Opinion

Time capsule of Manchester United's downfall

MUSC Red Devils NCR
Manchester United fans protesting against the Glazers
Manchester United fans protesting against the Glazers / Phil Noble - Pool/GettyImages
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The “Red Devils", once the pride of England and the most prestigious football institutions in the world, have been enduring one of the most spectacular falls from grace in modern day history.

Having won 66 major trophies, they are the most successful club in English football history, who witnessed the tutelage of great managers like Sir Matt Busby, who was in-charge from 1945 to 1969, and Sir Alex Ferguson, who managed the club from 1986 to 2013.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Denis Law, Bobby Charlton
The holy trinity / PAUL ELLIS/GettyImages

The club’s history underwent a major turning point in the aforementioned year of 2013, when Sir Alex retired from football along with CEO David Gill. Subsequently, as has been widely covered and witnessed by the masses, Manchester United have failed to win any major trophy for a consistent period, and as of today are on a dry period of five years without any trophy following their shock FA cup exit at the hands of minnows Middlesbrough.

Expectedly, the fans, ex-players and critics, have all voiced their concerns, the focal point being the current management and owners of the club: the Glazers family. Being majority stakeholders of the club, they have been under constant pressure due to this tough interlude endured by United.

Thus, after the departure of long-time manager Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United has progressively lost its identity as a dominant football club, with the threat of irrelevance having been riveted throughout.

This article breaks down the argument that a change in ownership, management and a complete overhaul of personalities would create a ripple effect, and bring back the club’s “glory days”.


Issues post 2013

As mentioned, the club had been the most dominant force in English football. But this dominance has declined as they have failed to hold onto their English top division’s league title for the last nine years. Having won the trophy a record 20 times, it had been a common site for fans to see them lift the title at Old Trafford almost every year.

The club had never finished below 3rd place since 1991, and won the league title 13 times during this period. But the very year (2014) Sir Alex left his managerial post, they plunged to a 7th place finish in the league.

The club has also failed to qualify for the UEFA Champion’s League regularly.

The closest they came to winning the Premier League title theoretically, was in the 2020/2021 season, but a gap of 12 points still persisted between the first and second places: it was barely a contest.

Unsuccessful seasons every year are only making supporters more impatient, and apprehensive about the future of the club.

Under Sir Alex Ferguson, 38 trophies were amassed, and the club became the most decorated in Britain’s history, but the club has failed to win cup trophies regularly as well. They have won only 4 notable trophies since the 2012/2013 season.

To put this into context, in the 6 years prior to 2013, Man United won 12 trophies, including the league title, four times. Currently, the last major honor came in 2017, under Jose Mourinho.

Ajax v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Final
Jose Mournhio posingwith the trophy after beating Ajax with Manchester United in the UEFA Europa League Final, 2017 / Etsuo Hara/GettyImages

Post 2013, Manchester United has failed to catch-up with the success enjoyed by two of their fiercest rival clubs: Manchester City and Liverpool. Historically speaking, Manchester United has enjoyed an upper hand against the two teams in terms of trophies won and points racked up.

But since the past nine years, the club has lost that advantage and is slowly being eclipsed by the two teams. Manchester City have won a record 11 major trophies (as compared to United’s four) and Liverpool have collected more league points and won the Premier League and Champions League in that period.

This contrast of success is making Manchester United the least relevant club among the three, in terms of dominance asserted on the field and obviously trophies won.

The rubrics negating the ‘top-six’ clubs of the league have left Manchester United striving for a place against previously weaker clubs. The English Premier League has had a traditional ‘top 6’ group of teams which are the strongest of the lot and are the usual Champion’s League contenders. It traditionally comprises of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Manchester United.

The remaining 14 clubs are regarded as the ‘Mid-Table Clubs’ and the ‘Bottom Half’, depending upon their performances and league finishes. The league has witnessed the emergence of more competent clubs like Leicester City, West Ham United, Everton, who, based upon their performances have tried to challenge this norm of the ‘Top 6’. Even Newcastle United are becoming a major force in the transfer market, owing to their takeover.

