Tag Sir Alex Ferguson

Tag Sir Alex Ferguson

Fortunate Reds gain points and praise at Anfield

September 24, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 47 comments

So there it was – a result at Anfield at last. Nearly five long years of struggles, ending not with a domineering performance so many travelling Manchester United fans sought, but a huge slice of fortune. It favours the brave, doesn’t it? At least those ‘brave’ enough to deploy a midfield axis of Michael Carrick and Ryan Giggs.

United’s 2-1 victory on Sunday, after four defeats in the past five visits to Anfield, came not on the back of a great team performance. Not even near it. Nor indeed, any real moments of individual genius – although Rafael’s fine goal came close – but two refereeing decisions that swang the match United’s way. First robbing Liverpool of all midfield momentum, and then handing United the match 10 minutes from time.

Referee Mark Halsey got both of those key moments right though – JonJo Shelvey’s 39th minute dismissal for a high tackle on Jonny Evans, and the 81st minute penalty that enabled Robin van Persie to seal United’s first win at Anfield since December 2007. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men deserved very little of the luck though, with the Scot’s midfield completely – and predictably – overrun until Shelvey’s red card changed the game, and the canny Paul Scholes was brought on to ruthlessly exploit the additional space.

In truth, while United defended far better than in many recent matches – Rio Ferdinand on the day of John Terry’s international retirement was immense at the heart of the Reds’ back-four – Ferguson’s men created very little. This was a match in which United’s 70-year-old manager got his tactics all wrong, but came up trumps anyway.

Relief, then, for Ferguson whose team stole the points from a Liverpool side raising its game, once again, for United’s visit.

“In the last four years here we haven’t played well,” Ferguson told MUTV.

“Today at least we’ve got a result. Hopefully that’s a turning point for us because if you look back over the years we always did really well here. I think it was about five, six, seven years in a row we did exceptionally well, but it goes in cycles anyway. Before we had that run they had a period in the late ’80s of getting results against us, so it’s maybe our turn to start.

“I thought we were poor, to be honest with you. I think the last four years we’ve allowed the crowd to get to us a little bit – they give fantastic support to their team and they really dominated the first half. Second half they got a great start.

“With ten men I thought that was a great boost to them because it was something to hold on to, but credit to the players in that respect; the second half we played much, much better, but we were against ten men. I think Scholes, Carrick and Giggs’ experience got us through.”

Predictably, Liverpool’s players and manager complained about the refereeing, although it was almost impossible for Halsey not to have shown Shelvey red for a tackle that crossed the line from reckless to excessive. Meanwhile, other marginal calls fell United’s way, with little evidence for Liverpool’s complaint. Evans cleanly tackled Luis Suarez, with the Kop baying for a penalty, while Glenn Johnson felled Antonio Valencia ;under the official’s nose for the winning spot kick.

The pre-match ceremonies had brought a measure of détente between the camps, but it was shattered five minutes before half time when Shelvey refused to take his punishment with any grace. The former-Charlton midfielder, having already hit Ferdinand with a barrage of four-letter expletives on the pitch, aimed further ire at Ferguson before departing for the dressing rooms.

“I think it’s a clear sending off, I’ve absolutely no doubts about it,” added Sir Alex.

“I’ve seen the replay. It was reckless. Jonny Evans, who has dived in, went for the ball and got the ball, no question about that, but Shelvey was nowhere near getting the ball and could have given Jonny Evans a real bad injury. He was very lucky, actually.

“Shelvey came and blamed me. Why not? Why look at himself in the mirror? Just blame someone else. I think the boy’s young and when he looks at it again he’ll realise the stupidity of it. He may apologise, he may not.”

The midfielder later claimed on Twitter that he had apologised to United’s septuagenarian coach, before deleting the statement. It takes not a soothsayer to predict why, not least after the 20-year-old later accused Ferguson of being “a grass” for the manager’s perceived role in the decision.

Meanwhile, in a week when United supporters came under fire for singing “Always the victim” at Old Trafford last Saturday, Ferguson came perilously close to echoing the sentiment if not the dark spirit of that particularly divisive chant.

But there were positives for United, not least Ferdinand’s outstanding defensive display, and another buccaneering performance from Brazilian right-back Rafael da Silva. The youngster retains many critics, especially with loose defensive work too often complementing fine attacking skills. But with United on the rack for much of the fixture, Rafael demonstrated maturity in defence and an outstanding goal, curled in with his left foot.

“Rafael’s goal got us out of the mire,” added Ferguson of the 51st minute equaliser.

“It was a fantastic goal, a good bit of football and it put us in the position where we didn’t need to panic and worked our way through the rest of the game. [The penalty] wasn’t easy for him [van Persie], but he’s taken it well, just the way I envisaged he would take these penalties. When he was at Arsenal, either side he would thunder them home. Reina’s had a good attempt, he got a hand to it, but the power of the shot has made it safe.”

Off the pitch United played a full part in commemorating those lost at Hillsborough 23 years ago, with Sir Bobby Charlton handing 96 roses to former Liverpool striker Ian Rush. The flowers formed part of an extensive pre-match ceremony, which Ferguson had ensured United did not shirk.

Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard released red balloons over Anfield, followed by the usual pre-match rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

Visiting supporters, warned to behave by Ferguson pre-match, sang through the anthem as is always the way at Anfield. “U N I T E D,” sang almost 3,000 travelling Mancunians in support of their team. ‘Foul’ cried a select few – ill-informed – journalists on social media.

While, Sky Sports deliberately sought to stoke the controversy, and the Mirror’s Martin Lipton claimed disrespect, there were no complaints from more sensible observers. After all, nobody claims “United Calypso” and dozens of other club anthems across the land are sacrosanct.

Indeed, this was a match when – save for a few muted cries of “Murderers” and one unfortunate burst of “Where’s your famous Munich song?” after 13 minutes – the majority came to pay respect and enjoy a fine, if fortunate United victory. By the end two Liverpool supporters ran across the Anfield turf wheeling their arms in an all-too-familiar aeroplane motion to provoke another round of anti-Liverpool songs in an empty stadium. There’s always a few to break the mould.

On the pitch United is yet to reach anywhere near top gear this season, having only ever played well in short bursts. There were rarely any moments at all on Sunday, save for the goals. In that there is at least hope; United can only get better in the season to come. Unless, the pessimists among us might add, Ferguson’s luck simply runs out. It certainly didn’t on Sunday.

But after a week in which the 70-year-old has forcefully built a bridge between the two clubs, perhaps he deserved it.

Ferguson plays on fans’ conscience

September 22, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 9 comments

Will Manchester United supporters attract the ire of the nation’s press this Sunday? Perhaps, although there can be no guarantee of the cause ahead of the weekend’s clash with Liverpool at Anfield. Certainly, while the fourth estate awaits the merest glimpse of anti-Liverpool sentiment from away supporters this weekend, controversy could rear its head, whether real or augmented, for any manner of reasons.

This is, after all, the biggest game in the country, and Liverpool versus United has become the premier flashpoint of the domestic season. Last season’s clash at Anfield where Luis Suarez racially abused Patrice Evra is a case in point.

But it is to the fans’ songs that attention will be firmly focussed on Sunday – a day that promises to be an emotional one for Liverpool supporters, and a test of nerve for those at the other end of the East Lancs Road. Indeed, such is the desire for the day to pass off without incident that United on Friday published a letter in Sir Alex Ferguson’s name calling on Manchester’s Reds to observe the ‘best traditions’ of the club.

“The great support you gave the team here last season has seen our allocation back up to near-full levels,” wrote Ferguson in a letter that will be given to United fans entering the Anfield Road turnstiles on Sunday.

“I want you to continue that progress today. But today is about much more than not blocking gangways. Today is about thinking hard about what makes United the best club in the world. Our rivalry with Liverpool is based on a determination to come out on top – a wish to see us crowned the best against a team that held that honour for so long. It cannot and should never be based on personal hatred.

“Just ten days ago, we heard the terrible, damning truth about the deaths of 96 fans who went to watch their team try and reach the FA Cup final and never came back. What happened to them should wake the conscience of everyone connected with the game.

“Our great club stands with our great neighbours Liverpool today to remember that loss and pay tribute to their campaign for justice. I know I can count on you to stand with us in the best traditions of the best fans in the game.”

Indeed, had United beaten Nottingham Forest in the 1989 FA Cup quarter-final, Ferguson’s team would have joined Liverpool in the Hillsborough semi. It could so easily have been 96 United fans who failed to return as those from Merseyside.

In truth, while Ferguson makes no direct call for United supporters to refrain from singing the ‘always the victim, it’s never your fault’ chant that caused so much media furore, any rendition of that particular song is what the United manager most fears.

With the nation’s media in no mood to hear subtleties of argument, the reproach will likely be severe should even a modicum of Mancunian animosity be heard at Anfield. Whether it relates to Hillsborough, or not.

Far more likely, however, is that United fans will direct any hatred – despite Sir Alex’ call for détente – not at Hillsborough’s victims, but Suarez – an easy target in the circumstances. On a day when Liverpool will remember those who were not only lost at Hillsborough, but betrayed by the state, even the most bone-headed among United’s support  know where that Rubicon lays.

On the Kop attention will be elsewhere; certainly far enough away to distract Liverpudlians from the kind behaviour that United supporters have been accused of in the past week. However, Patrice Evra is unlikely to escape Anfield’s venom for his part in being racially abused last October. It remains hard to square media reaction to Evra’s victimisation on the grounds of race with coverage of United’s ‘chanting’ over the past week.

“We want this day to be remembered for the right reasons before the game, and the footballing reasons”, added Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers.

“A lot of work has been done and hopefully Sunday will pass off peacefully and we can talk about the tributes and football. It is an emotionally-charged game. I wouldn’t sit here and tell Liverpool supporters how to behave. I know how they have behaved over many years has been fantastic.

On the day captains Nemanja Vidic and Steven Gerard will release 96 red balloons over Anfield, while a mosaic along three sides of the ground will read “96, Justice and Truth”. Ferguson, alongside Sir Bobby Charlton, will lay flowers at the Kop. It is a reminder that while England’s fiercest rivalry has lost none of it’s intensity, some events transcend the game.

Then, prior to kick-off, Premier League rules demand that Evra and Suarez come together for the handshake that never was at Old Trafford last February. It is an event that may yet set the tone for the game to come.

In the stands there will be more United fans at Anfield than in previous years, with Liverpool council now content that supporters will not block exits and gangways following a high profile supporters’ group campaign last season. It means Ferguson’s side will receive full and rowdy support from the Anfield Road.

Manager and club hope that it will be support in the very best spirit. In that there is responsibility not solely on United supporters, but those in the home end too.

In defence of Ferguson

August 12, 2012 Tags: Opinion 23 comments

Boxing Day 1989, Villa Park.  Not much Christmas cheer; another defeat, another dreadful performance and real anger on the away terraces.  Predictably, the final whistle was greeted with a cacophony of jeers and boos, but as the players troop off towards the tunnel the fans find one voice and one target.  The noise is deafening: ‘F*ck off Fergie, f*ck off Fergie …’

More the 20 years ago the protest came as no surprise.  Two weeks earlier United fan Pete Molyneux had unfurled a banner in the empty Scoreboard End seats waving ‘ta-ra’ to Alex Ferguson for ‘three years of excuses’.  Only months earlier Ferguson had disappeared under his own duvet after Manchester City hammered the Reds 5-1 at Maine Road.  No wonder when former players, TV pundits and just about everyone else lined Ferguson up for criticism. Even so, the lowest point was to come later at Villa Park.

