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Out-of-touch Van Gaal has failed – now for the inevitable endgame

January 9, 2016 Tags: , , Reads 44 comments
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It was, one supporter departing Old Trafford claimed, the worst Manchester United performance in more than 30 years. Perhaps not, there have been some truly devastating defeats in that time, but few supporters can remember less entertainment on a night where United’s passivity in the face of a supposedly inferior opposition reached a fresh nadir. Indeed, the Reds’ narrow FA Cup victory over League One Sheffield United, despite a rash of defeats in December, may yet come to be seen as peak Louis van Gaal – a day when the tide finally turned in the endgame of the Dutchman’s Old Trafford departure. Read More

Why isn’t Ed Woodward in the firing line?

December 28, 2015 Tags: , , , , Reads 27 comments
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Just when you thought the crisis has hit its lowest point, Louis van Gaal’s side found a way to burrow further into the abyss. Following another comprehensive defeat at the hands of Stoke City the club has now lost four games in a row, something the Red Devils have not suffered since 1961. The side is also now winless in seven games. Can the situation get any worse?

The answer might be yes – a home clash to finish the year awaits, with Chelsea visiting Old Trafford on Monday. Optimism hasn’t been at a lower ebb at any point during the Van Gaal era, and most fans are hoping he is either given his marching orders or falls on his own sword before the end of the year.

Criticism of the Dutchman is almost certainly justified, with defence of his methods now as flimsy as the efforts of his back-four. Despite Van Gaal’s successes in rebuilding the club from the ground up, for which he deserves credit, on-field performances have at best stalled and are arguably going backwards. Patience with the process has reached a pivotal moment.

Comparison’s with David Moyes grow by the day – the two managers records are comparable, with Van Gaal’s number no longer that favourable. Yet the common thread between the two men is less the results, but the man who hired them: Edward Gareth Woodward.

Woodward was promoted to the role of executive vice-chairman when David Gill stepped aside in 2013, following Sir Alex Ferguson out the door. Whilst Woodward is clearly a marketing guru, the former banker has essentially acted as the Chief Executive Officer, Commercial Director and Director of Football for United in the past two years. It isn’t working.

The reality, of course, is that Woodward is succeeding in running United as a business, but not as a football club. The question remains as to why Woodward appears to be immune to media criticism given that he now has two managerial failures behind him. If Van Gaal is in the firing line, then Woodward should join him.

Woodward has not been clear of blame from the club’s fans since he was promoted to the top job. He is, after all, a figurehead for the Glazer’s ownership of the club – a controversial topic within itself – whilst appearing to place financial success far above on-field performance. Woodward, it appears, fails to grasp that on the pitch success also means that the dollars will follow.

Woodward’s first window in charge was underwhelming – he hired Moyes, then failed in pursuit of a string of  star players, leading to a very public display of panic on transfer deadline day. Marouane Fellaini joined for £27.5 million in August 2013 when the Belgian could have been signed for four million less had he a move been completed in July.

This followed a tortuous summer, with fruitless pursuits of players that, in some cases, were never likely to join the club. It has become an unfortunate routine, with supporters teased on an almost daily basis once transfer windows open – an embarrassing turn of events for a club of United’s stature.

Woodward chased Leighton Baines through summer 2013, although the defender was never close to a move, with the vice chair leading a naïve series of low bids for both the left-back and his teammate Fellaini. The pursuit indicated a gross lack of experience in transfer negotiation and a lack of respect for the selling club, with Everton already hesitant to join negotiations.

Then, for all of United’s spending power and willing show of financial muscle, the club could not tempt Gareth Bale to stay in England and make the move from Tottenham Hotspur. Despite reportedly offering north of £100 million for the Welshman, Bale joined Real Madrid that summer for a world record transfer fee.

Cesc Fabregas also turned his back on interest from United and a year later led the Premier League in assists as Chelsea reclaimed the Premier League. Fabregas is struggling this season, but at the time the Reds Devils were in desperate need of creativity in midfield.

Fabregas’ compatriot Thiago Alcantara also seemed to be on his way from Spain before Bayern Munich’s late interest, and Moyes’ dithering, scuppered a move. The opportunity to sign Munich’s Toni Kroos was turned down a year later, which makes even less sense now than it did then as the German flourishes in Madrid.

The list goes on. Woodward’s apparent interest in Mats Hummels and Arturo Vidal approach farcical proportions, leading to accusations of amateurism in the transfer market. It was and is unacceptable given United’s stature and does not appear to happen to other European giants. The longer the club holds am interest in Cristiano Ronaldo the more it mirrors that of the ex who cannot accept their former partner has moved on.

Worse than amateur behaviour, United’s transfer policy seems to prioritise commercial interests ahead of playing needs. It led directly to United’s acquisition of Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria, neither of whom lasted 12 months in Manchester before bolting for greener pastures. The Argentine’s departure may prove to be a mistake, but Di Maria’s signature, despite his lack of fit within Van Gaal’s system, must also be questioned.

Then there is United’s chase for a central defender over the last two summers. It is, frankly, ridiculous that someone of a suitable calibre has not yet arrived at Old Trafford. Sergio Ramos used United’s interest to secure a new contract and the captaincy at Real Madrid, whilst Nicolas Otamendi now plies his trade on the other side of Manchester – and was signed at a relatively reasonable price.

Woodward might be a lifelong United fan, whose father attended the 1968 European Cup Final, but the executive apparently does not have the nous to lead United’s transfer policy. That is not to understate his genius in globalising United’s commercial operation, but what happens on the field is more important to the club’s future.

Woodward’s failings through five transfer windows and two managerial appointments is threatening to drive United into a sustained period of failure. Meanwhile, rivals at home and abroad have progressed far beyond United on the pitch, perhaps to the point that it will be hard to attract players from elite clubs, even if they are being forced out the door, as Di Maria was at Real.

The harsh reality is that even United’s English rivals are outpacing the Reds on and off the field. Pep Guardiola seems closer to the blue side of Manchester than the red, whilst United slips further down the league table with each defeat. United risks ‘doing a Liverpool’ and being left far behind. Perhaps for years to come.

And much of this regression can be traced back to decisions Woodward has personally made. It’s surely now time to start holding United’s vice chair to account if the club wants to move forward. The best scenario might that United’s future is one without its executive chairman.

50 reasons to still Love United, Hate Glazer

May 13, 2015 Tags: Reads 17 comments
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It is 10 years to the week since the Glazer family confirmed the hostile leveraged buyout of Manchester United for £790 million. In the process the Glazers loaded the club with debt, alienated supporters and began the long road to inevitable mediocrity. Over the years Rant, both in it’s original guise (RIP all that content, thanks for nothin’ 1&1 Internet), and here since 2009, has written extensively on the takeover and it’s consequences.

Indeed, so extensive has been the coverage that another earnest article on the Glazer family’s fatuous regime is unlikely to be comprehensive. More than 50 reasons to still LUHG is a little better…

1. The hostile takeover. Nobody wanted it. Not the fans, not the United board, not Eric Cantona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer nor David Beckham. Roy Keane did, because it made him “a few bob”, but probably not Sir Alex Ferguson, although the Scot said nothing and would go on to make millions from becoming the family’s most highly paid advocate.

2. The leverage. It wasn’t a takeover the family even funded, such as those at Chelsea or Manchester City. Instead, the Glazers borrowed almost £600 million from Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan, together with those mysterious Payment-in-Kind (PIK) loans, which bore interest rates in double figures. Yikes.

3. That debt. Talking of which, the debt eventually rose to £788 million – significantly larger than United’s annual revenue. Successive buy-backs, refinancing schemes and the 2012 IPO have removed the PIKs and reduced the overall corporate debt to a more manageable level.

4. But it’s still not gone. As it stands there is £380 million worth of debt on the club’s books costing something like £20 million in interest per annum. True, much of the cost is written off against tax, but there is no upside either. After all, United was a debt-free institution before the Glazers arrived.

5. £1 billion sucked out of the club. The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), with the help of the indefatigable Andy Green, calculates that the family’s ownership has cost the club around £1 billion over the past decade in interest, debt repayments and other associated fees. Some of this figure has been recovered in taxes unpaid to the UK exchequer and dividends not realised, but the cost to the club’s finances still runs into hundreds of millions.

6. Death and taxes. They says only two things in life are inevitable. One came for Malcolm Glazer, although the family has dodged tax for much of its 10 years at Old Trafford. Debt is sometimes the capitalist’s best friend, but they’ve been stealing it from you, the taxpayer, for years.

7. Lack of investment 2005 – 2014. Whatever the extravagances of the post-Ferguson era there is little doubt finances restricted United’s ability to compete in a market forever changed by Manchester City and Chelsea’s free spending. Ferguson denied it, David Gill denied it, the Glazer family and their spokespeople denied it. You know better. Right?

Net transfer spending [Source: The Telegraph]

8. “There’s nae value in the market.” There are some people who believed Ferguson’s excuse for this lack of comparative spending. The vitriol directed Rant’s way for pointing out the error of the Scot’s way was inevitable. For everybody else Ferguson’s take on the financial situation amounted to a gross lie. One directed at supporters. It was unbecoming of a Knight of the Realm.

9. The ‘Ronaldo Money’. On a similar theme, did anyone really believe that the ‘Ronaldo Money’ was ever earmarked for spending in the summers of 2009 and 2010? One would have to believe that Antonio Valencia was the best possible option available to replace one of the finest players on the planet. He just happened to be cheap. Honest, guv.

10. Michael Owen. Bebe. Antonio Valencia. Alexander Buttner. Value. Need we go on?

11. David Gill. ‘Safe Hands’, safer wallet. Gill has now retired to the luxury of life as a ‘consultant’ to the Glazer family and a FIFA Vice President safe in the knowledge that while he talked a good game back in 2005 – “debt is the road to ruin” – in reality Gill earned millions by negotiating the club’s way through a complex matrix of refinancings. Debt was indeed a road: to becoming a multi-millionaire.

David Gill debt

12. Lack of transparency. Then again there has been very little transparency in the Glazer family’s financial shenanigans over the years anyway. The aforementioned PIK loans were refinanced secretly somewhere in the US, while the 2012 IPO included a move to register the parent corporation in the Cayman Islands. Home of the tax-free offshore account.

13. Ticket price rises. The inevitable fall-out from high levels of leverage was a significant hike in ticket price rises during the early years of the Glazer regime. Indeed, prices rose some 50 per cent between 2005 and 2010, with subsequent price freezes reflecting the relative lack of importance that ticket revenue holds as commercial and broadcast income grew.

14. Compulsory cup tickets. Want to watch United reserves and youth versus Scunthorpe for £53? Can’t make the game due to work or family commitments? Great! Here’s your ticket, whether you want one or not. Credit card already debited.

15. Those consultancy fees. Sure, “it’s their business and they can do what they like with it,” but the millions extracted by the Glazer siblings in superfluous management fees always exposed the ownership for what it was: not a “passion for Manchester United,” but a cow to be thoroughly milked.

16. “Franchise.” Yes, they did use that word.

17. Disenfranchisement. There is some irony in that acquiring the “franchise” the Glazer family has excluded thousands from the club to which they felt they belonged. Shareholders forced to sell against their wishes. Ticket prices rises that kept many away from Old Trafford. The youth for whom watching United is now a luxury not a way of life. FC United supporters who could take it no longer.

