Friday, 23 August 2013

The Manchester United Institution: Magic or Myth?

Manchester United are a club that divides opinion. Some people hate them for their constant trophy-winning, and the fact that their dominance encourages young kids to watch them on TV rather than support their local team. Statistics indicate that almost 10% of people in the world support Manchester United. Whilst an element of spite probably plays it's part in this school of thought, it's understandable to an extent. Football should be about match-day experiences, loving your club, and going through the highs and lows together as fans. Is one club achieving constant glory and attention unhealthy for football?

But then they are also admired by a group, who respect the club's history, their ability to develop players and bring through youth. The way they bounced back from the tragic Munich air crash, to win the European Cup 10 years later was incredible. Under Alex Ferguson, they admirably brought through a freakishly talented youth team, and won the treble in 1999 in such extraordinary circumstances. They've always played attacking football, and have that incessant ability to score late goals, which gleans many admirers.

Me? I don't fall into either category. I don't hate United. Fair play to them for winning so much, and I tend to enjoy watching them. But it's this idea that Manchester United always develop youth, and only ever 'build' teams, rather than buy them, that I've began to question. Is this ethos of Manchester United genuine, or a very well constructed profile?

Manchester United won their first English title in 26 years in the 1992-93 season, which was the first ever season of the Premiership. It was this year that Sky Sports got involved, and showed unprecedented amounts of football on TV. Because everyone in England was so excited to watch football live from their living room, Sky got more and more money and were therefore prepared to pay the Premier League more and more money to keep their coverage.

Now, this era in televised football fitted perfectly with the immaculately-timed arrival of 'Fergie's Fledglings'. With Scholes, Giggs, Beckham and the Neville brothers in the team, Manchester United won four of the first five league titles that Sky Sports covered. Inevitably, Sky showed more of their matches, which not only brought them more TV money, but they became the team that everyone around the world wanted to watch and support. Therefore, they also gained more money through merchandising, and the richer of the millions of fans around the world could afford to travel from afar and watch. They have approximately 52,000 season ticket holders at a 75,000-seater stadium, which suggests that they get thousands of supporters each week, who come to watch them from different countries. Financially, it's better to get fans in who pay for individual tickets, which cost considerably more than the relative value of a season ticket. So at that point, they were reaping much more money than ever before, and developed a massive spending power because of this.

But things could have turned out so differently. It was in fact Leeds United who won the title the season before Manchester. Had it been Leeds who had won it in the first season of Sky, could we be talking about them instead, as a global force in the present day?

Indeed, it was Eric Cantona who turned Manchester United into this title-winning machine. By his own admission, Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby sold him in November 1992 to their rivals for £1.2 million, because the club didn't have enough money. Now, if Leeds had that 1991-92 title winning season the year after, they would have got all sorts of revenue from Sky, and surely wouldn't have had to sell Cantona?

In comparison, when Man United did sign Cantona, they were 8th. Miles behind big spending Blackburn Rovers, and Aston Villa would you believe, who they had recently lost to. Without Cantona, they were never going to win the league that season. But the Frenchman's arrival helped them to an extraordinary run of form, only losing two out of twenty seven games from that point onwards. Not only could he score goals, but he linked up play and got the best out of those around him. It was undoubtedly his arrival, that got Manchester United scoring goals and winning titles again. As for Leeds, Peter Ridsdale ruined the club, making too many financial gambles trying to get them into the Champions League, and they ultimately suffered a decline.

I suppose what I'm saying here, is that whilst the Manchester United youth coaching staff deserve massive credit for bringing through those brilliant kids in the 90s, the timing of it was pure luck. Ever since, United have developed this reputation for developing youth. But is this right?

If you take out Fergie's Fledlings, who have Manchester United brought through the youth system since, of genuine value to the squad? Wes Brown? Darren Fletcher? Jonny Evans? Cleverley and Welbeck? Whilst these have all been good squad players for the Red Devils over the years, I'm of the controversial opinion that they've been incorporated into the team largely for the club's image. Because of the greatness of the 'Busby Babes' and 'Fergie's Fledglings', it creates a certain feeling of romanticism that United are continuing to develop the best players like they have done over decades. It gives people a sense that Old Trafford this magical factory that continually builds teams from scratch.