Ferguson had already revealed his pain in the wake of derby defeat in a revealing interview for the Sunday Times.  Speaking of feeling like a “criminal” because he had “let down the supporters,” Ferguson admitted that “at Manchester United you become one of them, you think like a supporter, suffer like a supporter.”  When those supporters rose up against him at Villa, Ferguson’s suffering was complete.

Boxing Day 1989 is long gone.  Yet, the new season approaches with unrest in the seats, anger on the internet, and Ferguson once more at the centre of it all.  In recent weeks United’s proposed Initial Public Offering (IPO) has placed the Scot in the spotlight, with accusations that the 70-year-old may benefit from the ‘2012 Equity Incentive Award Plan’, which will grant share options to selected senior employees and executives of the club.

Ferguson moved fast to clarify his position in relation to the proposed IPO, claiming that he does “not receive any payments, directly or indirectly” from the IPO. But the controversy was not solely a matter of money.  Some things matter more.

“I’m speaking out because I do not want a situation to develop whereby the media and other parties create a rift, however small, between myself and any Manchester United fan,” added Ferguson. “I’ve spent 25 years of my life pushing this club forward and not only could I have not done it without those fans, I do it for them.”

Some supporters are suspicious of Ferguson’s defence.  Some have separated man from manager, rejecting the idea that Ferguson thinks and suffers like a supporter, while accusing the Scot of treachery.  Others erase the image of Ferguson on the back of a motorbike touring Paris looking for Eric Cantona, while considering the manager’s motives more sordid. Both will describe that night in the Nou Camp as the highlight of their lives

It is easy to understand why many are attracted to this interpretation; there is no doubt Fergie is difficult to like at times.  The manager’s recently publicised views on “wee pockets” of militant United supporters misrepresenting the truth, and shouting down the “majority of the real fans” who look at the Glazers ownership in a more positive light, was simply outrageous.  While appreciating Ferguson’s position as an employee of the Glazers family, the manager’s interpretation was still hard to swallow.

Yet, there is another side to Ferguson that still commands immense personal and professional respect.  The manager’s days of supplementing respect with a healthy dose of fear are probably over, but Ferguson continues to drive those around him with an obsession and desire that are undiminished.   Sir Alex is consumed by the game; the same man who played for Dunfermline on his wedding day, and then went training the following morning.

The game is nothing without its public.  United’s supporters are not simply an audience to be entertained (or not), and then forgotten until the next match.  The manager’s involvement with United’s fans has become a cornerstone of his life.  Perhaps his personality makes that involvement difficult at times – Ferguson’s commitment is absolute, but so too are his demands.

Perhaps supporters have been equally unforgiving too.  Despite Ferguson’s achievements, which have transformed fandom at Old Trafford beyond previous imagination, the Scot has always attracted criticism from within.

Does that mean supporters should appreciate the manager while rejecting the man? Only the Glazers would benefit from such a rift.  Flawed Ferguson may be, but he cares every bit as much about the club, its traditions and future as supporters do. And he does so in the poisonous atmosphere of Glazer ownership, globalisation, the IPOs and all the commercial aspects that have become inseparable from the modern game.

Perhaps it is not yet time to party like it’s 1989.

Fergie and Glazers’ profit from IPO leaves fans angry

July 31, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 84 comments

Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to profit from the Glazer family’s partial flotation of Manchester United, documents filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revealed on Monday. The legendary United coach, who has been forthright in his defence of the Glazers since the American’s summer 2005 leveraged buy-out, may benefit from a share of $288 million set aside for employee options if the New York Initial Public Offering is successful in the coming weeks.

The Glazer family is seeking to raise up to $330 million from a 10 per cent flotation of the club on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) that has left many fans angry, especially as the Americans are set to use just £75 million of proceeds to pay down United’s £423 million debt. It is a u-turn that has brought scorn from fans’ groups and investors alike.

On a dramatic day at Old Trafford, United also announced a new shirt deal with General Motors (GM), the partially state-owned American auto-maker, which will see the club sporting Cheverolet branding for seven years from the 2014/15 season onwards. It is a deal, announced almost two years before United’s contract with principal sponsor AON runs out, which provokes plenty of questions ahead of the club’s on-off-on again IPO.

Indeed, as United announced the deal Monday afternoon, GM parted company with its high-profile chief marketing officer Joel Ewanick; the 52-year-old CMO was brutally sacked over his part in two separate sponsorship deals with the club in the past two months. GM management is said to be angry over Ewanick’s handling of the deal’s fine print, which provoked a last-minute renegotiation to ensure Cheverlot branding will appear of United’s shirts in two year’s time.

Yet, Ewanick’s dismissal is only one mystery on a day that saw United ink, potentially, the most lucrative deal of its kind in world football, while setting an ambitiously high valuation on the club ahead of the controversial New York IPO. United announced the new sponsorship package with the car manufacturer just hours before filing an amended F-1 form with the SEC.

The sums may be huge for both sponsorship and IPO. The Daily Telegraph claimed United is set to receive a record £196 million over seven years, while Reuters reporting inside knowledge of a £382 million deal. Whatever the true number, the deal will surpass that secured by Barcelona, with the Catalan club sporting Qatar Foundation branding for around £25 million per season.

Meanwhile, if the deal with GM, which is still 26 per cent owned by the US Federal Reserve after it received a government bail-out in 2009, was positive news for Glazer family, the American’s used it to bury an even more dramatic turnaround in the club’s US flotation. The IPO is back on after the FT reported a “pause” in proceedings last week.

But the on-off-on nature of the flotation is only part of the drama as details emerged of the family’s intention to take around half the IPO proceedings for themselves, with only a fraction likely to be used to pay down the club’s huge debt. Should the IPO get away as planned United’s gross debt will fall to around £350 million, with interest savings of just £5 million per season from the float.

Once again the Glazers’ business model exposed as a sham; built to keep one step ahead of the banks, and the family in ready cash, while milking the club for every penny of value.

But it is the provision for a substantial carve out of share options for ‘selected senior management and employees’, in addition to eight million shares being sold by the Glazer family itself, which will surely anger fans. While a similar number of shares is being sold by the club, the Glazers will suffer almost no dilution in their grip on power at Old Trafford, with provisions to issue two classes of shares still in place.

“Supporters are going to be very angry about this,” said Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) chief executive Duncan Drasdo.

“The Glazers have already cost United more than £550m in debt related fees and now another slap in the face as they help themselves to half of the proposed IPO proceeds. Each of the six lineal descendants of Malcolm Glazer will claw out $25 million for themselves.

“Clearly this has nothing to do with benefits for Manchester United and is all about giving the Glazers quick access to desperately needed cash at the expense of our football club.

“There is now no doubt that this IPO is bad for Manchester United supporters, Manchester United Football Club and any investors gullible enough to pay the inflated price they’ve attached to inferior shares.”

Meanwhile, United manager Ferguson may be among those senior personnel selected to be part of the 2012 Equity Incentive Award Plan, which will be funded from the further sale of 16 million shares in the club. If Ferguson’s involvement proves true – and how could Ferguson not be a beneficiary along with chief executive David Gill – then many supporters will be left confused and rightly angry.

After all, here is a manager without peer in modern football, who has brought unprecedented success to the club, but may directly profit from the Glazers’ debt-loaded business model. Moreover, if Ferguson is to profit from the scheme fans should question whether they can ever take the manager’s words of praise about the Glazer family seriously again. Once a man-of-the-people, Ferguson has seemingly become a central cog in the machinations of cynical greed.

But the debate, of course, is moot until both confirmation of those beneficiaries leeks out and the IPO gets away. Neither is certain, with investors roundly critical of the Glazers’ plan which, if anything, offers less to those buying into the flotation than ever before. After all, there is no plan to offer dividends, while the family will retain more than 97 per cent voting control of the club.

Moreover, with an equity value of around £2 billion many investors have publicly baulked at the cost, with shares priced at between $16 and $20. Taking the mid point of that range, the Glazers are seeking a 20 times EBITDA multiple on the asset – 24 times given the implied enterprise value – for a business whose profit fell by 15 per cent in the last financial year as performances suffered on the pitch. This is, after all, a 134-year-old ’emerging high growth company’ that grew not a jot last year, and just 14 per cent over the past three.

“It could be challenging to justify such strong multiples for a company that needs to spend a lot of money to generate success,” Ken Perkins, an analyst with Morningstar told Reuters on Tuesday. “Even if their performance is good their price may be a bit high.”

“Shareholders are getting a shoddy deal,” echoed United-supporting Michael Jarman, chief equity strategist at H2O Markets. “Investors are not idiots and there is simply no value in the company. The Glazers want to have their cake and eat it – the share structure shows they want to retain complete and utter control.”

There was little to cheer for investors in preliminary financials released by the club in its updated prospectus, with United’s bean-counters estimating a fall in revenues of around five per cent, and a substantial drop in EBITDA – ‘cash profits’. Meanwhile, costs continue to rise, which when taken in aggregate with exceptional items like a hefty tax credit and the £7.7 million costs of issuing the IPO, will create a paper loss for the business in the financial year just closed.

No wonder the family was so keen to prematurely announce its deal with GM, with many supporters wondering whether the auto-maker is pre-paying part of the sponsorship package as AON did two years ago. The Glazers’ apparent desperation for quick cash at the club’s expense suggests this is highly likely to be the case.

No matter how lucrative the deal, front-loading payments will reduce United’s ongoing income at a later date, potentially cheating investors down-the-line.

Whether full details emerge in time is questionable. After all documents revealed that the Glazers registered United in the super-secret Cayman Islands on 30 April – the day City beat the Reds at Eastlands. And the question now on many supporters’ lips is whether Ferguson is one of the beneficiaries in a controversial share option scheme that will net some tens of millions, and the club absolutely nothing.

Sir Alex’ guide to being a “real fan”

July 22, 2012 Tags: , Opinion 137 comments

“Real fans,” said Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday, will look at the Glazer family’s debt-fueled ownership of Manchester United over the past seven years and conclude that it “has not affected the team.” It was an assertion made by the 70-year-old manager that sparked a furious debate across social media, with Ferguson, not first the first time, accused of insulting supporters.

It was also news to United Rant, having previously failed to realise that the key tenet of being a Manchester United fan is not, as many believe, supporting the team – home, away, in good times and bad – but obsequious sycophancy towards carpetbagging, tax-dodging, profiteers.

And this new definition of fandom was odd to Rant not solely because United finished trophy-less last season; nor because Stoke City has spent more, net, on acquiring new players over the past five years; nor because the ‘Ronaldo money’ was splurged not on new talent, but on buying back debt; nor because Chelsea has invested around the same amount in Eden Hazard over five years that United spent on debt last season; nor because the Glazer family has wasted more than £500 million on debt-related costs since taking over in 2005; nor, even, because the family has transferred ownership of United to the tax-haven ultra-secretive Cayman Islands.

In fact, this definition is news to Rant for one reason only: we have always believed that it is none of Ferguson’s business, no matter all the silverware and glory he has garnered over the past quarter-century, to define what a ‘fan’ is. Not least because many of the most loyal fans have remained deeply enraged by the Glazer takeover, despite Ferguson’s support of the family these past seven years.

Especially when the former shop-steward, who is paid £6 million-a-year plus bonuses by the Glazers, is so inclined throw insults at whomever disagrees with his assessment that the Americans have been “great” for the club.

“They’ve been great,” said Sir Alex, in a carefully stage-managed attack on the Glazer family’s opponents.

“So if you’re asking me for my views, I don’t have any complaints. I think there are a whole lot of factions at United that think they own the club. They will always be contentious about whoever owns the club, and that’s the way it has always been. There have always been wee pockets of supporters who have their views… but I think the majority of the real fans will look at it realistically and say it’s not affecting the team.”

The real problem with the Glazer family, says Sir Alex, is not the huge drain that debt, which remains at more than £420 million, has bestowed on a once profitable club, but lack of good “publicist.” Rant might conclude that you couldn’t make it up, but Ferguson obviously has.

We have heard much of this before, of course – Sir Alex’ assertion that the family is a “fantastic” owner of a 125-year-old institution, or that there is “no value in the market,” or that fans who don’t like the family should simply ‘f*ck off and support Chelsea,’ or – as in this weekend’s interview with the Mail on Sunday – that it has never been United’s tradition to spend big in the market. That, in fact, the Glazer family is simply holding up a fine United tradition.

On the tenth anniversary of United spending £34 million on Rio Ferdinand, including the £5 million handed to the player’s agent, some fans may have pause for thought on that point. It was a transfer that in today’s terms cost United more than £60 million, according to the excellent Transfer Price Index analysis.

Rant would mention club and British record transfer fees spent on Juan Sebastian Veron, Dimitar Berbatov, Andy Cole, Roy Keane and others during Ferguson’s reign. But that would be too easy.

Yet, while Manchester City is unwilling to countenance fielding young players, Ferguson claims, United is the last bastion of youth – bucking the market to uphold a moral principle dear only to the Scot.

“We buy in the right way and that’s the difference between United and the rest,” Ferguson told his principal cheerleader, Bob Cass.

“We can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. City won’t do it. They definitely won’t play any young players who have come up through the system. Their buys are all 25, 26, 27-year-old established players with a good maturity, experience and good ages.”

It’s an argument that would, of course, have more weight had City’s average player age not been two years lower during the Manchester derby last April. Or if the young United players that started the game – the ones who ‘came through the system’ – weren’t Ryan Giggs, 38, and Paul Scholes, 37.

But all that is a diversion, of course; a deflection from United’s decline, and City’s ascent, in recent years; a red herring, leading the debate away from United’s almost universally criticised Cayman-via-New York IPO. The irony being that hard-nosed US investors will take little notice of Ferguson’s latest Glazer defence – not when the club’s bottom line has been consistently obliterated by debt-related costs since the family’s leveraged buy-out in 2005.

In fact, despite City’s wealth, or the renewed investment by the ‘publicity-shy’ Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, United should remain the biggest fish in the transfer pond given the club’s immense profitability. Only for the profit to be spent almost entirely on debt.

None of that is really the point though. There was time long before the Premier League brought United immense wealth – before all-encompassing commercialisation was even a glint in Peter Kenyon’s eye – that a venerable institution stood on its own feet and competed on a reasonably even playing field. When fans watched football, not bond markets.

Yes, there have been many poor owners in United’s history. As Ferguson asserts, fans complained bitterly about Martin Edwards’ stewardship in the 1980s, and the flotation that took United on to the London Stock Exchange in 1991. This is without mentioning Lou Edwards’ dodgy sausages, or the committees that almost took United into liquidation twice in the 20th century.

None, however, has been so singularly dedicated to extracting ‘value’ for themselves at the club’s expense as the Glazer family. None has ensured United haemorrhaged money in quite the same way.

Nor, Rant suspects, has any manager backed the owners in quite the same way as Ferguson. The world’s greatest living manager, now reduced to attacking supporters who care deeply about the club. It’s no way to maintain a legacy.

But since Rant has never been one to follow Ferguson’s obsequious lead, we’re unlikely to pass the “real fan” test anyway.

The hire race

May 18, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 52 comments

There will come a day when Sir Alex Ferguson’s name is associated not with Manchester United’s dug-out, but the North Stand at Old Trafford. It may not be in the coming summer, nor perhaps until the 70-year-old Scot is carried from the Theatre of Dreams in a box, but a change, as Sam Cooke once promised, is gonna come.

United’s stability under Ferguson, driven by the Scot’s obsessive-compulsive requirement for total control, is an outlier in football, where the average tenure of a Premier League manager is just 24 months. Moreover, the trend is increasingly away from the dictatorial model practiced in Manchester.

Yet, overseas owners at Chelsea and Liverpool will be looking enviously at Old Trafford as a model for storied and stable success as those clubs reach out to the market for new managers this summer.

But one day soon David Gill and the Glazer family will go through the same process now underway at Anfield and Stamford Bridge, of recruiting not only Ferguson’s successor, but the quality of manager demanded by a club of United’s stature. Yet, true to United’s cloak and dagger modus operandi it is highly unlikely that the club will hold any formal search, selection and interview the process for the role.

Indeed, football is one of the few industries remaining where senior executives are appointed, frequently on multi-million pound contracts, and then given even larger capex budgets, without any hint of due diligence. In other industries people would, quite literally, go to prison for the crass neglect of fiduciary duty.

Contrast this approach with the typical Fortune 500, or other large corporation, where an executive can expect to beat off potentially hundreds of candidates through a four or five round interview process, technical exercises and psychometric, intelligence, mathematics, language and logic testing. Often this process involves both interviews by the corporation’s board, executive management and outside consultants.

Even known candidates, whose track record is not in doubt, can still expect a due diligence process if only to ensure cultural fit at the highest levels of management.

