James Lawton: Barcelona's model democracy is a paradise still beyond United's reach

Barcelona have proved that numbers are irrelevant – the key is some collective will

Tuesday 09 March 2010 01:00

Sooner or later some of the less temperate critics of the Red Knights – who propose, among other things, to move Manchester United from under a mountain of debt – may have to get a bit more specific.

At this formative stage of a game plan that is inevitably, to some considerable degree, speculative, an emotional reaction, one way or the other, is surely more valid than the barrage of knee-jerk cynicism that the Nobel Prize-winning novelist John Steinbeck once categorised as "slothful self-regard". So what are the men with the flame-throwers really saying of the group coalescing around the highly respected former United director and key Goldman Sachs operator Jim O'Neill?

Is it that they are self-regarding adventurers with some financial pillage in their minds – assuming there is much left to raid when the Glazer family finally decide they have taken their toll – or simply clowns no better than the army of two-bit celebrities who are constantly advising us of their attachment to one football club or the other?

David Gill, United's chief executive, seems to be inclining to the latter conclusion, though some of his comments this week invite a question: how would he know?

Gill, who is rated highly for the administrative skills he has displayed at Old Trafford after surviving a losing battle against the debt-loaded Glazer takeover, dismisses the Red Knights' initiative for its impracticality, citing the high number of front-line investors – whose estimated number varies from 40 to 60 in the most recent counts. It is an arguable point, you might say, but unfortunately he goes on to give his own idea of big-time football Nirvana.

It is, perhaps not surprisingly, a short catalogue of those who are utterly dependent on vast resources generated, not by good business practice, nor by any sublime knowledge of how to make the universal appeal of football work so that every fan feels that he has some kind of stake in his club's destiny, but by the whim of some random billionaire.

There is certainly plenty of that in Gill's roll call of those clubs who are most attuned to the needs of the game in the 21st century.

They are the clubs of the mightily rich, the Chelsea of Roman Abramovich, the Manchester City of Sheik Mansour, the Milan of Silvio Berlusconi. Oh, yes, there is also the fake democracy of Real Madrid, where, Gill is quick to tell us, the key decisions are made by the president (billionaire civil engineer Florentino Perez) and not by all those fans or even, for that matter, anyone like the coach, who has spent his life in football. And then there is Manchester United, whose owners are reviled by protesting supporters who are clothing themselves in ever-increasing numbers in the green and gold of the founding Newton Heath club.

Gill says that the United bond issue of more than £500m – one that involves paying annual dividends of around £45m and required the admission that Old Trafford, the theatre of dreams itself, might have to be sold – is "entirely appropriate" for a club of "growing revenues".

The great clubs, he went on to say, are those with strong leadership, not a battalion of key investors who may have differing views on which way their club should go. Gill said: "The best clubs, the better run clubs have clear, single-decision making that is quick and efficient. I don't see how that could happen if you have a number of very wealthy investors. They don't get wealthy through luck; these sorts of people want to get involved in the decision-making."

Conspicuously absent from Gill's list is the club who are currently champions of Europe and the authors of a truly beautiful game.

Barcelona's 150,000 members elect a president every four years. They are a co-operative about which United fans can only dream. They are so far away from the regime the Glazer family have created at United – one that would have recorded a loss last season had Cristiano Ronaldo not been sold and replaced, with a fragment of the fee, by the admirable but scarcely iconic Antonio Valencia – that Barcelona might be operating not beyond the Pyrenees but on an entirely different planet.

There was certainly a quick decision when Sir Alex Ferguson sought the signing of Karim Benzema from Lyons before he skipped off to Real Madrid. It was no more time- consuming than a shake of the head.

Almost everybody agrees that the Glazers represent in their priorities the nadir of football ownership. One of Gill's more risible observations, in view of the current situation, was that the family will have to take a "higher profile" than ever before – however much it is mocked in and out of Old Trafford. But a higher profile to do what? To proclaim that they care as much for the heart of the club as for its cash register?

Jim Collins, author of a Sunday Times Business Book of the year, says: "Enduring great companies do not exist merely to deliver dividends to shareholders. Indeed, in a truly great company, profits and cash flow become like blood and water to a healthy body. They are absolutely essential to life, but they are not the point of life."

One leading business strategist said yesterday: "The Red Knights appear to have been extremely successful in business and it seems naive to believe that with their investment and their acumen they will not see the need to have a cohesive plan of operations and strong governance of the club. United have certainly seen the value of strong professional leadership over the years from Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. It would be idiotic to mess around with that model. In football Barcelona have proved that numbers are irrelevant; the key is some collective will."

Something more is needed, of course. It is an ambition that stretches beyond a desire to squeeze out the last drop of profit. Do the Red Knights have it? The hope must be that they do. If they don't, who else will stop the bleeding of Manchester United?

Terry wrong to cling to symbol of lost status

If John Terry was susceptible to advice we wouldn't have had one of the most dispiriting, degrading controversies in the history of English football.

Terry's credentials on the field have not been in doubt for some years now but the potential of his future conduct off it is not encouraging. What was he saying, quite, when he bared his arm and showed his captaincy band after scoring a trademark goal against Stoke City on Sunday? It was, you have to fear, that the band signified a status that should never have been questioned, not at Chelsea nor in the office of England coach Fabio Capello.

As a player, Terry has given ample evidence that he can remain strong at a broken place. As a man aware of his own mistakes, one who has shaken off the damaging effects of self-pity, he inspires rather less confidence.

The jeering and booing of the mob is as mindless as it was predictable. But it is a sentence he imposed on himself and he should know that in the world he lives in it has to be served. Without, that is, the histrionics of the aggrieved.

Bollettieri is the man to rescue British tennis

Not the least sadness of Britain's dismal slide to a fifth straight Davis Cup defeat was that Andy Murray did not feel an emotional tug towards the remote battleground of Lithuania.

This is not a criticism of Murray but a terrible reproach to the Lawn Tennis Association and its chronic failure to translate the worldwide popularity and earning power of the Wimbledon tournament into the some passable development of home talent.

Murray plainly feels that his debt to British tennis is marginal, that he made himself a world-class contender elsewhere, and that any success he might bring would only further fortify the illusion that the LTA has the vaguest clue about first identifying, and then nurturing the best of the nation's young players.

Plainly we need help. A good starting point would be a phone call to The Independent's ageing but inexhaustible Wimbledon tennis columnist Nick Bollettieri. He has brought through a few decent players in his time, including Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Monica Seles, and among those who have sought his help are Boris Becker, the Williams sisters and Martina Hingis.

At the very least he could give a kindergarten lesson, attended by every employee of the LTA.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments