United’s identity under scrutiny – twas ever thus

September 8, 2014 Tags: , , Reads 25 comments
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Identity. It is a topic on many lips in the wake of Manchester United’s spending spree this summer. United unloaded around £150 million on six high-class imports during the window, and yet the deal that generated most copy was Danny Welbeck’s departure to Arsenal. The end of more than 130 years of youthful tradition or the reaffirmation that United remains among the world’s élite?

On the face of it the answer is simple. In a global game United simply swapped Welbeck, an inconsistent academy graduate with 29 goals in 142 games, for a proven class in Radamel Falcao. The price differential says as much: Welbeck cost Arsenal £16 million, Falcao north of £45 million when he signs permanently next summer. There is, after all, no room for sentimentality in the hunt for success.

Yet, United’s is a history replete with the fruits of youth development and Welbeck the leading player in a contemporary academy cohort that is symbolic of more than simply ‘who is best on the pitch.’ Youth, some say, is United’s essence, its soul, the raison d’être. This was consistently Sir Alex Ferguson’s line during his 27-year tenure at Old Trafford.

The player’s sale, amidst United’s conversion to the world’s leading sports marketing platform in a globalised brand economy, says much for the club’s priorities – the maintenance of commercial interests remains just as paramount as success on the pitch.  Or in other words, while Falcao represents an upgrade for Louis van Gaal’s team, the Colombian’s profile also serves to feed a commercial entity more voracious for star names than ever.

It is this economic evolution of the club, the game and those that follow it that feels uneasy for many. Perhaps, even, this observation is at the root of criticism from within, even if naked resentment is the fuel from without. Not everybody is comfortable with United’s quickfire conversion for parsimony to plunder.

“Is it better to look at the instant rather than the future?” said former assistant manager Mike Phelan last week. “It is a difficult one because youth is always the future. Maybe this is the start of a new way of doing things at Manchester United and maybe that is the way football is going.”

United reacted strongly to the accusation that youth has taken a back stage, briefing media that 12 academy players are registered in the club’s wider Premier League group. More, indeed, than any other club in England. In James Wilson, Tyler Blackett, Reece James, and Jesse Lingaard, Van Gaal has already demonstrated faith in youngsters this season.

It is a familiar line. The difference between United and the club’s competitors? “Not spending fortunes on proven goods,” said Sir Alex in 2012. “That’s the difference between United and the rest – we can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. It’s like a destiny for us. No other clubs can do that.”

Yet, there are also powerful forces driving the club to a future that is tied not to the academy but global recognition. Indeed, the club’s recent sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and adidas will push United’s annual revenue beyond £500 million in the coming years. Add more than 30 further global and regional sponsors to the roster and the hunger for success may now only be part of United’s culture. Stardom drives United’s commercial needs and, perhaps, future player recruitment too.

It is an observation that has led to the conclusion in some quarters that United will now seek out the most expensive players on the planet. Far cry from the austerity of the first eight years of Glazer ownership when debt bit deep into United’s investment and Ferguson ran his team on a comparative shoestring.

But with commercial revenues on the uptick, and debt interest at circa £20 million per year, executive vice chairman Ed Woodward has many reasons to feel emboldened in the market.

Further cash is seemingly available in January too, with potential recruits said to include Kevin Strootman that will take the club’s annual spend beyond £200 million for the year, including Juan Mata last winter. No longer a burden, so goes the spin, player recruitment is now an investment in United’s brand equity.

In the midst of this discussion it is easy to forget that Welbeck is also a very fine player, not just a local recruit. The Longsight-born striker has never been one to lead the goalscoring charts, perhaps, but those who champion the 23-year-old’s cause point to other qualities beyond goalscoring. Indeed, six goals in as many games last Christmas point to a player capable of scoring more frequent if given the opportunity in a more central role.

“He’s a real threat to defenders and, if Arsenal use him right, he will be very dangerous for them,” said former United defender Rio Ferdinand.

“I cannot believe United let him go, especially to Arsenal. That seems mad to me. Danny has everything to be a top player. English football has yet to see what he can really do because he hasn’t been getting a run of games. At Arsenal, he will be the main man and I have no doubt he will flourish.”

