LET’S cut to the chase and acknowledge the single most conspicuous truth that emerges from a torrid season at Manchester United. It is something we had always known but has been confirmed in the most powerful way. Sir Alex Ferguson is a genius.
Don’t blame David Moyes. Do not blame his support staff. Vince Lombardi, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela combined could not have managed a successful transition from the most formidable club manager in history.
Context is everything. For almost nine years the Glazer family have been leeching money from the club. They purchased United with pounds 525 million of debt mostly secured on what they like to call “the franchise” and then set about constructing a network of “payments in kind” and bonds to satisfy their creditors. Over time, the cost of this leverage began to bite. From 2005 to 2013, more than 500 million pounds was drained from the United income stream.
That is a lot of cash. Many in the City of London and in New York, where millions of shares in the business were floated in 2012, might argue that high levels of leverage are part of many corporate plans. They will say that football clubs are, like other sporting institutions (such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Glazers’ NFL club), ultimately, businesses. They will argue that the equity holder of a company is perfectly entitled to extract money, whether in interest or dividends.
United fans will disagree. They do not regard the club as a business, but as a part of their identity. They do not want profits, but results and glory. And they could see, early on, that a model constructed to deliver profits to the owners was never going to dovetail with United’s thirst for titles. Not with Roman Abramovich on the scene, a man who has poured money into Chelsea like a latter-day Croesus. Not with Abu Dhabi lavishing cash on Manchester City in quantities that would have bankrupted a small nation state.
The miracle is that United continued to deliver on the pitch for so long. By far the most significant factor driving results is the size of the wage bill. If you spend more on top talent, you will win more matches. According to the book Soccernomics, as much as 90 per cent of the variation in results is explained by differences in wages.
Yet since 2007, United have been overtaken in their spending on players. Rival clubs have been sinking hard cash in quantities that the Glazers, with their business model, could not match. Results ought to have deteriorated. Success should have declined.
It did not. From 2007 to 2013, United won five domestic titles and reached the final of the Champions League three times, winning once. They were defying the gravity of the prevailing debt, while keeping a lid on the overall cost base. They were delivering the kind of balance sheet that the owners demanded, while adding to the tapestry of a club the equal of any in football. It was arguably the most stunning period in United’s history. Business analysts were astounded.
Where was the magic coming from? The answer has always been clear, but the past few months have provided ample confirmation. Ferguson. The old Scot. The Govan maestro. The man many of us wrote off, but who just kept delivering in the only arena that mattered: the pitch. United have pretty much imploded since the most compelling character in British football left his office at Carrington. The entire United set-up, from the players to the receptionist, has appeared bereft.
How did he do it? The great mystery of the Ferguson tenure is that nobody has managed to provide anything like a convincing explanation for his success. It was not just that he was the manager of a big club with lots of money. It was not just that he had success in the transfer market (many purchases were excellent, but many were not).
His principal quality, his defining genius, was his ability to extract the maximum – every last damn drop – from the players who lived under his extraordinary spell. He weaved some sort of magic into their minds, added iron to their collective will.
The shock is not how far United have fallen under Moyes, it is the heights at which Ferguson had kept them. It was the worst possible of inheritances for the former Everton manager; a global brand, an unsullied record of success, owners with an iron fist on spending and the most exacting of spotlights. He had a squad that was ordinary at best by United’s standards, but which had just won the Barclays Premier League by a staggering 11 points.
Ferguson had finished his 27-year spell by delivering two things: a parting gift to supporters and a precision-guided missile into any hopes of a successful transition. It is simple, really; Moyes was faced with expectations he could not hope to meet.
United’s fall was, perhaps, rather more vertiginous than many expected, but it would be wrong to dismiss Moyes as some hapless fool, as many have been quick to do. He performed creditably at Everton over a long period (according to the statistics he delivered results above financial expectation) and brought steely dignity to a difficult job at Old Trafford.
It must have been close to traumatic for this proud man to watch his tenure veer from hope to despair and finally to ridicule. One suspects that Moyes had simply not recognised the sheer size of the boots he was stepping into.
Instead of blaming Moyes, it would be more edifying to renew our wonder at the man he replaced. Whatever you might say about Ferguson’s erratic temper, his serial criticism of referees and his juvenile boycott of the BBC, it is impossible to deny his track record. He anointed Moyes as his successor and doubtless believed that his fellow Scot, whom he had long admired, would keep the titles rolling in.
It is possible, then, that even Ferguson had not realised the scale of the miracle he had been performing, and how difficult the transition would prove for his “chosen one”.
United’s search for a replacement will occupy a lot of football’s bandwidth in the coming days, but the underlying analysis will not alter one jot. If United are to return to the glory days, they will either have to spend significantly more on players, or hire a manager with talents comparable to those of Ferguson.
The fear for United fans is that both possibilities seem remote.
There are few, if any, managers who compare to the Scot. And the Glazers have little inclination to depart from a business model predicated not on winning trophies, but on securing them a huge windfall.