were slightly less palatable comments.
Oliver Kay today wrote in the Athletic that United have been hit by a loss of £35m from match day revenue due to the pandemic and although that figure is staggeringly high it also presented a different perspective.
United have paid £120m in interest to banks over the last 5 years. They have paid owner dividends of £89m to the Glazer family over the same spell. On these figures alone it is easy to see that United have been drained greater than the cost of the pandemic every single year.
At the time when Bury went out of business I looked at the club valuations to consider how much the £1.5bn in total drained out of United under the owners would have impacted any other club.
If United have been impacted to the tune of £35m by the pandemic then the Glazers have been the equivalent of more than forty times the damage caused by COVID-19.
But the £1.5bn figure was more than what even Arsenal were worth. Consider that for a moment. If Arsenal Football Club, one of English football’s greatest institutions, were placed in the same financial peril as United they would’ve been put out of business.
And suddenly the sympathy for United’s ‘crisis’ disappears completely. Many supporters are too cross and too near-sighted to consider the true perspective of Woodward’s claim. Many humans are too good natured to immediately challenge the hypocrisy.
The Glazer family could have put back in just half of what they have taken from the club in the last few years and it would not have been impacted by the pandemic.
It would have taken it on the chin and still have been able to take advantage of the sporting position Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s work has put them in.
The sporting position is all the fans truly care about. They will buy the shirts, all three of them, at the normally obscene price with its increasingly obscene design and they will invest their season ticket money in good faith just in case. They will continue to buy merchandise. Buy MUTV. Support anyway they can. They are only interested in the team and getting behind them.
Solskjaer, too, has a primary objective of success – however you choose to measure that success. He will pay the price for failure – how the club chooses to measure it.
Many supporters do not consider Ole to be the right man for the job. Others commend him for what he’s been able to do under the circumstances. Some blame him for allowing players to go when he didn’t get replacements. Some air concern over his tactical approach. All of these concerns are valid and part of healthy football conversation.
But what is not healthy is being told that a pandemic which has cost the club £35m is the reason for United’s incapability to act with greater force – at a crucial time in the history of the club – to capitalise on a strong achievement by the manager.
That figure again. The club’s ownership has cost Manchester United over £1.5bn. That is enough to withstand several pandemics year after year and still spend its own money in the transfer market.
Of course, much of that money has been lost not only on the cost of the payout but in dead money like restructuring payments and interest. It is not there for the Glazer family to re-invest.
In these times we are seeing owners of clubs having to invest their own money just to survive. We are seeing owners of clubs spending their own money to try and capitalise on the transfer market. Manchester United are not even allowed to spend their own money. The cost of the pandemic could likely be avoided completely if the owners decided that for just one year they would not drain the club.
Over the years people have looked at United’s transfer spend and confused that with investment. Let it be clear for anyone who needs it spelling out – the Glazer family have never invested a penny into United. United have always only spent money they have generated themselves.
For them to survive the pandemic in decent health, they would not need investment. They’d just need the money they generate instead of having it siphoned away. And if they were able to use all the money they generate, they would still be one of the rare clubs in a position to thrive. But they aren’t, and the reason for that is not a pandemic. It is insulting to supporters to suggest that it is.
Woodward was fortunate to pen his programme notes when he knew there was an empty stadium for the game. He is fortunate that there will be no crowds for a period that will be long enough for any anger over his recent comments to subside into the general apathy and helplessness which surrounds the topic of the ownership at Manchester United.
Some supporters resent Solskjaer for insisting he has been backed. They resent that he has used the pandemic, too, as an explanation for the lack of spending this summer.
Some have used, as a reason to blame the manager, the number of players the club can’t get rid of and blame Solskjaer as he was there when some were awarded new contracts. But look at Manchester City and the numerous expensive transfer failures they are able to write off. This is largely the cost of the ownership and the mistakes Solskjaer inherited. No matter which way you frame it the problems go back to the club not being able to spend their own money.
“But they’ve spent hundreds of millions!” Yes, but it’s a straw man argument. A record spend in 2014 still didn’t come close to addressing the experience lost that summer. Spending to get back into the Champions League and failing to back the manager when they get there is a trend we have seen all too often.
Solskjaer loves United and is doing what he can do from the inside to change it. It doesn’t mean he is blame-free, but for many of us he earns a pass, though we do wish sometimes he’d bite his tongue on such matters. Sometimes silence says more.
But having the voice of the owners discuss how the ‘economic pressure’ is hurting the club is rank hypocrisy and simply doesn’t wash. The club have haemorrhaged hundreds of millions of pounds for years.
And even within all of this, if the owners so chose to, they could just hit ‘pause’ on their personal piggy bank for a year or two, permit United to spend their own money, and they’d still survive relatively scar-free through the crisis. But they won’t. So, where do you point the finger?
Forget the pandemic – it is the financial cost of having the current owners that has handicapped Manchester United this year just as it has been every year since they took control of the club.