Manchester United fans' group open letter claims club will not be free of Glazer family takeover debt 'for 158 years'
By Jim White 29 July 2019 • 4:01pm
According to an open letter delivered to Old Trafford today, at the current rate of paying off the financial liability incurred when the Glazer family bought the club in 2005, it will be 158 years before Manchester United is entirely debt free.
In their letter to the family, a group of dissident supporters – which signs itself “Millions of Concerned Manchester United fans” – points out that just £44million of the more than £660m initially taken out to buy the club has been paid back.
Meaning that, in the fourteen years since the American owners took control at Old Trafford, some £750million has left the club’s bank account simply to service the debt.
In a series of five key questions, the group are demanding more transparency about the governance of United. One of the questions concerns the remuneration of the Executive Vice President Ed Woodward. It suggests that Woodward has recently received a 60 per cent pay increase on his £2.604m annual salary, taking him to £4.182m.
“Given the obvious failure on the football side during his six year tenure as EVC on what basis was that raise given?” the group demand.
It follows this up by inquiring about the glacial progress in appointing a Director of Football.
“What will be their role?” the letter goes on to ask about any putative DoF. “And will they have any power to make decisions?”
Another question centres on the flotation of some shares in the club on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012. It claims that the rise in share price has delivered a dividend of some £452million in the seven years since.
“It is unclear to fans where that money has gone. Could you detail how much (if any) has been reinvested back into the club?”
At the time of writing, the club was not delivering any comment on the letter.
Manchester United needed a rebuild this summer but failed to act once again
The Glazers may have spend £80m on Maguire but then sold Lukaku for £74m, leaving United to start another season short on quality
It is a truism that people who talk money are boring, likewise that money talk infiltrates our lives to dispiriting extent. Football – a warm buzz of fantasy, community and identity – should give us refuge from this, but it has become impossible to grasp one without referencing the other. “Company structure”, “EBITDA” and “Mr Potato Head” now form part of the supporter’s lexicon – still prefixed and suffixed with profanity, but miserable nevertheless.
Manchester United are an egregious example of the incursion, these days more cashpoint than football club. Since the Glazers took over in 2005, they have been cleansed of more than £1bn, quid pro quo for the glorious privilege of being owned by a Trump-indulging family yet to contribute a penny of its own.
Though Alex Ferguson is partially responsible for this pillaging, his genius mitigated its initial impact. But even while he was accumulating silverware, the rot set in: Cristiano Ronaldo was sold for roughly £85m, then replaced by Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen for roughly £20m; generational players grew old together; and not a single midfielder was purchased between July 2007 and July 2012. So, when Ferguson retired a champion in 2013, he bequeathed a squad needing major surgery.
Underinvestment is not the sole reason for United’s subsequent decline – horrendous judgment is also significant. Ed Woodward, the club’s dominant suit, has no footballing expertise and has, in the last five years, been forced to sack three managers he appointed. The money, though, keeps rolling, and consequently Woodward remains in situ, United failing at football but succeeding at business; existing to make money, not making money to exist.
Last season, they finished sixth in the league, 32 points behind Manchester City and with a squad still in need of serious attention. Ole Gunnar Solskjær– yet another new manager – could not have been clearer on this point, acknowledging his need to be “ruthless” with players lacking the virtues and vertebrae to succeed.
Instead, United moved on only four and brought in just three. Dan James arrived for £15m, roughly half of which was covered by Marouane Fellani’s January departure, and Harry Maguire joined for £80m, most of which was recouped by the sale of Romelu Lukaku. As such, the net spend is the £50m outlay on Aaron Wan-Bissaka and maximum £20m more.
These numbers, though nauseous, must be viewed in context. United require nothing from their owners save the ability to spend their own money, and are English football’s most profitable club by far – a status which should be reflected in their transfer activity. Except – with a rebuild required – they have been outspent by Aston Villa and Wolves, just as last season they were outspent by Everton, West Ham, Leicester, Southampton, Fulham, Brighton and Wolves.
The work done by United’s regular rivals is equally illuminating. Much as Sky would have us believe otherwise, it is impossible to judge who has “had a good window” until the players have, well … played, but is it absolutely possible to see who has filled their gaps. Previous splurges, responsible husbandry and the deployment of footballing expertise left Manchester City and Liverpool with little work to do.
On the other hand, Arsenal needed defenders so bought David Luiz, Kieran Tierney and William Saliba; needed a midfielder so loaned Dani Ceballos; needed a goalscoring winger so broke their transfer record for Nicolas Pépé. Similarly, Spurs needed to strengthen in midfield so bought two midfielders, breaking their transfer record for Tanguy Ndombele, and needed something for their left flank, so bought Ryan Sessegnon. Both teams finished above United last season.
Meanwhile, the holes in United’s squad gape: they have no specialist right-winger, no credible number 10, and have not replaced Lukaku. Yet these are peripheral issues when assessing an abomination of a midfield whose state is the principal reason they cannot control games; why they concede too many and score too few. If they are so keen to keep Paul Pogba, they should furnish him with suitable partners.
United did try to reinforce in this area: they bid for Newcastle youngster Sean Longstaff, a canny move. Longstaff acquitted himself superbly last season and Michael Carrick, one of Solskjær’s coaches, played the same position for United’s most successful team, while Carrick’s brother Graeme – also a coach – knows Longstaff, so can vouch for temperament as well as talent.
Of course, the £50m fee Newcastle quoted is ridiculous for a player with just 16 senior starts, but it is a misnomer too: the money is there, and if the board cannot accept Carrick’s expertise in this aspect, why do they employ him? Longstaff will only cost more next summer, when United might have to compete for his signature having made do for a year.
Essentially, if a transfer is successful, a player is worth whatever sum the buyer was lucky enough to pay for them – and what is a football club’s money for, if not for spending on the football team? Instead, United must hope that Scott McTominay and Mason Greenwood, two products of the club’s academy, have freakishly monumental seasons.
The Glazers’ parsimony affects strategy as well as success. When United first tried to buy Longstaff, Newcastle were managerless, but by the time they upped their offer Steve Bruce had publicly proclaimed that Longstaff would be staying. Similarly, they inquired about Maguire when the transfer window opened and were told what the price was, then baulked and haggled for two months before paying what they’d been told the price was, depriving Maguire of a pre-season settling into a new home and a new team.
Solskjær’s summer budget should have been augmented by the money refused José Mourinho last summer and the money saved by appointing the Norwegian rather than a more expensive alternative; in the event, he has been afforded roughly half the funds given to Mourinho and Louis van Gaal in their first windows in post, though prices have increased considerably.
The only feasible conclusion is that United’s business plan has changed. Given the Glazers’ aim of extracting as much money as possible, actively pursuing the league title has never made sense – it is expensive, speculative and relatively unrewarding. But Champions League qualification – lucrative and accessible – has been fundamental. Now, though, United are hoping for it rather than expecting it, in which regard it is instructive to look at Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Glazers’ NFL franchise.
Since winning the Superbowl in 2002, the Bucs have had a losing record in 11 of 16 seasons, qualifying for the post-season playoffs just twice – and only as wild cards, losing on both occasions. Which to say that revenues allow for the neglect of the team without compromising the bottom line, just as they do at United. Unless, of course, rumours of a sale to Saudi are true, and the Glazers are simply economising before introducing terms like “sportswashing”, “repressive regime” and “human rights abuses” to the pre-match patter down Sir Matt Busby Way.
Shamelessly nicked from the other place but it's too interesting not to get another airing:
Manchester United players contaminated by Glazers’ greed
A few years ago, Mark Lepper and David Greene, two social psychologists, spent time observing children during free play in the classroom and noted that some took an interest in drawing. These kids sought the chance to draw and spontaneously asked for crayons and paper.
The experimenters then took these youngsters and placed them in two different conditions. One group of children were each shown a glossy certificate, adorned with their name, and asked if they would like to receive it in return for drawing. A second group were not promised anything at all, but continued to draw anyway.
Two weeks later, the psychologists returned to observe the children from these groups during free play. The no-reward group continued to seek out pens and paper, just as before. Those who had received a glossy certificate, on the other hand, showed significantly less interest. As the author Daniel Pink put it: “Their motivation seemed to have sprung a leak.”