Welbeck’s departure, together with a dozen other players, including Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Ryan Giggs, has come amid the most rapid evolution in United’s playing squad for two decades.

Indeed, Van Gaal’s challenge – to knit together what is effectively a new team – is one that no United manager has faced since Ferguson sold Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince in 1995. The following season Ferguson integrated Nicky Butt, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes into the United side to much success.

Yet, in the years before 2005 Ferguson also broke the British transfer record eight times, just has Sir Matt Busby had done for Dennis Law in the wake of the ‘Babes’ destruction at Munich in 1958. Youth and investment – hasn’t the club always played both games? Scrutiny, too, has always followed.

Yet, as the Glazer family’s parsimony cut into the United’s competitiveness from 2005-2013 it was also Ferguson who left a squad in far from “the strongest possible shape.”  The Scot stood back in retirement and watched Rome burn. The club, it seems, is now trying to rebuild in a day.

“It is a change of direction for United letting one of their own go,” adds Ferdinand. “Traditionally, this was not their way, adding so many players in a short period of time and having such a radical overhaul. Normally, as with me when I joined in 2002, it was about adding one piece to the jigsaw.

“Some fans still romanticise about their success and the way they brought through so many home-grown players. Unfortunately, you can’t always have that fairytale. Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria are world-class players and they have added quality in Anders Herrera, Luke Shaw and Daley Blind, but I do wonder if they will live to regret not keeping Danny.”

That story will play out in the year to come; Welbeck’s performance at Arsenal and Van Gaal’s ability to get the best out of £150 million worth of new talent.

As ever it will not only be United’s success on the line, but the club’s ‘identity’ too. Twas ever thus.


David Shankland - September 8, 2014 Reply

still id rather take Andy Coles word for it than Rio’s when he says wellbecks not up to the rewuired standard

David Shankland - September 8, 2014 Reply

and as for Phelan. Did he care for United’s tradition when in the summer of 89 he joined Pallister, Wallace, Webb and Ince

Harry - September 8, 2014 Reply

I honestly dunno what the fuss is all about! This very club, a year ago, had so many pundits say’n, “they need to bring in at least, 5 new players to be back on top”…. It’s funny how everyone is chang’n tune now!

The Rookie - September 9, 2014 Reply


Scholes.18 - September 11, 2014 Reply

The Media just wants to keep the circus going. One way or another.

Alan Miles - September 8, 2014 Reply

Brian Robson, Steve Bruce, Gary Palister, Paul Ince, Eric, Sparky(2nd time), Andrei K, Andy C, Dwight Y, Rio, Vidic, Evra, Roy K, Paul Parker, Dennis Irwin, Brian M, Mike P, Lee S, CR, Peter S, how many other players came through the ranks?””

SKW - September 8, 2014 Reply

Think too much is being made of this.

Wellbeck never wowed me, he is a forward who doesn’t consistently score guys. He has speed but not a heck of a lot else and always looked United’s Theo Walcott to me.

Plus, I don’t think we have abandonned youth either. Blackett will play this season, as will Wilson in some fashion. Cleverley was clearly a youth product not up to it and needed to go.

On the other hand, Fergies dismissal of Pogba looks an absolute disgrace. How did he not make it into the side and Cleverley did I will never know.

subterranean steve - September 8, 2014 Reply

The pre-Munich United team was full of kids with a couple of pricey imports; the ’68 European Cup-winning side contained seven former youth players; the ‘Class of 92′ was the heart beat of the treble-winning team of’ 99.

However since then, homegrown young players, have been few and far between.Only the likes of Brown, O’Shea, Evans, Welbeck and Cleverley have played on a regular basis.Only E vans is still on the books.

Premier League teams have become part of globalisation ,dominated by foreign players, foreign managers and foreign owners. United now have their ‘unholy’ trinity of foreign influences.

Following criticism some fifteen years ago, when Chelsea fielded a team without any home produced players in it, Ken Bates rather proudly announced that Chelsea were ‘a continental club that played in London’
What does that make United, a World club with a ground that happens to be in Mancunia? Bit like the noisy neighbours?

