These are dark, dark days for Manchester United. When the despised Glazer family completed their heavily leveraged takeover deal in 2005 the prophets of doom were deafening and relentless. Some of the most gloomy of the predictions thankfully did not come to pass. Whether by luck, judgement or a combination of both the club was able to survive the incredible burden of its debt, thanks largely to an innovative commercial strategy and the genius of Sir Alex. The vast losses to the banks, however, had inevitable consequences. From the summer of 2009, when Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid for a world record £80m, a period of vast underinvestment began. The majority of that huge fee was swallowed up by the cost of a subsequent refinancing of the club’s principle debt and the Portuguese and Carlos Tevez were replaced by Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen. The fuse of a ticking time bomb had been set alight.
Thanks almost entirely to the talents of the greatest manager of all time United were able to paper over the cracks. Fergie’s final title winning squad was an ageing, mediocre bunch, hauled over the line by their manager and the goals of Robin Van Persie. The Glazers got lucky. Their business model did not require their club to win titles, but they had a man at the helm who would not accept anything less. It appeared to instil in the owners and executive staff a complacency, that they could coast along with minimal investment with few consequences. But with Fergie (and David Gill) went the nous and the nuts and bolts which were holding an increasingly bedraggled sporting institution together. The appointment of Ed Woodward, a commercial prodigy, demonstrated that finances came before football. It left an executive hierarchy with no experience in the game whatsoever. Woodward has been a disaster for the football club, but a godsend for the business, the owners and investors. As the team has combusted under David Moyes and now Louis Van Gaal, remarkably revenues continue to rise and United are predicting a record turnover of over £500m next financial year. Sponsorship and spiralling TV deals cushion the blow of lost Champions League football. As the team slides towards disaster the owners could probably not be happier.
The failure to sack Van Gaal is in itself indicative of the extent to which United have lost their way. Paralysed by indecision, self-interest and internal politics sensible football strategy has been slowly eroded to the point that no-one in power can see the woods for the trees. This loss of sight of what United has built its reputation (and dare I say it’s brand) on can be seen at all levels. Whilst the first team plays the most appallingly dull and sterile football in its modern history, betraying the swagger and sense of adventure which has attracted its millions of supporters worldwide, the famed youth academy is in the grip of a rapid decline. The cost-cutting which eroded the quality of the first team squad also permeated the junior ranks. Stories of a drop in standards have periodically surfaced in recent years, encompassing a fall in the quality of academy coaches due to uncompetitive wages, inadequate scouting networks both locally and nationwide and of facilities falling behind those of the club’s competitors. Recently it was revealed that United’s academy budget of £3.5m per annum is approaching £6m less than that at Chelsea and £9m less than City’s. These are huge disparities.
The results of this parsimony were always likely to take some time to surface. Whilst the Under-21 squad continues to do well, results from the Under-18 team down have begun to alarmingly slide. At that Under-18 level, United have lost their last ten league matches and suffered a 5-1 drubbing in the FA Youth Cup at the hands of Chelsea. This is not simply a first-team issue. The entire club is on its knees. United are briefing, as they so often do, that major restructuring is in the pipeline, but it is a sign of the times that their Academy Director of choice, Spurs’ John McDermott (a United fan), rejected their approach on the basis that he is on to a better thing at White Hart Lane. The position has now been vacant for a year, since the departure of Brian McClair.
Cost-cutting has affected other areas of the club. Many of the scouts employed to identify talent around Europe are employed on a part-time basis, leaving United at a distinct disadvantage compared to their rivals and their full-time staff. This is an elite club run like a run-of-the-mill, medium sized provincial outfit.
The writing is on the wall, and yet all we see is inertia. Whether it is complacency, stupidity or blindness to their own failings, those who call the shots at Old Trafford have taken their eye off the ball, perhaps sated by the bundles of cash that continue to be dumped into the club’s bank accounts. This could be their greatest mistake yet. The total betrayal of everything United stands for on the pitch is just one sign of the biggest threat to their empire. The money keeps on rolling in, because of the club’s unique identity, it’s mystique, history, sense of adventure and its commitment to youth, all of which combine to make United one of the most valuable and powerful brands in football. It is that on which the Glazers and their senior executive Ed Woodward trade. United are an emotive institution, a position which keeps supporters from Manchester to Sydney spending money on tickets or merchandise and commercial partners queuing up to be associated with the brand.
But the fans are not stupid. They see the prioritisation of the business over the football club and now they can see the erosion of the famed academy and the total loss of footballing identity on the pitch. The disenchantment is slowly but surely draining away what is ‘special’ about Manchester United, what makes it unique and so appealing to young football fans looking for thrills and romance. Just as damagingly it is also alienating existing supporters, both match-goers and long-distance fans. Results have importance, but it is the sheer lack of drama, adventure and, quite frankly, value for money which is creating the most dangerous challenge to the Glazer’s entire business strategy: Apathy. People do not spend money on something they feel apathetic about and businesses have no interest in being associated with brands about which their potential consumers are apathetic. And we are now reaching the stage where supporters are no longer prioritising United and its matches over other areas of their life.
For some weeks the trade in match-day tickets online has been growing exponentially. Season-ticket holders have started to forgo their usual routine, resentful at the paucity of entertainment they are witnessing. For many, attending games has become a chore. As one said to me today on Twitter, “i pay £703 for my season ticket in the east stand. i havent seen a utd goal at my end since sept. I hate going now :(.” This team has not scored a first-half goal at Old Trafford in eleven games. Another admitted that, “didn’t even bother going today Rich, that’s how I feel about it now”. These sentiments are far from isolated.
Similar feelings are growing stronger throughout the fanbase. For the third time in four games I did not watch United’s weekend defeat to Southampton. Instead I took my children swimming and to MacDonalds. After over thirty years of organising my entire life around the club’s matches I finally came to the conclusion that what I was witnessing was boring me and leaving me angry and unhappy and that there are far more important things to devote my time and emotional energy too. This team and this club is not the one that I fell in love with as a child in the early 1980s, the one which had me in a semi-strop on the day of the birth of my first daughter because they had lost 2-0 at Fulham, or which has brought me off my seat, screaming in jubilation or wonder thousands of times before. The club which even in the depths of defeat could leave you dreaming of something magical to come. This team, this club, has become soulless, a joyless husk of the institution it once was, where profit and self-interest have eroded the values that made it great and so popular. My connection to my team feels lost, to the degree that defeat no longer deeply hurts, whilst victory no longer brings the joy that it once did. Manchester United has lost its way and the bond with me that has shaped huge swathes of my life.
I am not alone. After expressing a similar sentiment on Twitter I was inundated by fans experiencing the same lack of emotion and overwhelming disenchantment. The following are a selection of the alternative ways in which United fans spent the 90 minutes of the Southampton match.
“snap. Didn’t even have to be dragged to the shops today.”
“This….. I chose to watch Scooby Doo with my little girl.”
“Decided to drink in a pub with some mates. One without a TV. No regrets…”
“In the gym. Made my choice months ago. Stay there and enjoy.”
“Reached that point today. Not bothering till he’s gone.”
“This. I decided my time would be better spent folding laundry. With the tv off!”
I could spend my whole evening cutting a pasting, but you get the point.
The question is now how this mess can be corrected, how long that might take and whether it can happen under the current ownership and executive structure? Huge changes are needed. First and foremost the club needs to bite the bullet, grow some balls and fire Louis Van Gaal. His brand of football is what is driving fans away and allowing disenchantment to spread like wildfire. Reds need to be inspired by what is on the pitch to invest some faith in the belief that matters can be corrected off it. The level of investment in the academy must be dramatically increased and local and global scouting networks strengthened. A proper footballing infrastructure needs to be built at executive level, providing direction and strategy regarding player acquisition and retention and to offer an expert opinion to the owners.
The fear is that even if these changes are made, United cannot be revived until the owners are gone, for they will always prioritise money over football. There seems little hope of them leaving medium term, unless catastrophic events occur. One intelligent, thoughtful fan today described them as a ‘cancer’ and suggested that relegation would be acceptable if it meant they would sell up. Remarkably it didn’t feel like an entirely ludicrous suggestion. I would take that to have my club in better hands, to rebuild my bond with it and to feel United building towards something again, rather than the slow, painful decline that we are currently witnessing. In the short term I reached the point on Saturday where when Charlie Austin scored three minutes from time it didn’t hurt. It almost felt like a good thing. I’d take a defeat in every match United now play until Van Gaal is gone. This team and this club are currently going nowhere anyway.
Financial sector professional and United fan Andy Green, who has long protested against the current owners (occasionally a little too much), summed up the situation well on Saturday evening:
“Sad thing is that nobody at all surprised by today’s result. Inc Woodward/Glazers I’m sure. Nothing but mid-table mediocrity since Fergie. Meanwhile the academy and the scouting network is in a state. Years of underinvestment at all levels. Shambles. Glazers only care about the magic EBITDA and the sodding share price. Woodward only has to deliver the “partners” and sod the football.”
The Glazers should care about the football, because it is only a matter of time before the growing apathy starts to hit the business. Just as there was a nasty surprise for United fans in 2013, the ultimate endgame of eight years of complacency and cost-cutting, the owners may be saving trouble up for themselves. In 2005 their critics unsuccessfully lobbied for match day and product boycotts. A few more years of this and those fans groups may get their wish, not because people consciously want to oust the owners, but because, quite frankly, they don’t give a f*ck about the football anymore. The boos at full time on Saturday were as vitriolic as any ever heard at Old Trafford. Inaction will only make it worse.