Behind David Gill's acknowledgement yesterday that Manchester United will not compete with the salaries being offered by their local rivals, there lies a sobering truth for Manchester City. For as United's chief executive knows, to attract the stars of world football, the money men at Old Trafford do not need to rely solely on astronomical wages.
The figure waved under Samuel Eto'o's nose last month from the blue corner of the city was £200,000-a-week. Eto'o asked for more – effectively a £12.7m sign-on fee. Then the Barcelona striker let it be known that he would have signed for United for less. When the deal which took Emmanuel Adebayor to City was sealed, his people made inquiries as to United's interest. Carlos Tevez only jumped ship because he could not face another year with the same manager. Such is the appeal of a side which has its place in football's pantheon, and doesn't just crave one.
City won't argue with that point. Mark Hughes has admitted in the past few weeks that values change when you're Manchester City. Not only because the clubs selling to them drive the price up but because City are in a hurry and they can't afford Ferguson's luxury of buying the 18-year-old Da Silva twins (£3m) or even a 17-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo (£12.2m in 2003) and enjoy watching them develop on a relatively modest wage. This is what Gill was alluding to when he said the huge wages on offer at City are not necessary at United, where the focus is on "the medium and long term". For United, the short term is sorted.
But the medium term is not. Estimates of how long City will take to contend for the title differ greatly from player to player – Adebayor hopes a few years, Nigel de Jong suggested five in Durban this week – but there is no doubt that City will eventually come to the top table and offer stature as well as salaries. That is when the essential difference in ownership will come to bear. United's vast external debt – estimated at £666m – might be serviceable, but interest payments of £43.3m a year don't lend themselves to paying the wages City are offering John Terry.
City's Abu Dhabi owners, meanwhile, are in this game for the long-term and won't be going away. Their ambition is to build a brand that imbues the emiracy with honour, and that fact is reflected in the way they have been overhauling every aspect of City this summer. "With the sheer volume of our turnover, we can then attract the best players, retain our current players and pay them good salaries," Gill said yesterday. But will that still apply if the succession to Sir Alex Ferguson proves difficult in a year or two? By which time Sheikh Mansour al Nahyan will have established a new kind of City salary and the level of wage expectations from players will have continued to rise.
So while it will not be considered as such in the future, there seems to some at present something vaguely vulgar in the arriviste City becoming the big spenders. On the brink of delivering the largest annual wage bill for a first-team squad in English football history, City will exceed even the £121m United laid out last term should they manage to sign John Terry (£200,000-a-week) and Joleon Lescott (£120,000). Their announcement yesterday of a friendly with Barcelona four days into the Premier League season underlines the elite side they see themselves as – one which will have committed more than £619m on player spending this year including fees and potential outlay on wages for contracts agreed during that time. (Even with Ronaldo and Kaka, Real Madrid will spend about £500m on the same, between this summer and next.)
For a sense of the clubs and individuals who keep Ferguson awake at night, observe those for whom he reserves his venom. Rafael Benitez was last season's target, increasingly so as the season went on and Liverpool loomed over his shoulder like some plague. Expect some serious vitriol from him for Manchester City in the days and weeks to come.