Football: Memo to plc: United we spend

The Old Trafford board must provide Ferguson with the funds to secure European glory, argues Ian Ridley
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FOOTBALL frequently defies neat endings, as the history of Manchester United painfully points out. The title should have been theirs in 1992, a nice 25 years since the previous one. Instead, the happy ending came a season later. Then, this year, the European Cup seemed destined for Old Trafford on the 30th birthday of the Wembley win and as tribute to the 40th anniversary of Munich.

If the fulfilment of the questis to come one year after, then it is becoming clear that Alex Ferguson needs some help. So too his crop of outstanding home, hothouse-grown talent. If the United manager is to do justice to them, the club and himself, it is time for his board to fork out for reinforcements from the very elite of the game.

From despair six years ago emerged a new resolve to be champions. And doubtless, after the midweek exit at the hands of Monaco, Ferguson will steel his increasingly experienced team for a fresh attempt on Europe next season - for they will surely qualify for the Champions' League as England's runners-up, at least.

It was not simply determination that turned United into champions, however. It was also, lest we forget, Ferguson's signing of Eric Cantona that took them from chokers to champions. In hindsight, the pounds 1m was a steal, though it carried its risks at the time.

Now United are crying out for a figure who will do for them in Europe what Cantona did domestically, not necessarily in playing terms but in a galvanising effect. Coventry's Darren Huckerby, apparently a transfer target, is unlikely to be enough. Any talismanic figure, the sort that Alan Shearer might have been, is going to require some serious figures.

It is unlikely that the United manager can pull another rabbit from the hat. He has done his best in recent seasons, with some sound signings, such as Ronny Johnsen, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Teddy Sheringham, who has been a wise replacement for Cantona. He has also gambled on a few from the second shelf down, such as Jordi Cruyff and Karel Poborsky. He has not, though, been permitted to secure the major player who might take them the extra kilometre to European success.

When Ferguson and his assistant Brian Kidd come to evaluate this European season, a number of factors are likely to occupy them for the next campaign as they plot a way to sustain a side on the cusp of greatness in autumn through to full flowering in spring. Physical conditioning, resting and rotating players and ways of avoiding injury will doubtless be examined anew.

They are also certain to conclude that new bodies are vital. "The squad needs strengthening, no question about that," says Ferguson. It is not in quantity of personnel, so much as quality, however. George Best's suggestion that United were short of two world-class players was put to Ferguson on Wednesday night. "Everyone has an opinion," he replied. "And I've got mine." The one that counts, you thought, and you expected him to be dismissive. "I haven't got them, have I?" he added instead. "I have to make the best of what I've got."

It was another hint of what Ferguson cannot say too graphically in these days of shareholder confidence: that he needs more money to be released from Manchester United plc to enable him to compete with the biggest sides of Europe in attracting the best. In recent seasons, United have looked extensively for a dominant central defender and a striker. In the former category, Barcelona's Miguel Angel Nadal, Bayern Munich's Markus Babbel and now PSV Eindhoven's Jaap Stam have interested them. Up front, Fiorentina's Gabriel Batistuta has passed them by, along with the Chilean Marcelo Salas, who has joined Lazio.

Money has been the factor in most of the cases, with United unwilling to match wage demands. Pay up, and several others inside Old Trafford will want parity, says the remuneration committee, and that is not feasible. Unfortunately for them, very soon it is going to have to be, and it is hard to see why not. Shares may have fallen by pounds 26m post-Monaco but the club is still worth pounds 353.3m. Lazio, the recruiters of Salas, are about to float and are said to be valued at between pounds 70m and pounds 100m.

The United chief executive Martin Edwards, who made pounds 10m selling shares last summer and still holds pounds 46m worth, may counsel caution and patience in the transfer market, may baulk at paying pounds 12m for Stam, but the real, post-Bosman world threatens him.

Patiently, United's profits double each year, from pounds 13.2m to pounds 27.6m last year. The MUTV pay channel is yet to come, too. Should revenue increase and the team decline for lack of substantial investment, United's fat cats need only look North-east to a plc on whom fans can turn.

In addition, customers leave Old Trafford's Megastore with carrier bags that proclaim "the world's greatest football club" but much more of this flattering to deceive internationally and the Advertising Standards Authority could be called in.

Of course, when fully fit, with Ryan Giggs in particular available, United's best XI are certainly capable of winning the competition, as they showed excitingly in defeating Juventus 3-2. The trophy has yet to be won in October, however. When was the last time any English team fielded their best XI in March?

There were times on Wednesday night when the thought occurred that one more attacking player of quality might just have overwhelmed Monaco. It might have been a fresher Sheringham, now 32 and unused to playing so many intense games a season, but it is unlikely to be Andy Cole, a bully against Barnsley but unable to create for himself against the best when supply dries up.

David Beckham strove manfully from the centre of midfield to carry a team whose strength has been that they attack and score from every position but who now looked deficient. From there, though, with Paul Scholes a passenger for a half on the right, Beckham was unable to deliver more than sporadically the crosses that could have undermined Monaco. Solskjaer is a goal taker but no creator.

United looked in need of rest and regrouping. In the opening minutes there was a moment when a Monaco defender in a tight corner passed back to Fabien Barthez and the goalkeeper was able to take a touch and clear. Not long ago he would have been pressed as high- tempo United stopped the opposition from settling.

The next week before Saturday's match against Wimbledon will bring them some respite and now that they have no European Cup semi-final to concern them, improving a run of only four wins in 14 matches and retaining the Premiership title should be less demanding.

It is time for the plc to reconsider, too. Ferguson may have made his own mistakes - "we could have maybe been more adventurous in Monaco," he admitted as acknowledgement of what is under-estimated in Britain, the value of the away goal - but he is the best in the business and he deserves significant financial backing. A Churchillian phrase springs to mind: give him the tools and he'll finish the job.