United: Damned if they do and damned if they don’t

As Manchester United entered this summer’s transfer window the media message was almost universal: decline and years of underspending had seen the club fall far behind their domestic rivals and that it had lost its ability to attract the highest class of player to Old Trafford in the face of unprecedented spending and acquisitions by Chelsea, Manchester City and, more recently, Arsenal. With no Champions League football, it was claimed, the best would be almost impossible to secure, despite a rapidly growing commercial operation and predicted record revenues. This was not an unreasonable set of assumptions to make. The Glazer ownership and its debt burden have cut deep into the club on and off the field, a message which Fergie inadvertently drove home with his claims of ‘no value in the market’ during the final years of his tenure. Many fans had succumbed to this constant rhetoric and resigned themselves to a diet of second or third string players. Few believed the corporate line of a huge transfer war-chest. We, and the media who had diligently written up the club line, had been fooled before and knew better than to fall for that con-trick again. Both journalists and the fans concurred that huge spending would be required to revitalise a tired, inadequate squad and perceived wisdom said that United would have to overpay for talented players to compensate for the lack of European football.

As the window closed on September 1st, with six senior signings purchased at an aggregate cost of approximately £150m, the club had achieved and arguably exceeded what many commentators had opined was a necessity. Not only had four young talents under the age of 26 been extracted from tier two or three clubs, but United had also acquired two of the world’s finest players from under the noses of Europe’s elite. As predicted, it was necessary to pay above market rate for all and offer extremely competitive wages, but for the first time under the Glazers the club flexed the full extent of its financial muscle in a manner which the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona had, without significant criticism, for years. It is hard to argue that the window was a triumph of planning, the final four signings made late in the day and after the Premier League season had already started, and that all of the squad’s weaknesses had been addressed. The need for a box-to-box midfielder remains, although a recurrence of the longstanding knee complaint suffered by the Chilean Arturo Vidal suggests that the United were correct in their decision not to push hard for the Juventus player, and the failure to bring a top class centre back to Old Trafford may still prove costly.

However, criticism of Woodward, Van Gaal et al since the early editions were printed on the morning of September 2nd has not only centred on the failure to recruit in certain areas. Instead, commentators aimed their arrows at the very overspending that many had insisted would be necessary weeks before and the decision to sell Danny Welbeck to Arsenal and loan Tom Cleverley to Aston Villa, actions considered to be betrayal of United’s fabled faith in youth and home-grown talent. By sacrificing their two most high profile youth products of recent years and purchasing hugely expensive, ready-made stars like Di Maria and Falcao, the club had sacrificed its principles and given up a moral high-ground which, in theory, made them more ‘special’ than nouveau-riche peers like Chelsea and Manchester City. Indeed, some argued that the long-term planning and quietly efficient business of these clubs, in contrast to United’s frivolity, had brought about an almost complete role reversal. Essentially, they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t.

And yet, if you scratch beneath the surface of these criticisms it is clear that their foundations are built on sand. Firstly to the notion that a new era of Galactico spending is a betrayal of the previous principles of prudence and a commitment to buying and developing young players. The supporting evidence for this change appears to be the underinvestment of the Glazer period and Fergie’s public stance during the most testing financial times that United could not and had no desire to match the vast sums that the likes of City and Chelsea were lavishing on imported talent. In 2012 he said:

“No-one can match City’s financial power – no-one. We have to accept that, so we do it a different way. We’ll try to look at young players with the potential to develop in the club, which we’re good at, so we’ll stay with that.”

But such statements were not borne out of a desire to challenge himself by overcoming the vast wealth of Sheikh Mansour with a more considered, long-term approach. In reality, such an approach was a necessity. Ferguson simply didn’t consistently have the finance to trump the ‘noisy neighbours’ or the roubles at Stamford Bridge. And it is instructive that a few weeks after making the above comments the Scot made a significant investment in a striker in his late twenties, on a huge wage, and it was Van Persie who eventually fired United to the title the following May. He recognised that if top quality became available and he could afford it then it must be acquired, however old the player.

Perhaps what is most remarkable about the claims that United have broken from their history and ushered in a new Galactico era is that it totally ignores Sir Alex’s time at the club prior to the Glazer takeover, when his United regularly broke the British transfer record and paid out what were vast sums for both young talents and proven quality. Both youth and experience was worth paying for. Indeed, if we travel back in time to the summer prior to Fergie’s first trophy success for the club, the 1990 FA Cup, the then manager made a huge investment in five first team players, breaking the British transfer record to sign Gary Pallister for £2.3m, also acquiring Paul Ince, Danny Wallace and more experienced heads in Neil Webb and Mike Phelan. When an overhaul was necessary he and United were willing to pay for it. In the period between then and the Glazer takeover in 2005 that record would be superseded by Roy Keane, Andy Cole, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand. It would be another 12 years before the signing of Angel Di Maria for a fee reported to be £59.7m would again take that crown. Pre-2005 Sir Alex would regularly refer to a ‘United tax’, the sum over a player’s market value that his club would have to pay to prize an asset from another club who knew that his suitors had significant cash to play with. When able, United have always overpaid for the right players.

Fast forward again to this summer and the spending during the transfer window appears out of place compared to the relative frugality of the Glazer regime, but is not at odds with United’s dealings historically. The only area of comparative change is the way in which the club have succeeded in signing two of the world’s best from outside of the Premier League. Sir Alex used to bemoan his inability to do so, in his first autobiography identifying Gabriel Batistuta in particular as one he would have loved to have brought to England were he in a financial position to make it happen. Falcao and Di Maria have been acquired because they could be, not because of a conscious decision to break with any long-standing philosophy or choice to avoid doing such deals. What is also noticeable about the other four summer purchases is that none is over the age of 25 and it has thus been a summer which has typified the Ferguson and United approach pre-2005, a mix of youth and experience, quality and potential. The similarities with 1988 are obvious: a struggling side in need of significant strengthening and rejuvenation, a high player turnover and signings at huge cost that brought both youth and experience. Far from being a new dawn this is simply a return to practices used before money became a significant issue.

Twinned with the suggestion that a new ‘Galactico’ era is upon us has been the recurring criticism that this transfer window has been a betrayal of United’s philosophy of investment in and production of youth talents, a dynasty built on a trust in young, often local, players. The evidence cited for this is the deadline day sale of Danny Welbeck to Arsenal and the loan of Tom Cleverley to Aston Villa. By replacing them with Falcao and Di Maria or Daley Blind this was thus an abandonment of a commitment to have a core of the first team squad occupied by products of the club’s academy. This, unquestionably, has been a core philosophy of United and one which, it was assumed, would be continued by Louis Van Gaal. Suddenly, moving these players on has been painted as an end to this noble undertaking, a time for stars over home-grown prodigies. And yet none of the evidence supports this conclusion. Both Welbeck and Cleverley had been given several seasons worth of chances to excel and neither had quite done enough to demonstrate the ability to step up to the top class level. As they have left other young players have been promoted to the first-team ranks: James Wilson, Tyler Blackett, Jesse Lingard and Reece James have been involved early-season, as have Saidy Janko, Andreas Perreira and Michael Keane (now on loan at Burnley). Indeed, United have more players classified as ‘home-grown’ in their Premier League squad than any other team. It is interesting that such arguments were not forthcoming when Sir Alex signed Robin Van Persie to start ahead of Danny Welbeck in the summer of 2012, a decision which arguably won his side the title. Nor has it reared its head in the editorials about United’s long-term neglect of their midfield, a midfield containing Tom Cleverley which was not considered to be strong enough to challenge at the top level. In truth, the club’s academy has not produced a top class first team player since the fabled Class of ’92 (Jonny Evans and Darren Fletcher have been able squad men), but despite the relative failings of the youth system it could not be argued that young prospects have not been given and are not still being given a chance to prove their worth at first-team level.

It seems quite remarkable then, that many journalists have hailed this as the end of an era, of a philosophy which sets United apart from the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. Now we are the same as them, they cry. This is the same Manchester City who last week offloaded the only British youth product in their first-team squad, Micah Richards, to Fiorentina. The same Chelsea for whom John Terry remains the only British product of their academy in the first-team picture. As for the argument that it is they who now act with prudence whilst United spend vast sums on over-priced players, it is easy to do so from a position of strength. United will no doubt admit to mistakes having been made recently and the consequence is a squad desperately in need of significant investment. Both City and Chelsea, also constrained by FFP regulations, are in the second year of a new cycle and required fine tuning rather than overhaul. These are unique conditions for all three clubs and United, unlike these foes, have used money they themselves have generated when spending big.

It would be wrong to suggest that United’s window was a triumph of planning or that all of the necessary pieces of the jigsaw were acquired. But to suggest that it is evidence of a betrayal of the club’s philosophy and values is wide of the mark. It is another example of United as click-bait for money hungry media tycoons and controversy-seeking journalists. One, Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail, took the United-bashing further by suggesting that the loan of Radamel Falcao was an affront to fair play, a development the next step of which would be players being loaned for a day, as if they were hire cars. It was an argument that seemed to ignore similar loans by clubs at all levels going back decades. But hey, when it’s United different rules apply, for they are eternally damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

More Stories David Moyes Ed Woodward Louis van Gaal Manchester United Sir Alex Ferguson

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