Glenn Moore: Manchester United are too rich to fall from grace

Despite their current woes this is not Liverpool after 1990 all over again

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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
life
Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvReview: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series Fortitude has begun with a feature-length special
Voices
Three people wearing masks depicting Ed Miliband, David Cameron and Nick Clegg
voicesPolitics is in the gutter – but there is an alternative, says Nigel Farage
Voices
The veterans Mark Hayward, Hugh Thompson and Sean Staines (back) with Grayson Perry (front left) and Evgeny Lebedev
charity appealMaverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
News
i100
News
people
Sport
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho
footballThe more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Life and Style
Vote green: Benoit Berenger at The Duke of Cambridge in London's Islington
food + drinkBanishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turn over a new leaf
News
Joel Grey (left) poses next to a poster featuring his character in the film
peopleActor Joel Grey comes out at 82
News
i100
News
business
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee