Dare not speak it…
Despite the fact that some might pounce on you and claim high treason, it’s not unreasonable to divorce the Ferguson who brought United so much success from Ferguson the bosses’ man. The latter seems to have a far more robust mechanism for blocking out our club’s financial horrors than most Reds you speak to nowadays…. oh but he’s a fantastic manager. Anyway, here’s an interesting piece on Ferguson from The Times’s Patrick Barclay.
If you are a Manchester United supporter seeking someone to blame for the indignities of your club, just go to Old Trafford for today’s match against Burnley and turn your eyes to the dugout. There, furiously masticating, will be your culprit.
Sir Alex Ferguson may also be tapping his watch; an especially apt image, for every minute United attract more interest on the loans with which the Glazer family bought the club in 2005. And it is Ferguson who has been the Glazers’ most strident defender — not surprisingly, given his role in the chain of events that put them in charge.
The proposed shifting of debt to a bond — the purpose of the present worldwide sales pitch, which only consumes more of the club’s money — is an irrelevance. United will remain a mere cashpoint for the Floridians, a source of fees for their associates; the documents leaked this week were eloquent on that.
As for the footballing outlook, it is significant that United’s main activity, since the English title was secured and the European let slip eight months ago, has been to emphasise their status as a feeder club for Real Madrid by selling the world’s top player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
But, of course, the roots of the problem go much deeper than the sudden loss of face might suggest. The Glazers did not appear from nowhere and put United into vast debt for the fun and mischief of it. There was a gradual process whereby the club were sucked from the responsible and relatively caring hands that used to run it — balancing the books while keeping tickets as widely affordable as possible — into the rough grasp of profiteers.
Ferguson was crucial to this. In 1997, he befriended John Magnier, an enormously successful Irish racehorse breeder. He did nothing to discourage Magnier and his friend J. P. McManus, a big-time gambler, from buying a stake in United that grew and grew until it was eventually sold, at a profit reckoned to exceed £100 million, to the Glazers. He welcomed the Glazers and started singing their praises to the fans.
Whether this was because he recognised a personal responsibility for their saddling (if that is the metaphor) the club with a burden that, despite constraint on expenditure, has risen by £62 million in less than five years can be only a matter for conjecture. But Ferguson has been very Glazer-friendly.
The afterglow of the Champions League triumph over Chelsea in 2008 afforded an opportunity. Back from Moscow, a tracksuited Ferguson looked every inch the champagne socialist as he poured bubbly for journalists at United’s training ground and said of the Americans: “They’ve got balls.” They would not let Ronaldo go. They would rather “let a player sit in the stand” than sell him to Real.
“He’ll not be leaving in the next two years,” Ferguson asserted. A year later Ronaldo was at the Bernabéu and the Glazers had sent the proceeds to hedge funds. And still Ferguson was his masters’ voice; only last week he promised that he could spend on players and was just waiting for “value in the market”.
Even the supporters, to whom knowledge of Ferguson’s acquiescence with successive carpetbaggers is the truth that dare not speak its name, do not swallow the “value” argument. They laughed off blunders such as Juan Sebastián Verón because they knew Ferguson would get it right next time and saw a secure future. Unlike Leeds United’s fans, they could afford to live the dream. Pinch-yourself time stretched into a trio of Barclays Premier League titles and it was only after the quest for another Champions League triumph foundered in Rome that questions began to be asked.
Not as many as the 99 put to the United board by Magnier after his relationship with Ferguson soured over Rock Of Gibraltar, the multiple classic-winning horse (the Irishman’s curiosity about transfer deals and the involvement of agents, including Ferguson’s son, Jason, abated once Ferguson had been obliged to settle out of court); the supporters just wanted to know when the Ronaldo money would be flourished.
Ferguson’s answers have been frustratingly vague and now, as his squad prepares for scrappage — Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar are nearly finished and Rio Ferdinand creaking and none has much sale value (although a few more quid could be squeezed from Real for Nemanja Vidic) — the nightmare scenarios unfold. Some are naive. But so were the dreams that debt carried no penalty.
Those of us who have long advocated zero tolerance of ownership debt, warning of its dangers to formerly prudent and supporter-sensitive clubs such as United and Liverpool, are accustomed to resistance and Ferguson, on that morning in 2008, spluttered: “It’s all nonsense. They [the Glazers] are brilliant owners. All takeovers are done by debt. Do you think if I wanted to take over Marks & Spencer I could just go and get £3 billion from under the floorboards? No — I’d go to the Bank of Scotland.”
Within a few months, the Bank of Scotland was having to be rescued.
Because of his achievements, Ferguson will never be fully held to account for what has happened to the club. Some even think that he opposed the crucial decision to float in 1991, although my researches for a biography of Ferguson to be published this year suggest that his main reason for refusing shares was that another employee whom he considered less significant — a finance director by the unfeasible name of Robin Launders — was offered more.
So others, notably Magnier and McManus, were to reap the entire harvest of Ferguson’s outstanding management.
What next? Having arrived in 1986 with a pledge to knock Liverpool off their perch, he sits in his cage and waits for the baseball bats from the City of Manchester Stadium. Sheikh Mansour does not have to do things the nice way.
The debt-free owner of Manchester City, if he wished, could buy out the Glazers, keep Wayne Rooney and Patrice Evra, flog the rest and, having painted Old Trafford blue, use it as a training ground.
In which case not to have a Sir Alex Ferguson Stand would be ungrateful.