And if I'm a neutral from a foreign country, I would much rather take after a club that builds teams over the years, rather than one that buys them. That might be a big part of where United get their reputability from.

If you put any of the five players I've mentioned above into the Chelsea or Manchester City team, there's no way they would get a game. Or, if they were foreign players who Alex Ferguson signed for £15 million or so, they would be deemed failures. Yet because they've been developed through the youth academy, fans naturally want them to do well and therefore notice it much more when they do.

Take Nathan Redmond at my club, Birmingham City, for example. In my rare opinion, he's one of the most overrated players ever to play at St. Andrews in recent years. Last season, he played twenty four matches, and scored two goals. But the two he did score, were beautifully taken goals. In one in five matches, he would play a blinder, run his fullback ragged and get an assist. But in the other four, he would hardly have any of the ball and seem to stand on the wing, dwell on the ball too long and get tackled. But the fact that he came through our academy and is a Birmingham boy, made the fans somehow not notice all the times when he doesn't perform, and be overwhelmed when he scores a great goal or does one thing well.

Alternatively, look at how many admirers there are of Borussia Dortmund, or Barcelona, because of how they develop their own talent, and have players who have been at the club for a long time. People like sentiment. People don't want to accept the fact that money has taken over football. Therefore, I think those involved upstairs at Manchester United have done something very subtle, and very clever. Through the media, through throwing in the odd academy player into the team, through cleverly coining their own ground: 'The Theatre of Dreams' and through making sure they keep Alex Ferguson in charge for a long time, they've created this image of Manchester United being a club that is very ethical.

And of course, they're not. The psychological pressure Ferguson and others put on referees, the mind games, the stitches, the diving, the affairs, the tapping up of players, and the money. In reality, Manchester United are no more or less ethical a club than any other, certainly in football's elite. It's partly because Ferguson has been in charge for so long, that our opinion of him is tapered. If I see any manager have a go at the referee because a decision didn't go his way, I'm immediately inclined to think: 'disrespectful b*stard'.
If I see Alex Ferguson have a go, partly out of grudging respect for him, I'm inclined to think: 'what a manager, 70 years old yet still as passionate as ever'.

It's because he's been in charge at Manchester United for 25 years, that I find myself growing inadvertently fond of him. I think that's been the case for a lot of the 'glory hunters' who support United.

Likewise with Ryan Giggs. If I knew any other man who had been having an affair with his relative for eight years, I would think of them as a disgusting human being. With Ryan Giggs, I find myself admiring his ability, how long his career has lasted, and his loyalty to Manchester United. When actually, there's nothing much to be admired about Giggs, or Scholes' career, in terms of only playing for one team. They've said that they love the club and would never leave, but I just interpret that as: 'I would never leave, unless Manchester United stopped winning trophies, and I stopped getting £50k a week.' They don't love playing for Manchester United, they love the money and glory that comes with it. Paul Scholes supported Oldham as a kid. The fact that they are still playing after 20 years simply adds to this well-schemed fallacy of Manchester United as a club that remains true to itself, and success comes through the heart. It's nonsense.

Let's have a look at Manchester United's squad, I've sorted the players into four categories. Any player who they signed for £10 million or more I would define as costly, less than that cheap as a rough guide. Some of these you might not agree with, some players I've labeled as poor are arguably still to prove themselves, but this is the rough categorization I've come up with:

Costly Good Players
David De Gea- has the potential to become one of the best goalkeepers in the world, but cost £17.5M
Phil Jones- could become the long-term replacement to Nemanja Vidic, but cost £16.5M and is currently a utility man
Ferdinand- has been a key player for 12 years, but cost £30M
Antonio Valencia- has done quite well, but doesn't play every week and cost £16M
Rooney- a key player, but has arguably not lived up to world class potential, and cost £30M plus a notable £10M a year in wages since 2010
Carrick- an important player for a few years, but came at a cost £17.5M
Robin van Persie- a pivotal buy, again United had to pay big to get him £24M