What was going on? Decades of studies on adults have revealed the same results: offering extrinsic rewards runs the risk of making an activity “transactional”. When drawing was positioned as a means to an end (getting a certificate), it corroded the children’s desire to draw for its own sake. It crowded out the deeper reasons why youngsters wish to draw and create. As one psychologist put it: “People use rewards expecting to increase another person’s motivation, but in so doing, they often incur the unintentional and hidden cost of undermining intrinsic motivation.”
Like many, I have been puzzling recently over the descent into mediocrity of Manchester United. Many explanations have been proffered, from poor transfer spending to defective tactics. I wonder if another reason (such a steep decline surely has multiple causes) is that United have become a transactional club, an institution where players sign not because they love football, or admire the philosophy, but for extrinsic rewards.
When the Glazers took over in 2005, they made it clear that they were in it for the cash. They loaded the club with debt, floated a chunk of the equity, sweated the brand, and wrote rather gloating prospectuses about how they could sweat fans too. Ed Woodward, the executive vice-chairman, was the perfect man to enact this vision, a salesman with an eye for leverage, merchandising and official partners, whether noodle, paint, or shipping companies. The club recently posted revenues of £627 million.
Under Sir Alex Ferguson, this institutional raison d’être was shielded from the players. The Scot personified a different interpretation of the club’s philosophy, one based on attacking verve, a strong connection with fans and, perhaps most importantly of all, a shared history. I remember speaking to David Beckham and the rest of the Class of ’92 and they spontaneously spoke about the Munich air disaster in 1958 and the rebuilding of the club from the ashes on the runway.
These players were paid handsomely, to be sure, but this is not the principal reason they poured their souls into United. They wanted to play for this great club for its own sake. They were intrinsically as well as extrinsically motivated. As Beckham put it: “It feels as if we are writing the latest chapter of an amazing story.” Scholes said: “United, to me, is more than a football club.”
Can you imagine anyone saying that about today’s United? The departure of Ferguson in 2013 left a vacuum where there was once a philosophy. This happens in many organisations when a dominant figure leaves — it is why succession planning is so treacherous. Yet this difficulty has been compounded in United’s case by the fact that the vacuum has been filled by the vision of the Glazers.
Does this transactional vision really make a difference to the players and staff? Does it affect the way footballers train and coaches manage? My hunch is: yes, absolutely. The percolation from the boardroom to the training pitch may be complex but it is undeniable. It took a man such as Ferguson to act as a Chinese wall. Today, the Glazers’ pursuit of raw profit is obscuring the deeper reasons why young people wish to play football and create history.
When you look at United, do you see players whose hearts and minds are bound up with the club? Do you see players who wear the shirt with pride? Or do you see players whose motives mirror their employers? Alexis Sánchez pocketed the riches of Crassus while at Old Trafford, while Paul Pogba seems to fight harder for a rise than a trophy. And who can blame them? Isn’t this what United have become?
I don’t mean to imply that money is a bad thing; I am merely suggesting that it is culturally perilous when it becomes the be all and end all. Once United was an institution whose rationale was to pursue glory — with money and other prizes arriving as a by-product. Now it is an institution built to pursue cash — with glory now conspicuous by its absence.
At some point, the club will surely reach a tipping point. Listless performances, abject results and failures to qualify for major competitions must eventually lead to some sort of financial reckoning. Brands will not for ever wish to be associated with a club because of their former triumphs, however glorious. At this juncture, the Glazers will lose their appetite and depart into the sunset, taking Woodward with them. United may then get a chance to rebuild their culture.
What will the Glazers et al do afterwards? Let us indulge in some fantasy and suppose they turn their attention to the All Blacks. For one could hypothetically imagine Woodward inflating the financial return of this great institution by loading it with debt and leveraging new corporate associations. Hell, with a bit of financial wizardry, he may even double the salaries of the players. This would create a gilded balance sheet, but wouldn’t it also jeopardise the very qualities that make the All Blacks great? An institution constructed upon honour, pride and shared history would struggle under leaders obsessed with money.
What seems beyond dispute is that United find themselves in a deep hole. And perhaps the greatest anxiety of fans is that the Glazers and Woodward seem to know only one thing: how to keep digging.