18. Cutting off supporters from communications. There was a time, post Rupert Murdoch’s failed attempt to buy United in the early 2000s, when supporters had a strong voice at the club. True, Peter Kenyon and David Gill may well have paid lip service to this group, but a voice of sorts was at least heard. No longer, although Ed Woodward has made some limited moves to redress this balance. The Glazers have offered one interview to the media in 10 years at the helm.

19. Where’s the next generation coming from? Which brings Rant to a wider point. Price rises and the ‘Blue project’ over in east Manchester threaten to undermine United’s local support for generations to come. It costs, at a minimum, £150 to take a family of four to Old Trafford on match-day. Unsustainable economics for most.

20. Stratford End Flags. “Tufty is a c*nt,” some people say. Rant couldn’t possibly comment on that, but the organisation does appear to be suspiciously friendly with the Old Trafford hierarchy. And the management allowed that banner.

The Chosen One

21. The family’s business history. It’s embarrassing. From junk bonds to low-rent strip malls, failed fish food corporations and family feuding – it’s an episode of Arrested Development. Without the jokes.

22. The Glazers haven’t spent a penny of their own money. Through all of this not a penny has been spent by the family itself, even in the post-Ferguson, post-austerity world. Every penny spent is money generated by the club, not the family. The only financial relationship the Glazers have with United is to milk it for profit.

23. Cheap, embarrassing, sponsors. Mister Potato. Nissin Noodles. Kansai Paints. The Hong Kong Jockey Club. Globacom, the telecommunications company of record in Benin. Bakcell, the telecommunications company of record in Azerbaijan. Yanmar. Apollo Tyres. Gloops. Kagome. Blue chips they are not.

24. Yeah, this really happened

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A real thing that really happened

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25. And while we’re on it… the narrative around commercial genius is largely exaggerated. After all, the Glazer family did not negotiate the huge rise in broadcast revenue that has come the Premier League’s way in the past decade. Nor did they drive the UK telecommunications market towards greater consolidation, with the convergence of telco, media, mobile and broadcast industries driving the value of sports rights ever higher in an otherwise highly commoditised market.

26. The Glazers do earn some credit for exploiting United’s commercial worth to the fullest, if credit is the right word here. But the worldwide rise in the sports rights and sponsorship market has also been exploited to a huge, possibly even greater extent, at Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and even Manchester City. The Glazers are not outliers, nor even pioneers, but riding a very lucrative wave.

27. Man they be ugly. Uncle Malc and the Glazer siblings fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down. Rant wouldn’t like to call this carpetbagging dump of a family ‘trailer-trash,’ but dang if they don’t have webbed-feet then we’re not called United Rant!

Malcolm Glazer

28. Seriously ginger too. Not that there’s anything wrong with gingerness, you understand.

29. That pony tail. Have some dignity, man. There’s nothing on God’s good earth that is less dignifying than a balding middle-aged white man who thinks a pony-tail ensures his ‘cool’ remains intact. No way daddy-o. No exceptions. Unless your name is Samuel L Jackson.


30. Papa Glazer never set foot inside Old Trafford. He loved the club, just not enough to hop on a plane from Tampa to Manchester and show face at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ from time-to-time. Did he not long for a warm Old Trafford reception?

31. Absentee landlords. Come to think of it the Glazer spawn rarely attend more than a handful of games each season anyway. Surely it’s more fun than watching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Even under David Moyes.

32. The ‘sister club’. Which brings us to the Bucs – the runt in the corner everybody pretends doesn’t exist. Owned and abused by the same family, Bucs fans are just as angry with the Glazers as United’s supporters. Over the past 12 years the Bucs have secured just two play-off spots, while attendances have fallen. The Glazers, at once stage, were forced to buy their own tickets to stop a media blackout demanded by the NFL when stadiums are half-full.

33. The Old Trafford pies universally suck. Remember that short-lived Jamie Oliver campaign to improve school food? Admit it, you were shocked that a school dinner could be produced for 17p and still be fit for human consumption. Old Trafford’s pies probably cost less to manufacture, but still retail at £4. Warmth is optional as, apparently, is meat in the ‘meat and potato’ travesty.

34. Champions Lager. The worst. To bastardise the peerless John Oliver: “it tastes like the urine of a scared rabbit” and the “ghost of a dead lemon.” The Singha now served at Old Trafford isn’t much better.

35. Gloablisation. Or should it be called de-localisation. The search for new sources of sponsorship revenue. The profile of the Premier League. Global media reach. Whatever the cause, the result is an Old Trafford supporter base that is decreasingly local and increasingly tourist. This is a sensitive subject of course. The way of the world, or the sad demise of 125 years of local tradition?

Half and Half scarf

36. Dividing the fans. Talking of the fans: has there ever been a more divisive subject among supporters than the Glazer ownership? For those fervently committed to anti-Glazer activism over the past 10 years – whether that’s financial analysis, Green & Gold scarves, or match day boycotts – the bone-headed ‘support’ for the family has boggled-the-mind. And no this is not an anti-American agenda. Nor, most certainly, is it anti-semitism either.

37. Revisionism. This week’s public relations campaign to rewrite the history of the Glazer regime in the face of recent transfer market spending is classic revisionism. After all, the club is spending its own money, not the Glazers’. Money earned for being Manchester United. Paid for, directly and indirectly, by the supporters.

38. FC United. FCUM is a wonderful institution – a permanent reminder of football’s more sacred days. It is a club owned, run and operated by the fans, for the fans, without profit, but with much love. As it should be. This year FCUM will move into a new stadium, financed largely by supporters, but it took the alienation of thousands of Reds to make all that is FCUM. There is a bittersweet taste to that.


