Manchester United's new regime: Theatre of schemes

A quiet exodus has followed the Glazers' arrival at Old Trafford. What lies behind it?
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The Independent Online

The Glazer revolution at Manchester United is six months old this week, and on the face of it little has changed, at least not with much fanfare, transparency or disclosure of intent from the secretive sons - Joel, Bryan and Avi - who are running England's biggest club to make a buck for their father, Malcolm.

Appearances can be deceptive. Since 17 May, when Glazer's stake ticked past 75 per cent of the club, giving him the power to do what he pleased with United, he has removed 23 non-playing staff, including senior executives. Two people volunteered to go, one took early retirement and 20 were forced into redundancy.

Two fans' groups, The Independent Manchester United Supporters Association and Shareholders United, have been booted off the Fans' Forum, which seems odd for a club that had taken such pride in Article 1.1 of its own charter, which says it "consults supporters on a regular basis".

There is no public AGM any more, indeed no AGM, because the only shareholders are the Glazers. They completed their compulsory purchase of all shares they did not already own on 27 September. The share certificates of any refuseniks are worthless. If they want their cash now, they have to apply for it.

United's accounts used to be unveiled at a press conference where the club's chief executive, David Gill, would talk about the results and answer questions. Now the only onus on the Glazers is to file the basics at Companies House by the end of April.

It is also believed that the Glazers have held no board meetings since taking over, certainly not face-to-face with Gill and Nick Humby, the club's finance director. The club will not elaborate, saying: "It's an internal matter." Gill has a weekly conference call to America.

Huge hikes in ticket prices are in the pipeline - they are expected to rise nine per cent overall next season and 54 per cent over five years. The club say only that prices have not been set yet.

On the playing side, one of United's reserve teams was scrapped in the summer, and shortly afterwards the popular reserve team coach Ricky Sbragia left for Bolton. These events may or may not have been related. The club's explanation that Sir Alex Ferguson was happy to see one reserve side go, and that Sbragia was happy to move from reserve-team duties at United to be first-team coach at the Reebok Stadium, is plausible.

Less certain is the reason behind the lack of playing arrivals and the flood of departures, permanent or temporary, since the Glazers took over. As the accompanying panel shows, three players have come in - Edwin van der Sar, Park Ji Sung and Ben Foster - while 23 have gone, 12 for good. The kitty for January is undisclosed. "Player-dependent," says Gill.

There is nothing new in United releasing players each summer, but eyebrows were raised when Roy Carroll went for free to West Ham and some promising youngsters who were expected to stay - including Paul Tierney, Daniel Nardiello and Ramon Calliste - went as well. They were picked up, for nothing, by Livingston, Barnsley and Liverpool. The Glazers have preached belt-tightening since their arrival and that when wages can be saved, they should be.

There is also nothing new in United loaning out players. Eleven, including recent signing Foster at Watford, are currently playing for other clubs, the same as last season, and fewer than the year before. Ferguson knows the value of "toughening-up" experience, as David Beckham once had at Preston. But the difference this year, according to a source, is the way the loan deals have been structured, to save United money but possibly to the club's detriment.

How? One source says that Charlton, for example, are paying all of Jonathan Spector's high United salary - as opposed to the usual fraction of it - while he is on his season-long loan at The Valley, but on the condition he cannot be recalled, even in a crisis like the current one over injuries.

United say that the Premier League regulates the terms of loans.

Nothing in the rules prevents United and Charlton doing such a deal. If United are saving the full wages of all their out-on-loan players, it amounts to a significant sum. Six players with first-team experience and first-team wages, including David Bellion and Liam Miller, are away at the moment.

This makes financial sense. It is estimated that United's three newcomers since May have cost £7m in fees and will cost about £4m annually in wages. But the 23 players who have gone or are on loan have netted £6m-plus in fees and have saved, or will save, £8m in wages.

Making United leaner is key to the Glazers avoiding financial implosion. They loaded United with £265m of initial bank debt, rising to £374m with extra borrowing. Interest alone on that is £31.1m a year.

Add capital repayments and it doubles. All United's profits, in a very good year, with a bit added, could cover that. "As we're not a PLC, we don't have to disclose that information," a spokesman said.

But on top of the £374m is another £275m, borrowed from hedge funds. This has been described as "the ticking time bomb". The interest is astronomical. No one except the Glazers knows how they intend to pay that back at rates that will start at £50m a year, albeit deferred, and then rise.

Two obvious solutions exist: selling Old Trafford in a sale-and-leaseback (Joel Glazer says not); or doing a securitisation deal, effectively mortgaging future ticket income to receive a lump sum of several hundred million pounds. This would allow the bank debt to be slashed at a stroke, and the hedge fund debt to be restructured in its place, but would mean a big chunk of future income was already spent. The club had no comment to make.

There have been some positive developments under the Glazers, including the sealing of a deal with Air Asia, "the largest low fares airline in Asia", which earns United £2m for little more than allowing Air Asia executives to invade the pitch before some matches and use United's logo and players' images to shift seats on their planes.

The Glazer family, understood to be worth more than the $1bn (£582m) often quoted by rich-list surveys, have also been liquidating a few assets, freeing up cash. Avi Glazer recently sold a house for $6m (£3.5m), and Glazer Snr agreed a deal to make $30m (£17.5m) from selling his share of a subsidiary of one of his companies, Zapata.

In South Korea, meanwhile, traffic to United's website has increased 12-fold since signing Park. And in China in the summer, a United delegation told local journalists that the club's internet earnings, £2m in 2004, are on the up, quickly. They are expected to rocket when the estimated 20 million United fans in China - according to Mori - start spending on subscription fees, e-commerce and gambling, courtesy of United's dedicated Chinese site.

One senior United figure on that trip was United's business development manager, Vange Kourentis, who sounded especially excited at seeing years of work in the sector about to pay big dividends. Unfortunately for him, the Glazers made him redundant when he got back. So much for a quiet six months.

Players in and out since the Glazers' takeover

PLAYERS IN

From/Cost

Edwin van der Sar (gk), Fulham, c.£2m

Ben Foster (gk), Stoke, £1m

Park Ji Sung (m), PSV, £4m

Total cost of players in: £7m.

Estimated annual wages: £4m.

PLAYERS OUT

Sold

To/Fee

Phil Neville (d/m), Everton, £3.5m

Kleberson (m), Besiktas, £2.5m

Michael Stewart (m) , Hibernian, Undisclosed

Released

Roy Carroll (gk), West Ham, Free

Ricardo (gk), Osasuna, Free

Steven Hogg (m), Shrewsbury, Free

Paul Tierney (m), Livingston, Free

Daniel Nardiello (f), Barnsley , Free

David Poole (m), Yeovil, Free

Ramon Calliste (f), Liverpool, Free

Ben Collett (m), NZ Knights, Free

Lee Lawrence (d), No current club

On Loan

To/Loan period

David Bellion (f), West Ham, Season

Jonathan Spector (d), Charlton, Season

David Jones (m), Preston, Season

Ben Foster (gk), Watford, Season

Eddie Johnson (f), Crewe, Jul-Jan

Chris Eagles (m), Sheff Wed, Jul-Jan

Paul McShane (f), Brighton, Aug-Jan

Tom Heaton (gk), Swindon, Aug-Jan

Colin Heath (f), Swindon, Aug-Jan

Phil Picken (d), Chesterfield, Aug-Jan

Liam Miller (m), Leeds, Nov-Jan

Total revenue from players: £6m-plus. Estimated annual wages saving: £8m

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