Gill cherishes United's independent spirit

Old Trafford's chief executive remains determined to avoid the sugar-daddy honey trap
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The Independent Football

At his first annual general meeting as chief executive of Manchester United only two months after taking over from Peter Kenyon, David Gill made it clear that the club did not want a sugar daddy. Glancing across to Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge this afternoon as a depleted United team attempt to match the £200m squad in blue, he might just be tempted to think again.

At his first annual general meeting as chief executive of Manchester United only two months after taking over from Peter Kenyon, David Gill made it clear that the club did not want a sugar daddy. Glancing across to Roman Abramovich at Stamford Bridge this afternoon as a depleted United team attempt to match the £200m squad in blue, he might just be tempted to think again.

But there would be no public admission of such revisionism. Despite having lost Kenyon, the Premiership runners-up position and a player or two to Chelsea since Russian roubles transformed the nature of English football 13 months ago, Manchester United continued to regard themselves as benign aristocrats, scornful rather than jealous of all this rather vulgar new money.

They have flirted in the past with potential benefactors, from Robert Maxwell through Michael Knighton to Rupert Murdoch, and consider themselves lucky to have remained independent of all three. After Abramovich's takeover there was inevitable speculation about other Russian oligarchs moving in on Old Trafford, and John Magnier and J P McManus of Cubic Expression, then Malcolm Glazer of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have created a stir and upped their stake without disclosing their ultimate intentions.

Significantly, all have been denounced by the influential Shareholders United organisation, which paraded its Not4Sale banner at matches and training sessions throughout the club's recent tour of the United States.

The topic was one of many addressed by the affable Gill in a wide-ranging interview ahead of today's visit to west London and a reunion with his more abrasive predecessor, Kenyon. He was referring to the Glazer family but might have been speaking of any investor when he said: "Unless they choose to tell you what they are going to do, and what their views are, you don't know. You cannot demand it and they are not going to be categoric or specific with you.''

Similarly with regard to Magnier and McManus, the Coolmore racing tycoons who fell out with the United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, over their horse Rock Of Gibraltar, then demanded the answers to an embarrassingly long list of 99 questions concerning United's financial affairs: "Cubic have said they view this as an investment. We'll meet with them in September or October. If they say things to us then we have an obligation to report it to all shareholders.

"The fact of the matter is they do not divulge their intentions until they are ready to do something. Our discussions with them are amicable. Clearly the issues they raised were ones they had every right to - they own nearly 30 per cent of the company. My issue [with them] was making it public and doing it through the media rather than the normal channels. Now the issue has been dealt with and I hope that it is closed - unless there's another horse out there! Their stake is worth more than £200m so I don't think they are going to do anything to destabilise the company.''

The downside, of course, is that no one owning less than half the club (Cubic Expression holds 28.9 per cent and Glazer 19.17 per cent) is going to commit millions of pounds for expenditure on team building in the way Abramovich has done.

Furious as Ferguson may be to have missed out on a player like Arjen Robben, who had visited United's training ground and seemed about to sign for them, Gill accepts that there will be those who get away. "We always have an assessment of value. We were interested in Robben but Chelsea paid far in excess of what we had offered. What we have got to remember is that Chelsea can't get all the players and that we need to go for players - like Alan Smith - who actually want to come to United.

"I still think we can compete aggressively in the transfer market for the right players. But most sensible fans will clearly understand that we cannot compete with Chelsea. They have written off a lot of what they spent last year and then spent about £90m this summer. I mean, no other club can do that.

"We are still one of the biggest clubs in terms of competing for trophies, we pay very good wages, we play in front of full houses - and [the Chelsea manager Jose] Mourinho has said he only wants 24 in the squad. Once he has got that, the rest are up for grabs.''

Chelsea apart, he believes there is a new financial reality taking hold among clubs, which will eventually have to spread to players. "Martin Edwards [the former United chairman] was criticised but quite rightly in my opinion he ran the club on the basis that we need to be around for many years to come. So we have a target that no more than 50 per cent of the turnover should go on wages.

"What we have got to do now, and it will take time, is to move players to a more incentive-based structure. It would involve personal but perhaps also team incentives. Gearing our wages as to whether we are in the group stages of the Champions' League or not is how I want to move it forward and we have been successful with some of our recent contracts in that regard.

"In a tighter financial environment, with television revenue not going up at the moment, that is the future. When you look at some of the players we have been trying to move on, the critical issue has been wages. It is difficult when a player becomes surplus to requirements to move him on.''

"Tell me about it,'' Kenyon might have echoed after taking one look at Winston Bogarde's contract, for there are common concerns as well as differences for the two clubs.

Another is conquering foreign markets, notably in the United States, where Chelsea made the greater impression this year and will do so again next summer - United are going to Asia instead.

Old money, new money; old Fergie, new Mourinho. The rivalry about to be renewed at 4 o'clock this afternoon is destined to reach an even greater intensity in the months and years to come.

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