39. Fergie turning on the fans. Genius coach; bastard man, not least because of Ferguson’s fervent support for the Glazer family. Bought and paid for, Ferguson was never less than emphatic in lauding the Glazer regime even during the years of austerity. But did he really have to tell supporters to “f*ck off to Chelsea” if they didn’t like it? No. No he didn’t.

40. David Gill turning on the fans. See above. Rinse. Repeat.

41. New York IPO. It is one of capitalism’s crueller ironies. United, formed by the workers of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, as a local institution for local families, is now traded algorithmically by computers in a data-centre in Hoboken, New Jersey. It is perhaps the inevitable outcome of globalisation. None of this makes it any less morally corrupt.

42. Registration in the Cayman Islands. Home of tax-dodging billionaires and Tory donors, Grand Cayman has long-held a laissez faire attitude to business transparency and standards. No questions asked, none answered. The perfect spot for the ultimate registration of United’s parent company.

43. Taking £75 million out of the club and lying about it. That IPO was supposed to be used to write down debt. At least that was the Glazer promise. Instead the siblings took millions for themselves, probably to pay down the refinanced PIK loans.

44. And then they did it again in a second release of capital last year.


45. That mysterious incentive scheme. Did Ferguson profit? Did Gill? The IPO also welcomed a new ‘Equity Incentive Reward Scheme’. Share options to the uninitiated. Somebody is making bucketloads of cash.

46. Ed Woodward. Rant has no doubt Woodward is a brilliant marketeer. He may even be a decent man wrapped in the vapid shell of a management consultant, but he’s the worst kind of football executive. Customers, not supporters. Market exploitation, not lifelong passion. A media company, not a football club.

47. Endless tours. Summer tours were once fun; they still are to an extent. But where a quick trip to Scandinavia, with all the joys of Oslo that it would bring, was once the fair now United’s summer is replete with long-haul destinations. More than 20,000 miles of travelling during the last two summers. As Louis van Gaal has discovered, it is a far more about marketing than “preparation time” for the new season.

48. The official website. Is it the Glazer family’s fault that ManUtd.com is just so dog awful? Probably not, but the business practices certainly dictate that a ‘digital season ticket’ now costs in the region of £40 per year and the only way to read some content is to sell your personal data to the club.

49. The lob-sided stadium. There was once a plan, taken seriously at the highest levels of Old Trafford, to extend the south stand beyond its current single-tier base. The train track behind the stand is problematic, but the club had begun to embark on buying property in Railway Road in anticipation. That property was sold some time ago and plans shelved.

50. David Moyes. Not only did the Glazer family believe that they continue winning on the cheap with the Scot, but they actually let Ferguson hand-select his replacement! The man whose due diligence on Bébé extended to a single phone call from Jorge Mendes. Moyes was a disastrous appointment, whose wholesale failing as a manager of United’s standing reflects very poorly on his employers. It cost United more than £60 million and counting.

David Moyes

51. Marouane Fellaini. In a pre-or-post Glazer world would United have even countenanced purchasing this lanky, talentless, lump. And for £27.5 million? Not a chance. Fellaini is an outward sign of the failure to modernise United’s recruitment policy and processes – this is in part due to Ferguson’s lengthy reign, but the United hierarchy has not made enough progress either.

52. The women’s team. Last, but definitely not least, United once boasted a proud, if largely unsuccessful, ladies’ team. One of the Glazer family’s first acts as owners was to deconstruct the team because it did not fit with “the core business.” In 2013 the idea of bringing back the team was apparently mooted; the promised “assessment” did not bring back United Ladies.

United’s secret plan to bring Blatter on board

April 1, 2015 Tags: , , Just for fun 16 comments
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Rant’s man in Switzerland uncovers secret talks at an advanced stage.

Manchester United’s ruling Glazer family is holding secret talks with Seppe Blatter as a precursor to the FIFA President joining the Board this summer, Rant has learned. In a controversial move, it is believed that the talks are at an advanced stage, with a formal announcement possible after the FIFA presidential elections conclude this year. Rant understands that talks were brokered by new FIFA vice president and fomer United managing director David Gill.

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Family debt: the Glazers not yet moved to invest

November 17, 2013 Tags: , , Reads 15 comments
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It has taken, by any reasonable assessment, just shy of £700 million in interest, repayments and fees, three refinancing rounds, and countless intrigue, but Manchester United’s huge corporate debt is finally under a modicum control. There have been times, many of them, when the day seemed unlikely.

Not that United is debt free – far from it, in fact, with more than £360 million still on the club’s books. But with annual debt interest now down to £20 million per year, the club is heamorrhaging the equivalent of just the one international-class signing per season, rather than four.

It poses an interesting scenario. With United’s corporate imperative no longer financial survival, there is the theoretical possibility that the Glazer family could finally unleash United’s revenue generating potential, investing in the club both on and off the pitch. After all, United’s cash-generation has never been stronger, while there is plenty of equity still to be released should the family issue more shares, as is believed likely.

History, of course, says supporters should throw that logic to the wind. After all, the family has a record of placing its own financial requirements first; United’s a distant question. The club’s August 2011 IPO in New York is a case in point, with the family backtracking on an initial promise to retain the proceeds within the club.

Yet, the question of investment is now on executive vice chairman Ed Woodward’s desk. The 40-year-old is juggling debt, the club’s rampant commercial drive, and the inexorable rise of wage inflation, as the Reds ponder moves in the January transfer window.

Still, United’s Q1 figures issued this week demonstrate strong revenue growth – up 29.1 per cent to £98 million for the first quarter of the financial year. Commercial income rose 62.6 per cent on the back of a dozen new sponsorship deals, while record Premier League broadcast rights income, and the summer season-ticket influx contributed to a surge in turnover. United reported operating cash flow of £32.3 million in Q1 and cash profits before transfers up 36 per cent to £22.2 million.

