Against dark backdrop of debt, United offer Ferguson job for life

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The Independent Football

Figures published today show profits fell 20 per cent, or by £12.3m to £46m in the financial year to June 2005. Gill pointed out that the drop, due to falling Premier League income and Champions' League revenue, was flagged up a year ago.

He made no attempt to explain how United's owners, the Glazer family, intend to repay £649m of debt incurred in buying United. This mystery remains the main concern for fans opposed to the takeover.

But Gill did defend United's spending of £2.2m on agents' fees - £1.5m alone to Wayne Rooney's agent, Paul Stretford.

And speaking about 64-year-old Ferguson, who has won one Premiership and one FA Cup since 2001, against Arsenal's five trophies in that time, he said: "Sir Alex has been the best Manchester United manager, if not the best club manager in English and European football ... he is here for many years to come."

Asked directly if Ferguson could stay as long as he wants, Gill replied: "Yes, I think that's right. We're looking forward. We've put a significant sum of money in the January transfer window and we are going to spend in the summer, and Alex has the support of everyone." Gill would not say how much money would be available in the summer, but said that United were looking for midfield players and would provide enough cash "to secure the top talent".

The financial figures are the first to be released in the Glazers' reign. Given United's early exit from Europe this year, profits are unlikely to climb much, if at all, in a year's time. "I am not going to predict profits will be over £50m [for the year ending June 2006]," Gill said. "They won't be. This is a year of transition. But going forward, the new stadium expansion means there will be nearly 8,000 extra seats from the start of next season so the year ending 2007 is looking very positive."

It will need to. The Glazers loaded United with £265m of initial bank debt, rising to £374m with extra borrowing. Interest alone on that is £31.1m per year. With capital repayments included, the annual repayments outstrip profits.

On top of that, the Glazers borrowed £275m from hedge funds at high interest. How they intend to repay this "ticking time bomb", as it has been described, is unknown. Borrowing against future ticket sales is one option. Leeds United opted for that path on their way to financial collapse.

Gill has never discussed the Glazers' financial plan, although he confirmed yesterday the club spent £6.6m in the financial year on banking and legal fees as the previous board - with himself to the fore - tried to fight the Glazers' takeover.

He also justified the fees to agents, including £1.5m paid to the Proactive firm owned by Stretford, who is currently facing a raft of FA charges relating to improper dealings.

"We operate in a market for world-class players and one of the costs in acquiring them is the services of agents," said Gill, who deserves credit for United continuing to publish agents' fees even though no other top-flight club does.

"In [Rooney's] situation, if Wayne had to pay [the fees], he would demand a higher salary. The money has to come from somewhere." Gill added that £1m of the £1.5m was for "negotiating and acquisition" and £500,000 was for contract work that will ensure Rooney "is settled" for his six-year deal and no adviser will agitate to move him.

Calling for greater transparency from other top-flight clubs, Gill added: "We think the regulatory system would benefit from universal publication, certainly. We've nothing to hide, we're not embarrassed."