In the cold light of Manchester United’s fateful dawn one can still feel the intoxication. Like a Saturday night drunk, stirring on Sunday morning amid the cold pizza and lager cans strewn across the wreckage once called home. Yet, United’s hangover from Cristiano Ronaldo’s wild ride still throbs, blurring clear thought and obfuscating the truth. Like so many drunks United may need to hit rock bottom before redemption calls.
Ronaldo’s was a special kind of addiction though; certainly love at first sight. The speed, turn, tricks and goals – that magical 20 minutes against Bolton Wanderers to the crowing glory in Moscow in 2008. Little wonder that the Stretford End still sings the Portuguese winger’s name, five years since he departed – on his own insistence – for Real Madrid.
In securing an £80 million fee for Ronaldo the winger also had another affect on the club. One far more damaging than enduring loyalty to a player who came to believe that he had outgrown Old Trafford. Indeed, the ‘success’ of securing such riches seemingly convinced the Glazer family, and Sir Alex Ferguson, that the equivalent of football alchemy was available at every turn – that United could invest in young players, make handsome profits in the market and run a successful team. Like some flash of magic, United’s “philosophy” of “youth” – as a recent investor presentation put it – somehow gave the club a structural advantage over competitors at home and abroad.
For the club of the Busby Babes, Fergie Fledglings and Class of ’92 it is a vision for supporters to follow – millions spent on young players that may come good is always more palatable than millions more on the finished article. Yet, like so many of the Glazer family’s polices this one has turned out to be bunk. Just one with rhetoric that is so easy to sell.
Since Ronaldo’s sale in the summer of 2009 United’s unwritten policy – broken on only a few select occasions – has been to invest in players under 26 who retain a clear resale value. More than 20 players of the ilk have passed through Old Trafford’s doors over the past five years, including Ander Herrera, Marcos Rojo and Luke Shaw this summer.
Yet, during that same period it is arguable that only David de Gea’s stock has risen in Ronaldo-esque proportions. So many have crashed and burned. That is the way of youth and the failure of a policy that routinely gambled on turning lead into gold, callow youth into venerable experience, and a punt into yet more Glazer riches.
United may extract value and talent from Shaw, Herrera and Rojo. Of the three the former Southampton left-back is perhaps best placed to command an outstanding resale fee in the years ahead. He certainly has the talent to flourish at United.
Of other recent signings Marouane Fellaini certainly will not, while the jury remains out on whether Juan Mata, who was 25 on acquisition last January, will finally come good.
Two summers ago United invested more than £28 million in Shinji Kagawa, Nick Powell, Ángelo Henríquez and Alexander Büttner – and then a further £10-15 million in Wilfried Zaha the following winter. Kagawa may command a similar fee now, while Büttner was sold this summer for a small profit. Write off the money spent on Zaha, Powell and Henríquez though. More importantly, none of the quintet has proven to be value-for-money just yet, although there are special circumstances where the Japanese is concerned.
The pattern repeats. Phil Jones may yet come good, although there is little to justify the £17 million paid to Blackburn Rovers three years ago. Chris Smalling has seemingly gone backwards, while Javier Hernández’ career is at a standstill. United could take a profit on the £6.5 million fee paid for the Mexican, but probably only because a rising market tide floats all boats. The Reds certainly did not profit from the eternally embarrassing £7.75 million spent on street footballer turned Premier League punchline, Bebé.
The less said about the £25 million spent on the combined talents of Antonio Valencia, Mame Diouf and Gabriel Obertan, the better. Look further back into the Glazers ownership and there will be few whom view the investment in Nani and Anderson with pride. More than £30 million was invested in a duo that will command almost no resale fee when eachfinally, and permanently, leaves the club.
The failure is not one of trust in youth per se. This is a romantic notion that appeals in an age where superstars command incomprehensible wages and transfer fees routinely run into tens of millions. The error is in the policy’s inherent lack of balance and the concurrent inevitability of squad degradation, no matter short-term successes.
By contrast, over the same 2009 – 2014 period, United’s investment in experience runs to Michael Owen, Anders Lindegaard, Ashley Young and Robin van Persie. So few struck gold, but then the sample is only a handful.
In an era when the causal – although not perfect – relationship between transfer spending, wages and ‘success’ has been noted, United’s belief in an ability to buck the market has proven false. There is no structural advantage at Old Trafford, bar vast pools of revenue.
It is perhaps little surprise that some have called for a change in policy at a time when Louis van Gaal’s squad is dangerously short of domestic rivals. With 10 days to go until the market closes there is little guarantee that even a manager of the Dutchman’s gifts will lead United into next season’s Champions League.
“United need to arrest their decline,” said former Red Paul Scholes, writing in the Independent this week.
“I feel it is time for major change. What do United need? Five players. Not five players with potential. Five experienced players. Five proper players who can hit the ground running and turn around a situation that looks desperate.”
Five players that are unlikely to arrive before the transfer window closes on 1 September. The months ahead will determine whether it is the Glazer’s policy or Scholes that is proven right. One thing is sure: there are so few to follow Ronaldo. One a million? No, one in 80 million. Odds that look poor good either way.
Acquisitions of players under-26 since Ronaldo’s sale
Player – Acquired from – Fee (£ millions) – (age at transfer)
Luke Shaw – Southampton – £33 (18)
Ander Herrera – Athletic Club – £32 (24)
Marcos Rojo – Sporting Lisbon – £17 (24)
Vanja Milinković-Savić – Vojvodina – free (17)
Juan Mata – Chelsea – £39.5 (25)
Marouane Fellaini – Everton – £28.5 (25)
Guillermo Varela – Peñarol – £1.5 (20)
Shinji Kagawa – Borussia Dortmund – £14 (23)
Wilfried Zaha – Crystal Palace – £10.5 (20)
Nick Powell – Crewe Alexandra – Crewe – £6.5 (18)
Ángelo Henríquez – Club Universidad de Chile – £5 (18)
Alexander Büttner – Vitesse Arnham – £4.5 (23)
David de Gea – Atlético Madrid – £17.50 (20)
Phil Jones – Blackburn Rovers – £17 (19)
Frédéric Veseli – Manchester City – free (18)
Bebé – Vitória Guimarães – £7.75 (20)
Chris Smalling – Fulham – £7 (20)
Javier Hernández – Deportivo Guadalajara – £6.50 (22)
Antonio Valencia – Wigan Athletic – £16.5 (24)
Mame Diouf – Molde – £4 (21)
Gabriel Obertan – Girondins Bordeaux – £3.5 (20)
*all data from Transfermarkt (rounded)