This emergence of more competent clubs is only a threat to United’s dominant stature, as it might be eclipsed by the other club's success: the most recent example being Leicester City becoming FA Cup winners in the 2021 season, after beating United in the quarter-final of the competition itself.


The Glazers ownership

American business tycoon Malcolm Glazer, the father of current owners of Manchester United Avram and Joel, had initially begun accumulating shares of the club in 2003, after his sons advised him. The family completed the overtake by acquiring the majority stakes in the club through an intermediary investment company (Red Football Ltd.) in 2005, through the means of a £550 million leveraged buyout.

Edward Woodward, Avram Glazer
FC Barcelona v Manchester United - UEFA Champions League Quarter Final: Second Leg / Matthew Ashton - AMA/GettyImages

The process of this overtake is the reason behind Manchester United’s current debt of around £526 million, which shall be discussed consequently. To begin with, the takeover by Malcolm Glazer was financed through, as referred to as the ‘leveraged buyout plan’ previously.

In short, they did not spend their own money to acquire the club, a fact which riled up the fans’ disapproval and anger towards the new owners as soon as the takeover was completed. As the deal involved acquiring funds against (future) assets, which happened to be the club’s own assets, drawing mandatory interest payments amounting to an estimated £60 million every financial year.

Since the takeover, it has been universally reported that the club as a whole has incurred miscellaneous costs like interest payments and other kinds of fees, over £1 billion.

In terms of gaugeable interest and dividend payments, Man Utd have the most expenditure, out of all Premier League clubs. The club listed some of its shares (around 10%) on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in 2012, with an objective of raising around 100 $million.

The two-fold division of these shares had a dichotomy motivated by power retention, with the Class-A shares being sold to the public (who would not be eligible for regular dividend payment) and the other Class-B remainders being held by the Glazers (sole recipients of the dividends and reserving voting rights).

Thus, the listing was a facade which led to Manchester United becoming the only club who pays their owners dividends, and the Glazer family holding supreme control over the club’s functioning. United’s current ownership structure comprises of the late Malcolm Glazer’s children, with Joel and Avram Glazer acting as Co-Chairmen; Richard Arnold being the Executive Vice-Chairman after Ed Woodward's departure at the start of February, and the rest of the Glazer siblings being the Non-Executive Directors.

As mentioned above, this dividend payment and interest expenditure has pushed the club into severe debt, with the fans or Class-A shareholder’s being practically helpless. The fans have retaliated by launching an anti-Glazer movement, demanding the sale of the club or alternatively, the application of the German model: the 50+1 ownership rule.

This rule necessitates vesting of the majority voting rights and final decision-making powers with the fan-members of the clubs, with the commercial interest holders only having rights of suggestive nature.

The British government, as of February 2022, has only been exploring ways of introducing this model into the English football pyramid, which could be good news for fans in general. As far as Manchester United is concerned, most fans still prefer the club getting new owners instead of incorporating the 50+1 rule with current ownership, although the latter seems like a more practical and realistic proposal.


Is "#GlazersOut" the only way forward?

The suggestion that a complete overhaul of personalities, management and ownership is the only solution to success can be countered with another argument, that a change at the helm of the team can also lead to success.

There are numerous examples of this happening- a manager comes in, revamps the whole squad, and wins trophies – such is the case of German Manager of Liverpool, Jürgen Klopp. He was appointed in 2015, when the club finished 6th and was trophy-less in four years.

Jurgen Klopp
Arsenal v Liverpool - Carabao Cup Semi Final Second Leg / Marc Atkins/GettyImages

Klopp revolutionized the club, leading the Reds to their first European final in his first year in-charge, and the Champion’s League final in his second. Although he lost both, the first trophy came in 2018 when he finally won them their 6th European Cup title.

The rebuttal to this argument is simple, that the tale of success is fruitful, but lengthy. Also, results aren’t always guaranteed to come in. A smarter solution is a complete change of ownership and management.