The Premier League’s £3 billion deal for domestic rights, which represents a 70 per cent increase on the previous contract, has significantly bolstered United’s coffers. And this is a bubble not yet ready to burst: BT Sport’s victory in outbidding Sky for Champions League rights is likely to ensure English clubs earn an extra £10-£15 million each annually from 2015. BT will pay £900 million for Champions and Europa League matches over three years.

“Sport is the ‘must-have’ content, its value has grown dramatically,” said Woodward, speaking to investors on Thursday.

“We are excited by the continuing rise in the value of sports content, evidenced, amongst other things, by the recently announced BT deal for the UK rights to broadcast the Champions League and Europa League matches. This deal represents a meaningful increase over the current arrangement.”

Players continue to be the principle winners of the rights inflation though, with United’s staff costs rising by 31 per cent to £52.9 million in Q1. UEFA’s financial fair play rules are yet to bring deflationary pressure on salaries it seems, although Woodward argued that “a fall in the acceleration around player wage growth” is now being felt in the Premier League. Just not at Old Trafford.

Yet, it is debt not wages that has most afflicted United since the Glazer takeover. Obligations still run to £361 million, although debt service costs have fallen on yet another round of refinancing. United owes around £200 million in bank debt, at a rate fixed between three and four per cent interest, with the rest in bonds at almost nine per cent.

By the time United is free from arrears, if ever, the club will have wasted more than £1 billion on the Americans’ debt.

Still, with more than £80 million in cash sitting in the club’s bank account at the end of the quarter, supporters may ponder not only transfer market muscle finally being flexed, but investment in a stadium that has remained largely unchanged since the family took control in 2005, notwithstanding commitments made prior the family’s arrival in Manchester.

Indeed, the argument for new spending on the pitch is strong given the club’s rocky start to the new season under manager David Moyes. The Scot presumably still hankers for a new left-back and high-quality central midfielder.

Whether Woodward has the will or means to secure new acquisitions is a question that will only be answered at the end of January. Certainly, supporters expect a far more professional approach to the market, whether substantial cash is spent, or not.

Meanwhile, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) is actively pressing the club to invest in new infrastructure. Woodward’s arrival has re-opened lines of communication between principal supporters’ groups and the club, with MUST and the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) previously ostracised by Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill.

While MUST chief executive Duncan Drasdo’s recent meeting with Woodward remains off-the-record, the group is believed to have pressed for the introduction of German-style rail seats, potentially – and controversially – part-funded by supporter investment in new shares.

“We’re interested in exploring ways to progress introducing a section of these seats,” Drasdo told the Independent this week.

“We can see potential for fans who wish to, to invest in shares in the club, with the funds ring-fenced for specific purposes such as rail seats or stadium expansion. It would be an excellent demonstration of the value which can be derived from fans investing in and sharing ownership in their club.”

“The cooperation and the participation of fans in the ownership of the club brings an improvement to the atmosphere as well a financial benefits to the club.”

In MUST’s call there is some wry humour. While Old Trafford’s bean counters posted record financials, just eight miles to the north east, FC United of Manchester broke ground on a new stadium at Moston this month. Set to open August 2014, the community-funded 5,000 capacity venue will be FC’s first permanent home, nine years after the club was formed in the wake of the Glazers’ arrival.

Moston Community Stadium will cost £5.5 million to construct, with £2.5 raised by supporters, and the rest granted by Sport England, the Football Foundation, Manchester City Council and Manchester College. It is the kind of kind of community effort actively shunned by big brother to the south.

The irony in big United turning a financial corner, after eight years and £680 million wasted, is surely not lost on those in Moston. Whether security now pushes United to invest in team and stadium is open to question. After all this time, few supporters will bank on it.

The price of success

March 25, 2013 Tags: , , , Reads 13 comments

What is success? It was an interesting question posed by Bayern Munich general manager Uli Hoeneß recently as the Bavarian side sneaked through to the Champions League quarter-finals by defeating Arsenal. Money, the determinant on many supporters’ lips, is only part of the solution says the former German international. After all, while finance is a means to a football end, it is explicitly not the definitive goal at Bayern.

Hoeneß’ assertion poses an interesting challenge at a time when Europe’s football landscape is evolving from one dominated by English clubs to potentially a more fragmented picture. While English clubs competed in seven finals in eight seasons from 2005, the Premier League is absent from the final eight of the continent’s leading competition this year.

Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City each crashed out of the Champions League prematurely leaving England without a quarter-finalist for the first time since 1996. Meanwhile, three sides from Spain, two from Germany and one each from Turkey, France and Italy made it though from the round of 16.

Ownership structure, or indeed financial motivation, may have only a passing correlation to progress in the competition, but Hoeneß and executives at the other German quarter-finalist, Borussia Dortmund, point to more than 50 per cent fan control as a guiding principle. Similarly, Barcelona and Real Madrid is each entirely owned by the ‘socios’ – club members – as is Turkish champions Galatasary.

In each case league regulations have either reinforced or explicitly mandated the policy. In Germany the 50+1 rule states that members of a club must retain more than 50 per cent ownership, preventing any single private entity taking control. Meanwhile, in Spain both Barça and Real, together with Athletic Bilbao and CA Osasuna, are supporter-owned. In Turkey all clubs are fan-owned as no other form of ownership is permitted.

Of the remaining quarter-finalists Juventus is majority-owned by the Agnelli family, in charge of the Turin-based club since 1923, while both Malaga and Paris Saint Germain are in Middle Eastern hands.

And with fan ownership, says Hoeneß, comes a supporter-friendly policy. After all, cheap ticket prices at Bayern and Dortmund are the envy of many United fan now priced out of Old Trafford.