Costly Flops
Anderson- done almost nothing for 6 years - £20M
Smalling- still young, but occassional laziness in his play points to £10M flop
Nani- far too inconsistent to justify £21M
Young- an average player, drastically overpaid for at £18M

Cheap, Well Developed
Rafael- signed for nominal fee, very well developed
Evra- signed cheaply at £5.5M, became an important dressing room character
Giggs- became an enigma, through the academy, his career keeps going
Vidic- signed cheaply at £7.5 mil, crucial team player
Fletcher- came through the academy, a battler in midfield, added to the character of the team, though not the best technically

Cheap Squad Players
Welbeck- well developed through academy, but unlikely to ever be more than decent squad forward
Cleverley- another good squad option, but is hardly top class, wouldn't get into Chelsea or Man City team
Evans- academy graduate, developed into little more than decent squad player
Hernandez- a 50/50 gamble of £7M, so far turned out well, but has often been a subsitution option and seemingly out of favour with Moyes
Lindegaard- poor backup keeper, misuse of £4.4M
Fabio- yet to see his development, signed along with Rafael
Kagawa- signed for £13M, looks an intelligent player, but yet to prove himself
Buttner- signed for £4M, looks too vulnerable defensively
Bebe- a Hernandez-esc gamble, of £7.4M which turned out a failure of epic proportions. Remarkably, he's still contracted to the club

Totalling the transfers up, but including the likes of Zaha, Varela and Powell who are basically yet to play for the club, the value of the current squad at Manchester United is £275 million. 
The value of Manchester City's current squad is £361 million. 
The value of Chelsea's current squad is £321 million.

What is the difference? Why should Manchester United be respected for spending £86 million or £46 million less on their squad than their rivals? It's all ludicrous amounts of money. 

Some might argue that United haven't had the luck of a billionnaire owner to pump money into the club. Rupert Murdoch launched a takeover bid for the club in 1998, and subsequently failed. But when you think about it, Murdoch owns Sky Television, and much of the money Sky gets goes to Manchester United. Indirectly, it's as if he might as well have succeeded.

When you get to the bare bones of it, what Manchester United have done to achieve success is no better than what Man City and Chelsea have done. They've spent huge sums of money. The only way they've smoothed this fact over, is by having several players in the team who have been at the club for a long time. It adds to the sense of romanticism. The average player at United has stayed at the club for almost five years. At City, it's two and a half years. At Chelsea, it's almost four years.  

Is that much of an achievement for United? All that tells us, is that they've generally been inclined to not change too much, and stick with the core of the same players that keep winning them titles. Surely that's pure logic?! Manchester United wouldn't want to let their best players go, because they're winning trophies. Their best players don't want to go, because they're winning trophies. That's not necessarily something to be admired, any club with a manager with half a brain in those circumstances would have the same sort of policy.

The only reason the overhaul has been so drastic at Man City, is quite simply because they've progressed so quickly with their financial resources, that they can continuously afford better quality players. Spending big quickly, on the best players available, was obviously going to be their best chance of ever competing with Manchester United. 

At Chelsea, the average player spending four years at the club suggests that a period of stability may ensue under Jose Mourinho. Because they changed their entire squad when Abramovich first arrived, they now have the best players in their team, so marginally less of an overhaul than at City has been required.

I've come to the conclusion that there is actually nothing special about what Manchester United do. They cleverly construct this illusion, this fallacy, that they are a magical club which builds teams over the years, takes average players and moulds them into superstars, but it's actually false. Yes Alex Ferguson is a great manager, but his job in the last fifteen years, has been to buy the most talented players, and get the best out of them.

I'm not denying that Manchester United are a very hardworking team team, and Ferguson ingrains a winning mentality into his players. The number of late goals they score proves that. But this winning mentality is not enough on it's own, it's simply an extra ingredient that has propelled them to achieve more than Chelsea. But at the heart of Manchester United success is not, as many people think, this wonderful spirit that the team has. It is, quite simply, the money they've spent. 

No comments:

Post a Comment