July 4, 2020

Ferguson ensured United survived the Glazers’ rampant money-making


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Sir Alex FergusonDavid Conn, The Guardian

Only success on the field guaranteed the owner’s debt-fuelled gamble would succeed

The New York stock exchange’s annual report from Manchester United, the great old football club now registered in the Cayman Islands tax haven, starklystarkly acknowledges the central importance of Sir Alex Ferguson to United’s whole football and financial edifice. Companies must set out for investors the risks to their future success, so the owners, the Glazer family, dutifully detailed their worst nightmares: serious injuries, falling crowds, and that “qualification for the European Champions League cannot be guaranteed”.

“Our business,” it says of United, depends on “our ability to attract and retain key personnel.”

Addressing the looming certainty of Ferguson’s retirement, the report states, a touch gloomily: “Any successor to our current manager may not be as successful as our current manager.”

That frank assessment for a money market to which the famous Manchester United have been flung, is a central truth about even modern, sophisticated football, which this club embodies more than any other. They can have all the revenue streams, global sponsors and “digital followers” possible, yet what might seem a licence to print money flows from success on the pitch and one person, the team manager, is still utterly central to that.

The likelihood of his successor being less successful seems as much a certainty as Ferguson’s ageing, which he, the greatest manager of the modern era and in football history in terms of trophies won, had to ultimately face up to. Whether José Mourinho, whose 3-2 aggregate victory with Real Madrid in March felt like an audition for Ferguson’s job, or that other driven Scot, David Moyes, it is difficult to believe any successor will stay 27 years and stock United’s shelving with so much silver.

United, of course, have the memory of botching a difficult succession written into the club’s fabric, those sad episodes of United devotee Wilf McGuiness then Frank O’Farrell from Leicester City struggling to manage the club when Sir Matt Busby only semi-retired. Busby’s greatness had epic dimensions as he had rebuilt United from a bombed Old Trafford in 1945, through the 1958 Munich air crash in which eight of his youthful team died, to further league championships and the European Cup in 1968.

Yet Busby left a rebuilding job, with the prime of Sir Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and other greats fading, George Best on the slide, and Old Trafford gripped by a kind of post-1968 anti-climax.

In Ferguson’s statement announcing this was, really, the day of retirement, he made clear he has tried to leave United in a position incomparably more promising.

“It was important to me to leave an organisation in the strongest possible shape and I believe I have done so,” Ferguson said. Listing United’s great and increasing strengths, which can all be credited to the manager’s obsessive production of success, he said: “Our training facilities are amongst the finest in global sport and our home Old Trafford is rightfully regarded as one of the leading venues in the world.”

At 76,000 capacity, the old ground has been comprehensively made over since Ferguson arrived to its terraces, paddocks and fences in the 1980s, and incorporates all manner of lucrative feasting, the envy of other top clubs still grappling with the confines of their stadiums.

“The quality of this league-winning squad, and the balance of ages within it, bodes well for continued success at the highest level, whilst the structure of the youth set-up will ensure that the long-term future of the club remains a bright one.”

That is all true, and describes an achievement as remarkable as all the trophies which Ferguson bestowed on United. He has kept replenishing United’s squads with signings for the future, and, exceptionally among the Premier League’s top clubs, promoted young players from the club’s academy – Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck and Tom Cleverly all started that game against Madrid, alongside that original homegrown lad, Ryan Giggs.

Addressing a group of apprentices recently on the invitation of Labour’s former sports minister, Richard Caborn, with whom he has stayed in touch, Ferguson said he can predict now 80% of the players who will stock United’s first team in five years’ time.

So his successor will walk into a football kingdom glittering with unparalleled riches, not a hollowed out reconstruction challenge. Nevertheless, there is no manager with Ferguson’s pedigree who can replace him, and this greatest opportunity in football is still fraught and daunting.

United note in that annual report that their financial might has depended on Ferguson.

“Our revenue streams are driven by the performance and popularity of the first team,” it says, before setting out the worrying multiple downsides of “a general decline in the success of our first team.”

Ferguson has not only relentlessly built success and planned for a brilliant future after he is gone, but steered United too through the financial horror the Glazers wreaked on the club. In 2009 and 2010 he made meagre signings and United looked potentially rocky when the £525m debts loaded on to the club to pay for the family’s takeover cost United £176m in interest alone. Ferguson marshalled all his resources, dug in deeply, and the club and Glazers have emerged the other side, helped by the floatation, which raised £70m. The debt, still £420m in 2012, seven years after the takeover and costing £50m interest annually, is utterly dead money but more manageable now.

The financial gymnastics of a US family who want only to profit from Manchester United has been salvaged by Ferguson. However difficult for his successor, it feels unlikely the club’s burgeoning commercial operations will be seriously damaged now.

For all his football greatness, it has been a huge disappointment to many Manchester United fans that Ferguson, the avowed lifelong socialist, never even acknowledged their concerns let alone supported their protests over the Glazers’ speculations which have cost the club £550m. Supporters suffered ticket price increases partly to pay for the club’s ownership by a family none of them ever wanted, yet not only was Ferguson silent, he repeatedly praised the Glazers.

The old Govan union man publicly sneered at the fans who felt strongly enough to turn away and formed their own, mutual club, FC United of Manchester, whose hard graft from the bottom has brought them now to a promotion play-off final to the Blue Square Bet Conference North.

Even in his leaving statement, setting out the booming advantages with which he has furnished Manchester United (Cayman Islands), Ferguson said: “The Glazer family have provided me with the platform to manage Manchester United to the best of my ability.” Thanking David Gill too, the chief executive who has resigned and will be replaced with the Glazers’ protege, Edward Woodward, Ferguson said: “I am truly grateful to all of them.”

His tenure spanned soaring change for United and English football; the Premier League breakaway, pay TV and huge money which attracted the world’s best players.

Ferguson harried Manchester United into dominating that era, he leaves the club in enviable pomp – and he enabled rampant money-making off the club, first by the Edwards family, and now for the Glazers.

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NOTE: Sir Alex Ferguson has announced his retirement as the manager of Manchester United, ending the most successful managerial career in football. Ferguson won 49 trophies during his 27 years at United including 13 Premier League titles. The favourites to replace him are José Mourinho, Everton’s David Moyes and Borussia Dortmund’s Jürgen Klopp

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