Yet, football is an industry that is “different” Rant was told by one experienced journalist today; a sector where fickle fans, apparently, will not accept that there should be a process for finding the best candidate, leaving owners to appoint on a wing and a prayer. It is, of course, rank nonsense that helps explain the criminal failure rate of football management appointments.

No surprise, then, with the mocking tone of media coverage of Liverpool’s search and selection process for Kenny Dalglish’s successor at Anfield. Fenway Sports Group, led by Boston Red Sox’ owner John W Henry, has drawn up a long-list of candidates, including André Villas-Boas, Pep Guardiola, Didier Deschamps, Brendan Rodgers and Roberto Martínez whom, prudently, they would like to interview for the post.

Burned by Dalglish, an employee who spent more than £100 million on new players, but whose track record includes just two trophies in the past 20 years, FSG has set about deepening the due diligence process this time around. It is surely a sensible move.

To put Dalglish’s failure in context, while the Scot’s wages were around £4 million per annum, his spending was more than 50 per cent of Liverpool’s annual revenues. This is akin to newly IPO’d Facebook offering a new employee $2 billion to spend on whatever they want, and then Mark Zuckerberg complaining that HR hadn’t interviewed anybody else for the role.

Similarly at Aston Villa, who informally interviewed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer on Friday, Randy Lerner is seeking to cast the net wide to find not only the best candidate, but the man who will fit with the ethos and philosophy of the owner, staff and players. Solskjaer is not the only candidate, with Lerner undertaking a process, not simply appointing the latest hot thing.

Yet, there is still shock in the British media that FSG should want to break with football’s traditional method of appointing managers on a nod and a wink. Managers – ‘the most important employee at a football club’ – Rant was told, do not like to be interviewed because it undermines their current position. The heart bleeds that football clubs are, apparently, simply unable to recruit in the normal fashion, behind closed doors, and with a sensible level of due diligence.

Meanwhile, in the capital Roman Abramovich will likely continue the model that has served Chelsea poorly since Jose Mourinho’s departure. On each occasion Abramovich has anointed the new man seemingly on a whim – either through personal friendship, or in the case of the aforementioned Villas-Boas, because the Portuguese was the latest ‘hot thing’ on the market. The last mistake cost the Russian oligarch nearly £30 million, and his team a place in next year’s Champions League.

Which is all the more worrying when United comes round to replacing Ferguson. After all, while we know much about Mourinho, Solskjaer, and even David Moyes on a superficial basis, United’s senior executives will have little insight on a personal level. Not so much the blind leading the blind into a new era, as the partially sighted hoping that the light ahead is the end of the tunnel, and not a train wreck waiting to happen.

It’s precisely why FSG, despite the monumental mishandling of Liverpool’s transfer, communications and marketing strategy over the past 12 months, is now doing the right thing. Football industry be dammed, it’s better to get the right man, despite the negative headlines, than appoint another ill-fitting candidate on little-to-no information.

And while United fans may snigger at Swansea manager Rodgers turning down, on Friday, an interview with Liverpool, it may be best to remember that old Cooke refrain: change is gonna come. The question is, how will United manage its way through?

Blues break United hearts in Fergie time

May 13, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 93 comments

It is a little over four miles from Eastlands to the Granada Studios lot on which Coronation Street is now filmed. Perhaps, though, the time is nigh for those penning ITV’s long-running soap opera to slip into quiet retirement, lay down the quill one last time, and recognise that no Weatherfield ferment can ever match the emotion, melodrama, and sheer intoxication of this season’s Premier League denouement.

No Street plot line has ever been this improbable. Nor heart-rending for those in Red. For 28 tortuous minutes Manchester United, quite inexplicably, grasped a 20th domestic league title as Roberto Mancini’s Blues conspired to fall behind, at home, to 10-man Queens Park Rangers. For near half-an-hour of agony those in Red dreamed of Manchester City’s stunning demise, and a United triumph much against all expectations. It was truly a demi-heure like no other.

This was a drama with a stunning final revelation though. How could it be any other way? No happy ending for the 2,000 travelling Reds in Sunderland, nor the United players whom emerged victorious at the Stadium of Light, or the millions more watching in hope on television. Instead, only the agony, no, disbelief as Sergio Aguero jinked past Taye Taiwo’s lazy tackle and slammed home City’s title-winning goal at 90 minutes plus four.

That United had already departed the Stadium of Light field only enhanced the drama. Sir Alex Ferguson’s players standing, waiting, for what must have been the two longest minutes of many careers after securing a hard-fought victory on Wearside. Cruelly, it was Sunderland’s fans that brought the news that anyone in Red could only anticipate with horror – City’s winning goal at Eastlands.

“I congratulate City on winning the league,” said United manager Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath.

“It is a fantastic achievement to win the Premier League, it’s not easy to win, it’s the hardest league in the world and anyone that wins it deserves it. We knew there were five minutes of injury time being played there, one of our assistant referees informed us of that. Our game only had three minutes so for two minutes we didn’t know that was happening. Of course, they got the break and won the game.”

Cruel though the manner of league defeat is for those in Red, it is not the ceding of United’s Premier League title that will hurt the most. Indeed, losses to Wigan Athletic, City and the draw with Everton in the past month all but ensured that conclusion whatever Sunday’s matches brought. After all, United has made mistakes by the legion to help City erode a comfortable Premier League over the course of just six games.

No, the pain will reside in those 28 minutes of hope, when QPR unexpectedly rallied after Joey Barton’s imbecilic dismissal to take a 2-1 lead into injury time, and all too briefly United’s players, staff and supporters believed the club was champions once again.

“It’s cruel, but we’ve experienced many ups and downs in the 25 years I’ve been here – most of them are great moments,” Ferguson added.

“We’ve won the league title three times on the last day and today we nearly did it. Coming into the last game I said, ‘Concentrate on your job, that’s what we have to do’, because you’re going to get certain types of reaction from the crowd and you saw that.”

