There is not as much money washing around Manchester City as you might think. Surprising though it may seem, expenses forms receive rather a lot of scrutiny there these days. But there was an ominous indication of the challenge Manchester United are facing, yesterday, from the agent of Paul Pogba, one of the club's most coveted talents.
It wasn't just the fact that this individual, Mino Raiola, feels that United are an inferior option to Juventus for Pogba which cut deep, but his observations on how much less appeal they would have were Sir Alex Ferguson not at the helm. "I can only say that from my point of view that Ferguson is top of the world," Raiola told The Independent. "If [Pogba] leaves Manchester it is not because of Ferguson. If Ferguson had not been there, he would have left already." One-by-one, the competitive certainties which United once possessed in the transfer market are being whittled away. They can no longer say they pay the most, or that they win most and, looming on the horizon albeit possibly three years away, is the crater which Ferguson's departure will form. From a United perspective, Manchester felt like a cold, unsparing place to be when the sky blue flags flew yesterday.
The City board's preoccupation about first making millions from player sales before buying more is likely to create the same tension this summer as last between Roberto Mancini and his board, yet United will wave off those whose careers are ebbing away. There will surely not be another contract for Michael Owen, a name unlikely to feature in the Premier League retained players list for United. Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs have another year but probably not two, Ferguson indicated last night.
Of course, Ferguson being Ferguson, it would be unwise to bet against him and it was inspiring to hear him proselytise last night. "Investing in young players: that is what we are good at. We're not like other clubs, spending fortunes on proven goods. But while in the past the Glaswegian has improved his team incrementally – a player here, two there – now it feels like much is needed at once. He has always insisted you can't do that. United telegraphing their need to rebuild to the market place would leave them open to the same inflatory "City price" that Mark Hughes and Mancini have known, while mounting their breathless and desperate assault on the top domestic prize.
One of the first clues that United's name alone would not allow Ferguson to prevail in the transfer market was demonstrable last summer. Samir Nasri coveted playing in their colours. The friend he told so at dinner was a close one. Then City came in with £70,000-a-week more and the notion dissolved away. Now Ferguson finds himself in the same environment – probably (though, in keeping with United's way, the notion is unconfirmed by anyone who knows) pursuing Lille's Eden Hazard, just like City. City are the ones who have been showing Hazard properties, giving him the hard sell. And United? Well, there is a telling story about the night that Ferguson attended Lille's match with Lyons last month. Rudi Garcia, Lille's manager, told the player in the Stade de Gerland dressing room before that game: "Ferguson is here. Show him what you can do." The legend was being put to work again, just as it was deployed against City at Sunderland early on Sunday evening. "The history of our club stands us aside," Ferguson said. "It'll take them a century to get to our history."
It will take financial fair play (FFP) to match their spending. City chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak last night insisted, in quashing talk of another summer of big spending, that this close-season Mancini would not be"not be starting from the same point of any other pre season for the last four years... this team we have is a championship team." But that is precisely what he said last summer and Mancini, who splashed £38m on Aguero back then, is now armed with success.
Ferguson has his doubts about whether FFP will really be enforceable and for as long as he is around it will not be by money alone that he seeks to draw top players around him. Early in the Pogba saga he advised the Frenchman to put his career before wealth. "Matt Busby summed it up perfectly, that you don't need to chase money at a club like Manchester United, it will eventually find you," Ferguson said. "If you're good enough, you will earn money and become rich playing for Manchester United." Raiola thinks Ferguson "captures like no other manager the essence of football." But money is the essence of the football now. And it looks like Pogba will soon be on his way.