In 1967 Glasgow Celtic were the first British team to win the European Cup. In the final all their players were local Glasgow-born (and probably all Catholic). Different world.

Richard Hutchinson - September 8, 2014 Reply

If Dany had wanted to stay and LVG got rid of him against his wishes, then I would be concerned. Welbeck is resourceful, hard-working, pacey, inventive… I think he offers something different from Rooney, RVP, and Falcao and he does score when played centrally, so to let him go if he wanted to stay would have signaled a worrying step away from youth-based squad development, given that he wasn’t an expendable player to my mind (and worth more than 16M for that matter).
But Danny wanted to leave, he wanted first team football every week and that’s why he’s with Arsenal now, not because he wasn’t wanted at Old Trafford.

Not only are we still bringing other youth players through, but we also bought a couple of promising young players too (which has also been a long-standing tactic in United’s squad development).

So yes, after seeing a vast chunk of our squad retire/move on whether by their own will or by the club’s, we’ve spent a boatload of cash to rebuild the squad AND we’ve drafted more youth players into the senior squad than ever.
Even the concerns over the commercial appetites of the club, though they certainly seem to have kicked into over-drive recently, are a little worn. Manchester United has built its success on the dual fronts of winning trophies and then capitalising on their victories with marketing themselves better than any other club.
The Glazers are the real concern, or should be, for any United fan; and yet, I think it’s testimony to the robustness of the club finances that, where Chelsea and Man City (and even Liverpool’s recent spending splurges) needed a vast injection of foreign money to fund their success, we have, thus far, survived a foreign owner sucking vast amounts of funds OUT of the club and still able to compete for signings like Falcao and Di Maria without Champions League football to attract them.

So, in summary, and the above certainly needs it, I think there’s much less to worry about than people make out.
The first team is stronger than it has been over the last five years, and although the squad is light, we can expect that to be strengthened in January and into next season. We have a bunch of young talents coming through the club and some of the most exciting players in the game playing with the gaudy Chevrolet logo emblazoned across their chests. We have a world-class manager at the helm again and he is building a new era in a way we could not have imagined last season, with Moyes staring dead-eyed and impotent at the shambles devolving in front of him.

If I may quote a little Shakespeare with some light editing:
“You have a manager who has won every trophy going, with a history of youth development, there art thou happy! You have signed Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, there art thou happy! Your squad ripples with young, local talent, there art thou happy! A pack of blessings lights upon thy back; happiness courts thee in her best array, but like a misbehaved and sullen wench thou pout’st upon thy fortune and thy love; Take heed, take heed, for such die miserable”

Lekan Olubusoye - September 8, 2014 Reply

i don’t understand why some people ate crying over the departure of Danny Welbeck. If they wanna support a full British team 1/2

Lekan Olubusoye - September 8, 2014 Reply

they can always drop the the championship or league one with a lot of Welbecks and Cleverleys. #mufc is a global brand 2/2

ForeverRed - September 9, 2014 Reply

Had Fergie and Phelan not sat back and watch the team age, engulfed by growing mediocrity, lacking balance and devoid of a transfer strategy for years, then this radical approach to the transfer market would not have been needed.

When Fergie realized that he didn’t have it is in him to rebuild once more after the second Barca humbling he should have done the best thing for the club and handed over the reigns, when the experienced core of players really did still have a couple more years in the tank. Hardly surprising that such a lack of succession planning ended this way.

Subterranean Steve - September 9, 2014 Reply


Denton Davey - September 10, 2014 Reply

“When Fergie realized that he didn’t have it is in him to rebuild once more after the second Barca humbling he should have done the best thing for the club and handed over the reigns, when the experienced core of players really did still have a couple more years in the tank.”

I agree BUT it seems that he really, really, really didn’t want Jo$e to be his successor ! Still-and-all, he kept on winning in the years after the second loss to Barcelona. He wanted to complete his “knocking Liverpool off their fucking perch” and he accomplished that, too.