“At the end of our game our players didn’t actually know the results. Now, they’re really disappointed, I’m glad to say. There’s no other way they should be. They conducted themselves brilliantly today. Their performance level was good. I’m pleased at our performance this season. Eighty-nine points would win most leagues. It wasn’t our turn today.”

As with so many seasons winners and losers are selected in the details; an unlucky break here, a fortunate goal there. United’s players will hold many of those moments close in the coming months – not least the occasions on which points were squandered on the precipice of conceit. Blackburn Rovers’ unlikely victory at Christmas, defeat at Wigan, and a two-goal lead at home to Everton thrown away. Each should long live in the memory.

So too must Ferguson reflect on the cautious approach adopted at Eastlands last month that backfired in such spectacular fashion – a trick United almost repeated on Wearside. While the Scot has boldly lauded Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes in recent days, Ferguson could not trust the pair to win games against City, or again on the final day.

Whether Ferguson will, or can, address United’s issues is a question for the summer, and thoughts will quickly turn from defeat to the future. The new Premier League season is now less than 100 days hence, and United will find claiming back the league trophy from a City side emboldened and educated by glory no easy task.

After all, Mancini’s outfit is unlikely to repeat the mistakes made this season, nor fall victim to the bout of nerves that at one stage seemed set to sweep the tile to Old Trafford by Easter. Instead, City will now build from a position of strength, shedding disruptive influences or under-performing stars, and exploiting the market as only a club built on sovereign wealth can.

United, meanwhile, faces a painful summer in the knowledge that there are many questions to be asked and answered of Ferguson’s squad.

The coming weeks will be replete with talk of a ‘shift in power’, the ‘end of United’s empire’ and City’s looming hegemony. Ferguson, re-invigorated by City’s challenge, will have none of it, even if the pensioner is unlikely to meet City’s challenge in the transfer market this summer. In youth and history Sir Alex trusts, whether by his design or that foisted upon him.

“We have a rich history, better than anyone, and it will take them a century to get to our level of history,” adds the 70-year-old United manager.

“But for us it’s still a challenge and we’re good at challenges. We’ll kick on from here. I think we take credit in the fact we’ve had so many injuries this season and we’ve coped with that very well. Some of the young players have gained some experience and they’ll be around in five, six, seven years time all these young players at Manchester United. Experience is good for them – even if it’s a bad one.”

Yet, United will look back on a season where players and manager needed to raise their game to meet City’s challenge, and ultimately fell flat. Two defeats in five games coming into the final day cost United dearly – a pattern that cannot be explained away by inexperience, nor injury.

It all added, of course, to the most extraordinary league finale since Arsenal beat Liverpool at Anfield in 1989. The Eastlands tumult will rarely, if ever, be bettered for the wave of emotion. That, however, will be of little consolation to Reds tonight.

Fergie loses sight of financial reality… and title

May 7, 2012 Tags: , , , Opinion 285 comments

There has been a certain sense of inevitability about Manchester City’s rise over the past four years. After all, while football has its own financial peculiarities, a market is a market is a market. Money talks in football just as in any other industry, and City’s money is singing from the rooftops this season. On the brink of a first domestic title in 44 years, City can thank Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth for the club’s recent success.

It was odd though that Sir Alex Ferguson should choose the week in which City effectively secured a first title since 1968 to complain about the Blues’ spending. Here, a manager who has spent quite literally hundreds of millions in the market over the years, can hardly have cause to complain.

Moreover, the Scot’s complaint would have far more legitimacy – any legitimacy some might add – had the 70-year-old not spent the past seven years supporting a Glazer regime that has sucked more than £500 million out of Manchester United in debt related costs.

No wonder there has been renewed talk by supporters of the Glazers’ affect on United’s competitiveness in the week since City disposed of Ferguson’s side. The sight of Sir Alex’ team meekly surrendering the Premier League title at Eastlands, without managing a single shot on target, while Ferguson left some of his most effective players on the sidelines, was genuinely bewildering.

In truth United played scared; Ferguson running for the sanctuary of a scoreless draw that never appeared. United’s manager, much like the fans, is fearful not only of City’s superiority on the pitch, but seemingly the looming change in hegemony – as Roberto Mancini put it so eloquently this week – in Manchester and England.

Yet, Ferguson is unable to move on from the now tiresomely clichéd excuse that there is no value in the market. Only the foolish now buy into that line given the dozens of examples of ‘value’, let alone bone fide quality, which United has missed over the past six years.

“It’s been an ­insane transfer market for a long time and I think clubs like City create that,” said Ferguson.

“They can buy all the players and put a marker on all the ­players and that makes it ­difficult for clubs then to be ­reasonable. There’s no chance of that calming down and I don’t see how the financial fair play can work. No-one can match City’s financial power – ­no-one.

“It’s not just about the top line transfer fees, it’s about the amount of money clubs can offer in wages. Players are being offered stupid money, the type of sums that are hard to turn down. We can make a player a very good offer, but unless he wants to come to United for football reasons he is not going to say no to stupid money from somewhere else.

“We have to accept that, so we do it a different way. We’ll try to look at young ­players with the potential to develop in the club, which we’re good at, so we’ll stay with that.”

While City’s wealth will buy the club trophies, closer to home Ferguson has continued to deny that the Glazer family’s tight-fisted budget has made any impact on United’s competitiveness. This despite the family allowing Ferguson to spend less than half of the net amount per season invested in the six years prior to the 2005 Glazer takeover.

What’s more, the Glazers regime has impacted United’s budget not against a backdrop of Ferguson’s protest, but with his vocal support. United’s squad quality has eroded, while Ferguson’s ability to recover from transfer market misses.

