A story broken in the Manchester Evening News, and followed-up by The Guardian and Independent this week have suggested that United are embarking on a under-26s only recruiment policy. The strategy, which comes into effect this summer, means that United will not recruit players 26 and over for large transfer fees that they cannot expect to recoup further down the line. It is a policy that ensures United are out of the running for David Villa and Franck Ribéry, as well as Kaká for whom they did not make a bid.
The policy, according to reports, is aimed at maximising the potential re-sale value of recruited players, which degrades markedly once a player passes 30. But it begs a question: if re-sale value is of greater importance in player recruitment than on-the-field ability, are United now a selling club?
In truth, Dimitar Berbatov aside, United’s recent recruitment policy has focussed on youth anyway. This is underscored by the acquisitions (at no little expense) of Anderson and Nani in the summer of 2007, together with the controversial aggressive recruitment of youth team players from oversees, including Federico Macheda, Davide Petrucci, Rodrigo Possebon and the Da Silva brothers.
But buying young is also a policy that comes with risk, as any supporter following Nani can attest. The £17 million that United spent on recruiting the winger is lost forever unless the former Sporting Lisbon player demonstrates a marked improvement in form next season. Moreover, Arsenal supporters will point to the destabilising effect that a ‘buy young’ strategy can have on the team. With Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Edwin van der Sar facing potential retirement in 2010, United could be shorn of significant experience in years to come.
More worrying still is what the new strategy says about the long term state of United’s finances. In the light of Cristiano Ronaldo’s sale to Real Madrid this month, the plan has an undertone of long-term debt service. In essence the club’s policy says ‘we will not buy players whom we cannot sell on’. While this may be sound business policy, it is not necessarily the right policy for the good of the team. Significantly, it also means that United expect to sell players on in the future, rather than retain their services past 30. The gold medal scenario for United’s management hierarchy is then that of Ronaldo; buy low, sell (very) high.
In light of United’s huge £699 million corporate debt buying low to sell high in the future is a scenario that makes short-term business sense. The risk, however, is that United recruit too many failures – players with talent that is never fulfilled. Without proven talent coming into the club, United run the risk in the long term of degrading the team’s on-the-field success. With silverware comes sponsorship dollars, without there are none. And where’s the financial sense in that?