“I only want to have big sporting success on a sound economic basis,” said Hoeneß, who played 239 times for the club and 35 times for the national team.

“It’s no fun to win the championship or Champions League with a £50-£60 million loss. The cheap tickets are for young people and the people who cannot afford it otherwise. Football must always be affordable.

“When you only pay €15 (£12) you can’t say ‘I hate these millionaires’ because you cannot finance the millionaires with €15. The €15 tickets are standing seats behind the goals. Our most expensive season ticket is around €800.”

By comparison United’s cheapest ticket is £30 in the East and West Lower, while the most expensive non-executive season ticket in the South Stand is priced at £950 for 19 league matches – the result of cumulative ticket prices increases in the five years following the 2005 Glazer takeover.

Cheap pricing has created an imbalance in Bayern’s income – €368.4 million revenue in the last financial year was heavily skewed towards commercial activity, with matchday turnover just 23 per cent of total revenues.

Acceleration in United’s commercial strategy in recent years, together with rapidly increasing media rights, means that the club posts balanced revenue streams of approximately a third each from broadcast, commercial and matchday income.

The difference, says Hoeneß, is that Bayern’s strategy is based on a long-term vision, while United’s paymasters seek profit first.

“I do not compare ourselves to United for instance which is a very big club and famous and one I admire greatly,” adds Hoeneß.

“But Mr Glazer didn’t know where Manchester was 20 years ago. He doesn’t do it because he loves United. He wants to make money.

“At Bayern we don’t look always for short-term success. I’ve won about 20 titles. To win the 21st title I’ll not sell out the club. But if somebody comes in who’s won nothing, he wants to win quickly and under this pressure he makes decisions which can be very difficult.”

Bayern currently leads the Bundesliga by 20 points, with outgoing manager Jupp Heynckes set to hand Pep Guardiola an emphatic championship winning team next season.

Although in that there is also a contradiction, with Bayern having spent more than £60 million on Javi Martínez, Mario Mandzukic, and Xherdan Shaqiri last summer to wrestle the title back from Dortmund.

Not that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side has regressed after last season’s disappointments. United boasts an impressive, if not equal, 15 point lead over City in the Premier League even if European disappointment will not easily be forgotten. Much of United’s success this season has been driven by Robin  van Persie’s £24 million acquisition.

Moreover, with media and commercial income media income racing ahead, and last summer’s IPO proceeds partially paying down debt, the club is on a healthier financial footing than at any time over the past seven years. The Glazers may never run the club debt free, but at £360 million gross debt is no longer the existential threat it once was.

Yet, Hoeneß’ point is one of principle rather than financial nuance; that a football club exists to be that – serving its principle stake-holders, the supporters. It is a philosophy ingrained into German, Spanish, and Turkish football, among others.

After all, while United’s profits may rise sharply in the coming years, driven by new sponsorship income and a huge new Premier League television deal, there is little sign of a change in ownership philosophy. Old Trafford’s supporters will forever remain a body without voice or power.

And for the moment it is Hoeneß side, and not United, that can look forward to a European quarter-final next month.

Liar liar Gill’s on fire as market pours cold water on IPO

August 10, 2012 Tags: , , Reads 108 comments

There was something vaguely sickening about the spectacle as Manchester United’s chief executive David Gill, adorned by two grinning Glazer brothers, rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange this afternoon. Brothers-in-arms to a less than noble cause: the continued fattening of the Glazer wallet at United’s expense.

Indeed, the sight of Gill lauding it up Wall Street this Friday, in all its Faustian ignomy, brought only renewed anger from United supporters critical of the Glazer family’s highly geared ownership. Not least because the 55-year-old executive repeatedly spun utterly shameless, yet habitual, lines about the Glazer family’s impact on United during the day. In a media war, amid a disappointing listing for the Glazer family, Gill remains cognisant of unremitting and disingenuous positivity.

Yet, even as the Glazers’ stock offer fell flat – pricing below lofty expectations, with an underwriter forced to prop up a share price at risk of being dragged down by traders – Gill managed to spin familiar themes. The man who once claimed debt is the road to ruin, now beholden to its devilish charms.

It was, of course, never going to be any different, with Gill long since tied to the Glazer family’s odious abuse of a previously debt-free 134-year-old institution. Even to the laughable extent that Gill claimed he “doesn’t know” whether he will financially benefit from the Glazers now infamous ‘2012 Equity Incentive Award Plan’. Alongside manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who forcefully denied being a beneficiary of the scheme, there is no closer confident to the Glazer regime than Gill.

Yet, on a day as significant as any in the club’s history, shares traded at or around the $14 pricing point all day – way below the $16-$20 the Glazer family had sought – but above, for now, the low-point many analysts have predicted. But with high-frequency traders taking pennies on small trades Friday afternoon the lead underwriter, Jefferies, was forced to make a series of large share purchases at the pricing point to save corporate face. Further drama is surely yet to come.

Gill continued the well-worn pitch though; that United’s is a growth story and that the Glazer family’s debt-fuelled business model has no impact on Ferguson’s team. Few supporters, bar those of Sir Alex’ “real fan” camp, believe any of it. Almost all professional investors shunned an IPO that offers little financial upside.

And despite raising around $100 million less than previous expectations, Gill remained positive on sunny day in Manhatten.

“We’re the biggest sports business in the world,” bragged Gill on CNBC television Friday morning.

“I think you’re buying into one of the world’s iconic brands, playing in the fastest-growing sport in the world. We can demonstrate across all our revenue streams great growth opportunities.”

Shame, then, for Gill’s threadbare credibility that United will post a loss on falling revenues when accounts to June 2012 are published. As ever under the Glazer family’s ownership, United continues to sprint commercially, only to head rapidly backwards on the altar of debt.

And it is this debt, together with the American family’s decision to cash in on the IPO rather than reduce an onerous burden on the club, which continues to anger supporters. With just $233 million raised from the New York listing, barely £65 million will be removed from United’s £427 million debt pile. In fact the IPO will have such little effect on interest paid, says analyst Andy Green, that it will take United two years to break even on the offering’s $12 million costs.

“Roughly 65 million to 60 million will come off the debt level,” Gill claimed.

“I think it’s important to note that even at the prior debt levels we were comfortable they weren’t impinging with what we were doing from a football perspective. The level of debt in the club since they have taken over hasn’t had an impact on what we have done in the team. We fully understand, and the owners fully understand, that what happens on the pitch is crucial and we will make sure that we have sufficient funds to invest in the team going forward.”

Many supporters will question whether the £20-25 million annual net spend in the transfer market promised to investors during United’s pre-IPO roadshow is “sufficient” in a market where Manchester City, Chelsea and now Paris Saint German repeatedly outbid United’s highly constrained financial operation. It is, of course, well below the £100 million ‘cash profits’ the club makes before debt takes its hold.

No wonder then that the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), which has called for a boycott of the club’s commercial sponsors, damned a failing IPO.

“As it stands the club is valued at around one-third less than their expectations but many commentators expect the price to slide over the next two weeks,” said MUST chief executive Duncan Drasdo.

“We maintain this IPO will be bad for investors, not just the club and its fans, and we’re confident time will show that to be true. We remain totally committed to fighting for fan ownership.”

Indeed, highly critical media coverage in the lead-up to Thursday’s pricing, swayed by pessimistic analyst prognosis, is likely to have steered the investment community away from United’s listing. The smart money ran from the Glazer family’s opaque pitch, although local fan-driven demand may have ensured a full book at a significantly reduced price.

Still, the Glazers’ lieutenants continued to boast of strong demand in the face of all evidence, with vice chairman Edward Woodward claiming a successful investor tour had driven demand. And he did it with a straight face too.

“The understanding that U.S. investors have around sports business, given it’s the most developed sport market in the world, has been a benefit,” Woodward told Bloomberg.

“We had a fantastic response from the investor base in the U.S. We found that a number of people came in with a strong level of interest, which was tweaked higher when they heard our story. It’s very easy for people in the U.S. to grasp the huge opportunities around merchandising and digital media.”

The roadshow is now over, of course, and on open trading many analysts expect the market to correct a $14 price that values United at around $2.3 billion – £1.5 billion – or more than 19 times earnings before tax and other deductions. It is a multiple more commonly found among high-growth technology companies, not hundred year-old institutions growing at just seven per cent per annum.

Yet, this is unlikely to be the final story, with the Glazer family remaining entrenched at Old Trafford, slowly milking the club for their own financial gain. The “six lineal descendants” of Malcolm Glazer walk away from the offering, no matter how limp, with voting power untouched, and $110 million in the family bank account.

There may be more to stock issued in the future too, with reports that the family’s failing US business empire has caused meaningful financial strain. There remains significant room for the family to sweat the asset further, having sold just 10 per cent of shares to date. As ever, keeping just one step ahead of the banks is the family’s primary goal; United’s health only a passing concern.

Whether the IPO is the first step in the Glazers’ exit from the club remains moot, with the family likely to sell up when maximum value has been reached. Yet, the family’s decision to list rather sell to Qatar or other interested parties in 2010 – somewhat ironically the Qatari’s reportedly bid £1.5 billion for the club – means price is at the vagaries of the open market.

And with United’s share price marginally down in the final hours of opening day trading its a capricious market that no volume of Gill spin, or Glazer engineering, will buck.

Reasons to be cheerful

August 8, 2012 Tags: , , Reads 18 comments

Though last season’s climax will linger odiously in the minds of Manchester United fans, the summer which has followed is one easily forgotten. On the pitch, the absence of key players, due to international commitments at both the European Championships and Olympics, has seen United’s depleted squad score just three goals in five games against markedly inferior opposition, save for Barcelona.

Meanwhile, away from it, only moderate activity in the transfer window has left a midfield bereft of variety and depth, seemingly unimproved. Even speculation concerning the potential acquisition of Robin van Persie, the Premier League’s top scorer last term, has polarised opinion; such is the Dutchman’s inability to mask the team’s most deep-rooted deficiencies.

Arguably the most engrossing stories to emerge from Old Trafford relate to the Glazer family’s much maligned attempt to float part of the club on the New York Stock Exchange, while still pocketing more of the proceeds than will be devoted to reducing United’s insidious debt. Yet, despite the club’s recent anguish, and its future shrouded in doubt, there still remains scope for optimism.

This optimism begins with hope for desperately needed reform. The detrimental nature of the Glazers’ ownership was already well known, but renewed outrage in the face of their Initial Public Offering (IPO) in New York has reinvigorated opposition at a time when the family are looking more vulnerable than ever.

The family’s US-based businesses continue to haemorrhage money, while rumours of a rift within the family persist; the Sunday Times reported this week that of the six children to whom Malcolm has gifted control of United, three “want to sell their shares to concentrate on other ventures.” Even if tales of a family dispute prove untrue, the Glazers are still faced with the dilemma of somehow generating the capital necessary to prop up their failing businesses elsewhere.

Thus it appears the success of the proposed IPO, expected to be launched later this week, is fundamental to the Glazers’ continued ownership of United. Should it fail to deliver the cash injection hoped for, the Americans may well be forced to consider selling the club, or at least settle for relinquishing a much larger share of control.