Jade Rickerts - September 9, 2014 Reply

The only thing that irks me about the Danny Welbeck transfer is that we sold him to a direct rival who were in need of a striker. Not only that, we sold him for peanuts. It seems like English clubs are over paying for young British talent, but we only sold Danny Welbeck for £16 million to Arsenal? Insane. He isn’t that great anyway. He was very awful in his last season with Fergie having only scored 2 goals in all competitions. He looked better last season after getting more starts in a striking role, but still not world class. I don’t even mind if he comes good at Arsenal. I would mind if we lose out on a Champions League spot to Arsenal this season.

John - September 9, 2014 Reply

Oh man, why are we not buying a fXcking good centerback?

As long as we depend on Smalling and JOnes, we will go no where near the title.

Dayus D red - September 9, 2014 Reply

Its a loose , loose for United. When were not buying players, the press and the so called pundits kept telling us we couldn’t attract world class players. Now we have world class players, we have lost our identity just because we sold a player though home grown was not good enough. Now the crusade has started again. Now the same pundits who are saying Smalling and Jones are not good enough will be the one saying we have sold our soul if United bring another world class defender. As for Mike Philan, where was he when SAF sold Pogba, Showcross, Pique, Rossi just to mention but a few. Am sure he never went through United academy yet he playeed for us. See,we did not burn our history by giving him the opportunity to wear the famous red shirt. I never rated him as a coach and never will as a commentator.

the real deal - September 10, 2014 Reply

van Gaal intends to rebuild also from the academy players. That is why now we are buying world class 16 year olds to be in the academy. We already bought three this summer. All this spending now is just to get the team back into the top 4 so we do not lose our sponsors and millions of dollars. Once we get back champions league football, more of the quality academy youngsters will come into the first team. Remember, Rooney is 28, Falcao is 28, Van Persie 31 and Carrick 34 years old.

Subterranean Steve - September 10, 2014 Reply

We spend all this cash on big name players in order to try to get into the Champions’ League and thus keep the sponsors happy, or at least for United to keep their money.

Ironic then that several casualties of this transfer policy e.g. Welbeck, Kagawa and Chicharito find themselves shipped off to other clubs, where guess what, they will be playing in this season’s Champions’ League.

jevon - September 10, 2014 Reply

The lack of push from the academy is one of the factors for the side collapsing in quality over the last few years. If anything, selling Wellbeck is not so much a failure of “tradition” but a failure of development and from the lads below.

Denton Davey - September 10, 2014 Reply

Very true; how many graduates from the Academy have actually been “UTD quality” ? In the past decade, the only one I can think of would be Johnny Evans – and he’s still not-quite-there.

subterranean steve - September 11, 2014 Reply

Welbeck is the nearest thing to a star player that the academy has produced since David Beckham debuted in 1995. The best academy player to make it at United in the period between Beckham and Welbeck was Wes Brown.

Not exactly a production line.

ForeverRed - September 11, 2014 Reply

True, and also not helped by SAF’s poor judgement/ego when it came to the likes of Pogba and Pique. When we did get the occasional gem come through in the last few years of his tenure, he always went for ‘experience’ over youth, which is why Scholes came back out of retirement and we invested in the lesser talents of Ashley Young, Valencia, Park etc. Not to mention playing players out of position rather than giving youth a chance.

ForeverRed - September 11, 2014 Reply

And moreover, for these reasons, it is SAF that could equally be accused of losing Utd’s identity in the last few years. To be honest, I’d much rather be accused of ‘changing’ Utd by promoting/bringing in world class players than loading us up with mid-table cast-offs and hindering youth development..

Denton Davey - September 11, 2014 Reply

“SAF’s poor judgement/ego when it came to the likes of Pogba and Pique”

Pique was rated lower than Johnny Evans.

Everyone agrees that SAF’s decision to marginalize Pogba was a phenomenal fuck-up; in addition, in the year that he was shoved aside, UTD’s decision to push-back-the-years with TheGingerNinja didn’t result in – errrr – results !

That decision was a double-whammy – UTD lost the EPL title on goal-difference and lost the best talent since CR7/Rooney were kids, ten years ago.

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