The tale of the French club Paris Saint Germain is a perfect example to explain the point. The club was formed in 1970 and was not a dominant force in its domestic league or European competitions. The club was purchased by The State of Qatar via Qatar Sports Investments, the shareholding organization, in 2011 and they won their first league title in 19 years in 2012.

The difference in time taken to succeed is evident, and the more viable option is clear: a competent change of ownership virtually guarantees success.

Another claim against a change of ownership at Manchester United which is often made is that the Glazers have brought success off the field and economic profits to the club.

Even though they might have failed to win many trophies on the field, the off-field success has been impressive. Revenues have been consistently rising and Manchester United remains to be one of the most financially strong teams in the world.

The credit largely goes to sponsorship deals and merchandise sales for the club. According to the Financial Times, Manchester United’s commercial income has gone from £117.6 million in 2012 to £276.1 million in 2018, almost doubled, and this only goes on to show the competency of the current owners.

Additionally, according to the Swiss Rumble, Manchester United has a net-spent of roughly £1.0 Billion on players (purchases £1.4 Billion, £0.4 Billion sales). but the point to be noted here is that they have spent almost the same amount (£704 Million) on interest payments.

Furthermore, only £185 million has been spent on infrastructure (the Old Trafford stadium and Carrington training complex), with the stadium still receiving complaints of water leakages and rodent infestation.

Manchester United’s commercial acumen post the Glazer takeover has been impressive, but rival clubs have often outperformed them in these metrics too. Manchester City and Liverpool’s revenue growth (+£417 Million and +£370 Million respectively) has been more than United’s (+£336 Million).

While Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool have all recorded better exponential increases in broadcasting income, United as a club are virtually being run on its own revenue, with the owners providing no investments from their own end, rather taking money out annually instead.

A rather simpler refutation of the aforementioned argument could be that on field success still eludes the Glazers and the club. Whatever the financial gains might be, the success of the club would still be measured through the trophies won and points collected, which is clearly lacking.

Even the expenditure by the owners has been questionable, overpaying for player transfers, missing out on transfer targets, inadequate investments in the club's infrastructure, and more. The true stature of Manchester United has always been based off its on-field dominance, and accolades, the fans cherish the club as a football club, not a commercial asset.


Conclusion

In conclusion, all of the evidence and arguments only point to one viable solution to the miseries faced by Manchester United, a change in ownership. The application of the 50+1 rule could be a welcome change, but it would not extricate the club from its debt and the Glazer’s trap of extracting dividends from the club’s revenue.

Numerous success models are available across the footballing world and success is not only guaranteed, it is certain that the quality of players brought in and the football player would be much better. Fans and critics can only be satisfied through winning trophies, and the Glazers family evidently seem to be inept at doing so.

Ensuring that a competitive and capable playing squad is maintained, essential to ensure success on the pitch, and retaining a conservative wages-to-turnover ratio is crucial to a successful club.

Renowned sports consultant Deloitte recommends a ratio figure of at least 60% is a disciplined approach to the wages-to-turnover ratio so that profit can be retained while guaranteeing expenditure on players’ wages and transfer fees, and even though the Glazers maintain a decent turnover, the expenditure upon world-class player acquisitions and appropriate wage bills are still a far cry.

A strong recommendation would obviously be Middle Eastern investors, who have a history in bringing success to clubs through their ventures; recent examples being Manchester City, and French Champions Paris Saint Germain.

As David Conn of the Guardian notes, the Glazers’ takeover of 2005 has since cost United an estimated amount of almost 1 billion pounds in the form of interest, costs, dividends, and other fees. but on the contrary, the Middle Eastern owners have spent nearly 1.3 billion pounds on the club facilities and player transfers, as part of their strategy of building and maintaining a competent squad capable of challenging for major trophies.

This example itself explains the effects well-wishing investors have upon taking over clubs, and Manchester United, still being one of the biggest clubs in the world, has plenty of potential to attract interested investors, as economic profit is virtually guaranteed.

The fans of the club can only hope that potentially better investors can come their way and buy the club out of its melancholy.


Written by: Sarthak Sharma

Instagram: sarthak5sharma


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