And if the reports disseminated by a number of renowned forecasters are to be trusted, it is hardly inconceivable that the IPO will fail; the Financial Times damningly opined that the Glazers believe “investors are so credulous that they will hand over their money without being offered a financially persuasive argument or even the pretence of good corporate governance practice,” while analyst house Morningstar has valued potential shares at between $6 and $10 less than the amount targeted.

Though it is true that news ‘leaked’ from inside the club contradicts this position, anybody familiar with United’s increasingly lacklustre attempts to sell season tickets will rightly be sceptical when the world is told that the IPO is already oversubscribed.

The potential difficulty the Glazers face has not been lost on United fans, with the all-espousing Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) avidly vocalising its plans to test the family’s resolve. Having developed a reputation for being somewhat passive in its previous attempts to force the Glazers from Old Trafford, the group headed by Duncan Drasdo stepped up its efforts this week, as it facilitated the dispatch of over one million emails to potential backers of the IPO and club sponsors.

More significantly, MUST released a statement on Tuesday calling for the worldwide boycott of all products and services of those same sponsors. Though such an appeal is highly ambitious, with results unlikely to materialise, it is a step in the right direction; the only way United fans can gain leverage over the Glazers is to hurt the family’s revenue streams until they are forced to sell. This is a goal ordinary fans can only achieve collectively, through mass boycott.

Aided by Blue State Digital, the marketing firm used by Barrack Obama during his first electoral campaign, MUST now provides a figurehead more widely received than the fanzines and online forums that were previously alone in calling for belligerent action. If MUST’s growing global presence proves enough to intimidate the Glazers’ financial advocates and allies even slightly, it may be enough to stifle the IPO, forcing the hand of the Americans.

The infamous figure of 659 million supporters, touted at every possible opportunity in the build-up to floatation, is so significant because it is through these supporters that the club stands to generate revenue.

Should a scenario arise where the Glazers are not able to sell on their own terms, particularly if the catalyst for such a scenario was supporter action against the family, it is unimaginable that new investors would not seek to rebuild the broken relationship between the club’s fans and its owners. A model of the club whereby fan ownership is a realistic possibility may once again emerge.

Hit the road Malc

August 2, 2012 Tags: , Shorts 79 comments

Manchester United’s commercial team launched the club’s investor roadshow on Thursday ahead of an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in New York this August. The team, comprising chief strategist Edward Woodward, commercial director Richard Arnold, and operations head Michael Bollingbrook, is meeting potential investors in Asia, Europe and the US ahead to drum up interest in the flotation ahead of pricing next week.

In a performance of undoubted woodenness, total lack of charisma and no little bluster, the trio kicked off the tour that the Glazer family hopes will prompt investors to pump more than $300 million into club family coffers.

Key points:

  • The United team claim that revenue growth will come from retail and commercial sectors in the future
  • Bollingbroke repeatedly stresses that Financial Fair Play (FFP) will benefit the club – presumably concerned that UEFA’s flag-ship programme may not have teeth
  • Woodward says that deal with General Motors is “a world record” shirt sponsorship – it’s put at anywhere between £25 and £54 million per season by the press
  • Woodward says that commercial revenue could account for more than 50 per cent of total revenues inside three years – it is currently around 30 per cent
  • Bollingbrooke says historic net player expenditure over 10-15 years is £20-25 million – it is, of course, substantially lower during the Glazer regime
  • “We are giving guidance at the moment,” says Bolingbroke, “that the current transfer period could result in net expenditure nearer £40 million
  • “Matchday is our annuity business,” says Woodward – United not taking the fans for granted then. Much.

Steve Jobs it isn’t, but don’t take Rant’s word for it, view the video presentation and read the prospectus here.

American Lie

July 31, 2012 Tags: , Reads 17 comments

Long long time ago, I can still remember, how the Stretford Paddock drove me wild
I knew that if I did my time, up those steps then I would climb and Busby’s love would hold me like a child
The ’85 start made me shiver, at those 10 games Fat Ron delivered
Then 91 through 2005, I’ve never felt so much alive
I don’t remember much about, the day our leaders sold us out
In Glazers trough they’ve stuck their snouts, of that there is no doubt

So fuck off little weasel dearest Malcolm bye bye
Trade our soul to get a Chevy as the debt was so high
Fergie’s sold us down the river, guess that makes him a twat
Hang on…. Real fans aren’t allowed to say that, real fans aren’t allowed to say that

Do you recall great goals from Spark, and chased at night through Stanley park (or soaking wet in Rotterdam)?
Your Grandad’s handed-down ST, replacing worthless LMTB, token sheets, pay on the gate
Well we know the richest club’s in shit, trading heritage for debt and PIKs
Net spending’s truly bizarre, disenfranchised that’s what we are
Our leader’s lapdogs say ‘you can’t say that’ (with their half-n-half scarves and jester’s hats)
But you’re the ones they thought about, the day they sold us out

So fuck off little weasel dearest Malcolm bye bye
Trade our soul to get a Chevy as the debt was so high
Fergie’s sold us down the river, guess that makes him a twat
Hang on…. real fans aren’t allowed to say that, real fans aren’t allowed to say that

I met a lad who watched the Blues, and I asked him for his derby views, he just laughed and walked away
I went back to the Stretford end, to find my bones they wouldn’t mend
And the steward said ‘what the fuck do you want you raggy arsed pariah?’
And on the networks the apologists screamed, the old guard cried, still the Glazers beamed
The Real Fans remain outspoken, their spirit’ll not be broken
And the greatest manager we’ve had throughout, who brought an end to the 25 year drought
He forgot his roots (of that, there’s no doubt), the day he sold us out

And we were singing…

So fuck off little weasel dearest Malcolm bye bye
Trade our soul to get a Chevy as the debt was so high
Fergie’s sold us down the river, guess that makes him a twat
Hang on…. Real fans aren’t allowed to say that, real fans aren’t allowed to say that