To judge from some recent coverage the empire built by Sir Alex Ferguson is crumbling, with the Reds about to go the same way as the Romans after Marcus Aurelius. All we need is a latter-day Edward Gibbon to chronicle the decline and fall.
Though it is a shock to see the champions losing to all comers and languishing in seventh place, this reading of the runes is unduly dramatic. United are having a ghastly season, one shaping up to be their worst since the 1980s, but it is a blip, nothing more. They are now too big to drift into mediocrity. United may have a bad season, even two or three, as they rebuild after Ferguson, but unlike the inter-war years, when they were relegated three times and failed to win a major honour for 37 years, or the post-Busby era, when they again succumbed to relegation, their fall from glory will be neither far nor sustained.
There was a time when big clubs did become small clubs. Preston North End, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Wolverhampton Wanderers all went from being the nation’s dominant club to the third tier. The fortunes of each have subsequently ebbed and flowed but, apart from Villa’s glorious but brief European Cup-winning period, none recovered that status. Overseas the same might be said of Torino, Athletic Bilbao and Nuremberg, all of whom were once nationally pre-eminent.
Now, though, big clubs stay big. They may have a rough patch, but they swiftly regain their status. Look at the trio leading the major foreign leagues.
In five seasons between 1999 and 2004 Barcelona did not win a senior trophy, not even the Copa del Rey. In La Liga they finished fourth twice and sixth once in this period. But in nine years since they have won La Liga six times and the Champions League on three occasions.
It was even worse for Juventus. They were compulsorily relegated in 2006 after the Calciopoli scandal and, although they bounced back immediately as champions of Serie B, they went four more seasons without success. They are currently on course for their third successive title.
Bayern Munich have won nine of the last 15 Bundesliga titles and are on track for another. Yet in 2006-07 they were trophyless, finished fourth in the league, failed to qualify for the Champions League and were knocked out before the semi-finals in the German Cup and Champions League. The following year they won the domestic Double. Similarly last season’s treble was their response to two seasons without silverware.
It is no different in the smaller leagues. North of the border everyone knows Rangers, currently climbing the divisions, will be challenging Celtic as soon as they get back into the Scottish Premier League. In the Netherlands Ajax have reasserted themselves after six blank years with three successive Eredivisie titles. This is hardly surprising. Ajax, like Celtic and Rangers, have the biggest stadiums and the largest base of support in their respective nations. Indeed, research by German company Sport+Markt in 2010 indicated 39 per cent of Dutch fans follow Ajax (and 65 per cent of Spanish fans support either Barcelona or Real Madrid).
All of this means those clubs generate more cash than their rivals – and they use that financial muscle to overpower them. Thus Bayern acquire Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski from Borussia Dortmund. Barça, as well as funding a youth system that sucks up talent from all over Spain, buy David Villa and Jordi Alba from rivals and Neymar from overseas. Italian football is feeling the pinch at present but Juventus can still meet the wage demands of Carlos Tevez, Andrea Pirlo and Paul Pogba, and consider a £30m bid for Erik Lamela.
Which leads us back to Old Trafford. Various surveys regularly identify United, Barcelona and Real as football’s top three revenue-generating clubs. The Glazers burdened United with frightening levels of debt but they have also overhauled the club’s commercial operation with impressive results. It is not just the big deals, such as the £45m a year Chevrolet will pay for shirt sponsorship from this summer and the £20m-a-year Aon training ground deal, but the little ones, too. Everything and anything is sponsored. On Thursday, for example, former players Denis Irwin and Peter Schmeichel were rolled out to launch an “official global spirits partner”.
United’s interim results last September revealed cash assets of £84m, up £31m in a year. Even with the team struggling they are likely to generate £60m-80m extra cash this season. Though net debt is still £277m, the cost of servicing it is down to around £20m a year. United, if they want to, can spend £150m on players this summer.
If they want to. One caveat in this rosy picture is the Glazers’ reluctance to spend. The club’s net expenditure under the American owners is £20m-25m a year. Set against recent fees for Gareth Bale, Neymar and Mesut Özil that does not go very far.
However, the Glazers will be aware that United’s continuing global appeal is based on success. Liverpool’s enduring popularity suggests a large core support would not be put off by a long period without a title, but the way Barcelona’s international appeal has grown at Real Madrid’s expense indicates there would be an impact among the many floating fans were Manchester City, say, to become England’s dominant team.
Which highlights the other caveat. Whereas Bayern and the Barcelona-Real Madrid duopoly face limited domestic competition, the arrival of overseas investors at Chelsea and City diluted Manchester United’s economic power. Moreover, the Premier League’s relatively equitable split of television revenues makes it easier for the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham to challenge, not least because they are more able to resist overtures for their players from United than foreign equivalents such as Dortmund or Valencia can hold off Bayern or Barça.
Yet despite this, it is difficult to envisage United enduring as prolonged a period without a title as Liverpool have done. In 1990 the Anfield empire built by Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley seemed as impregnable as Ferguson’s United did in May. Liverpool had won 10 of 15 titles (United have won 13 of 21). They have since gone 23 years without a title.
Liverpool have won seven domestic cups and two in Europe (four including the Super Cup) since, so it has hardly been a drought, but United will do far better than that in the next 20 years as they are much stronger financially than Liverpool were in 1990 – and under Financial Fair Play that will be more important than ever.
Originally designed to stop clubs over-reaching themselves, FFP has morphed into a mechanism to maintain the status quo. In a world in which clubs will only be able to spend what they earn, the club that earns the most should be king. In England that club is Manchester United. David Moyes may, or may not, be the manager – that depends on the Glazers’ patience – but United will be back on top, sooner as well as later.