Manchester United not the club they were – but they are not alone in that, writes Michael Calvin

THE LAST WORD

A Manchester United-supporting friend took his daughters to Old Trafford for the first time today, hoping against hope to inspire a lifetime’s allegiance. It was a traditional gesture of renewal, lost in the tension and tumult of an overdue but unconvincing win over Swansea City.

How many future generations will cherish such poignant, private acts of family fealty? The Munich clock and the statues of Busby, Ferguson and the Holy Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton may remain places of pilgrimage, but the game they symbolise is evolving beyond recognition.

There used to be a football club on Sir Matt Busby Way, before Old Trafford became a branch office for a global corporation. The sculptured shrines to legendary figures are in danger of becoming monuments to a lost culture, as mysterious as Easter Island statues.

United was once run by men who understood football, first and foremost. They felt the hand of history on their shoulder. Their successors service the structured debts of rapacious absentee owners by harvesting the profits of that history.

Power has shifted from Manchester to Mayfair, and the commercial department in which Ed Woodward, United’s principal executive, bases himself for much of the working week. His brilliance at packaging an aura of adventure and overseeing the sale of an official product range of astonishing banality is deceptive.

His quiet desperation can be glimpsed in the artlessness of a briefing process that seeks to salve recent wounds by anonymously promising stellar signings in January. It takes human form in Louis van Gaal, whose future is subject to Woodward’s whim and the brand’s attractiveness.   

The Dutch martinet’s replacement by Ryan Giggs, the embodiment of a commitment to home-grown heroism, would not save United’s soul. That has long since been sold, along with the illusion of involvement represented by an official membership scheme that recycles the glib mendacity of supporters’ centrality to the cause.

This is the way of things in 2016. Managers must adapt to the corporate culture. Fans are expected to know their place. Executives are tied to the tyranny of the share price. Owners need to have their egos fed and their investments protected.

The fault lines in the system are obvious, even outside the Premier League, where tinpot tyrants such as Massimo Cellino at Leeds, Roland Duchatelet at Charlton, and Francesco Becchetti at Leyton Orient are treating supporters with unconcealed contempt.

Even the season’s success stories, the localised pleasures of unlikely progress at Leicester, Watford and Crystal Palace, are underpinned by cold, hard business logic. Everyone is looking for the next trend, the fastest buck, the latest economic or geopolitical opportunity.

Manchester City, whose strategic approach to youth development has exploited United’s complacency in a pivotal area of influence and highlighted an increasing maturity of operation, are leading the advance into football’s new goldfield, China.

City may lack the mass popularity of Arsenal and United in the world’s most populous nation but, by selling a 13 per cent stake in their parent company to a Chinese investment company, they have placed themselves close to the seat of political power. China have made a political commitment to being credible hosts of the World Cup by 2030. President Xi Jinping, whose visit to City’s £200m training complex presaged the new investment, has paid lip service to administrative convention by freeing football from the state-controlled sports system. 

China plans to open 50,000 football schools by 2025, when it is estimated the national sports market will be worth $1.1 trillion. Do not scoff. This, remember, is a nation that intends to hold a spectacular Winter Olympics in 2022, despite such trifling drawbacks as a lack of snow.

The scale of newly developed sporting ambition leads to strange scenarios, such as Tianjin Songjiang, a second-tier club formed only in 2006, employing former Brazil coach Vanderlei Luxemburgo and offering £15m to sign Geuvânio, an attacking midfield player from Santos, Pele’s former club. Another former Brazil coach, former Chelsea manager Luiz Filipe Scolari, is in charge of the nation’s top team, Guangzhou Evergrande, who were well beaten by Barcelona, 3-0, in the semi-final of last month’s World Club Cup. 

Owned by property developers who have invested £120m in players and a coaching infrastructure over the past four years, they have links to Real Madrid and are the dominant franchise in the Chinese Super League, the expansion of which will be underpinned by a domestic TV deal worth £860million.

Such sums need dusting with stardust. Agents of my acquaintance expect the summer to signal a new phase of development through the recruitment of world-class players approaching the twilight of their careers. Wayne Rooney will be a prime target, and a fee in excess of £50m will not frighten China’s emerging entrepreneurs. It’s football, Jim, but not as Sir Matt knew it...

Chelsea chase 12-year-old

The scouts are raving about Xavi Simons. He was the star of the traditional New Year tournament in Spain, and Chelsea, who first attempted to sign him in September 2014, are said to remain ardent suitors.

Their interest is easy to understand. The midfielder, tanned and tousle-haired, is hailed by Barcelona’s coaching staff as having the temperament and technique of the player after whom he is named, Xavi Hernandez.

Other sages refer to his intensity, durability, leadership skills and Surinamese heritage. They feel he will grow with additional responsibility and develop into his generation’s answer to Edgar Davids. One scooped pass in a recent final, which went viral on social media and was played repeatedly on local TV, led to further comparisons with Michael Laudrup.

Born in Amsterdam, football is in his blood. His father Regillio, a former journeyman striker in the Dutch League, has coached successfully at amateur level. Barcelona will fight to keep him and are suitably grateful for Regillio’s role as a buffer between the player and a host of agents whispering sweet nothings. Xavi Simons is 12 years old. Happy New Year, everyone.

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