Yet, the excuses come thick from those proffering an alternate line. United’s loss to Wigan Athletic last month, and the disastrous late capitulation against Everton, is little more than a ‘temporary changing of the guard’; a short-term ‘loss of form’ at the worst possibly time. Blame the players, blame the referee, blame injuries. Blame anybody bar manager and his paymasters.

The wider context of United’s cataclysmic European campaigns is relevant though, especially when taken together with the Reds’ performances against Manchester’s other team. When viewed in the prism of matches against City this season, or those with Europe’s second-tier clubs, United’s regression is stark. This is true despite the 86 Premier League points garnered in a relatively poor quality league.

Defeat to City has a way of clarifying the collective consciousness though. And while there is nothing United, Ferguson, or the supporters can do about another club’s financial model, the cumulative effect of £7.5 million net spent per season under the Glazer regime, while rival clubs pump investment into the team, could do little but reduce the club’s competitiveness.

It is a truism that not only City, but Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, Sunderland, Aston Villa and even Stoke City have each spent more, net, than United since 2005.

And in the week that Cristiano Ronaldo secured the La Liga title, United supporters were given a taste of what has been lost – and not replaced – during the Glazers’ tenure. The Real Madrid forward has scored 45 goals in 37 La Liga games this season. Interesting, then, that Ferguson should believe Ronaldo still represents ‘value’ at £80, £160 or even £800 million.

“You can only assess value on success,” added Ferguson, who sold Ronaldo to Madrid in summer 2009.

“Like Real Madrid with ­Ronaldo. They’ll be saying ‘we’d have paid £160m for him with all he’s done’. At more than a goal a game he’s been a fantastic buy for them. At the time we thought £80m was not bad. Now I’m saying to myself it should have been a lot more. He’s been such a fantastic buy for them, maybe we should have asked for £800m.”

United didn’t genuinely replace Ronaldo, although there was once much talk of the ‘Ronaldo money’ being available for Ferguson to spend. Yet, mindful of working under the PLC regime that required layers of sign-off on every deal, Ferguson now enjoys working with a single paymaster, whatever the budget. His aggressive support for the American family may never fully be explained.

Increasingly, Ferguson has insisted, with no concern for historically accuracy, that United does not spend large sums on players, while promoting ‘youth’ as a method of bucking a market that offers no value. It’s hogwash of course, as those who completed the analysis presented in Soccernomics and Pay as you Play will attest. Money spent on transfers and wages counts for much: between 72 per cent and 89 per cent of success, in fact.

Record transfer signings, of one form or another, Roy Keane, Paul Ince, Gary Pallister, Rio Ferdinand, juan Veron, Dimitar Berbatov and Wayne Rooney might disagree too. Fergie has always spent money – some good, some bad. According to some he offers the best ‘value’ of any manager around. Who could disagree?

Which brings us back, not only to the Glazers parsimony over the past six years, but Abu Dhabi’s dizzying ability to outspend all others. ‘Tick tock’ mocked City’s supporters over recent years, suggesting that success was only a matter of time. Indeed, bar Queens Park Rangers pulling off a miraculous result at Eastlands in a week, United’s hegemony will have been broken.

Worse, those supporters hoping for a response by United in the market will be disappointed at early indicators of Ferguson’s likely transfer strategy this summer. While City may spend “insane” money, United will invest in youth. It may be some time before City’s superiority is matched.

Spending under the Glazer regime

United’s net spend 2005 – 2012 (in relevant financial year):

  • 20005/06 – £1m
  • 2006/07 – £4.1m
  • 2007/08 – £26.55m
  • 2008/09 – £33.75m
  • 2009/10 – (-)£64.5m
  • 2010/11 – £13.55m
  • 2010/12 – £38.15m

Net spend under Glazer regime 2005 – 2012 = £52.6m
Net spend per season under Glazer regime = £7.51m

Net spend 1998 – 2005 (in relevant financial year):

  • 1998/99 – £25.95m
  • 1999/00 – £16.05m
  • 2000/01 – (-)£8.3m
  • 2001/02 – £29.3m
  • 2002/03 – £27.05m
  • 2003/04 – £13.35m
  • 2004/05 – £21.35m

Net spend under PLC regime 1998-2005 = £124.93m
Net spend per season under PLC = £17.85m

Hope and despair

May 1, 2012 Tags: , , Opinion 86 comments

Scrutinising Sir Alex Ferguson’s team sheet for the first time shortly after 7.15pm on Monday night many Reds were reminded of that old John Cleese jibe. You know the one about it not being the despair, but the hope that he could not stand. Mercifully, for those fans suffering under the strain of the Premier League run-in, all hope was swiftly killed by Sir Alex’ selection. Not for the first time supporters can be thankful to the great man, although far from the manner in which many have become accustomed over the past 25 years.

The team selection was, after all, patently absurd to those who stood in bars or on terraces and observed, mouths collectively aghast, as the Scot sought to meet Manchester City’s vibrancy and athleticism with a quartet of players unfit for the task. Fortunate, then, for those desperate to end the pain of hope that Ferguson should compound his irresistible urge to tinker by moving United’s better players around, or indeed, out of the team altogether.

What amusement Sir Alex must have found in deploying Phil Jones, Chris Smalling, Ryan Giggs and Park Ji-Sung – each of whom was so undercooked for United’s biggest game of the season that it was unfair to expect anything less than sub-par performances. How the Scot japed when dropping Antonio Valencia and Danny Welbeck, or shifting 33 goal striker Wayne Rooney away from the deeper position in which he has flourished this season.

Except the joke was all on supporters who gathered in the hope that United could stop City’s oil-fueled juggernaut for this season at least. It quickly turned to despair.

It is hard to point the finger of criticism at players – it is not the United way. After all, many of these players were placed in an impossibly difficult position.

Smalling was drafted in as an emergence centre back following Jonny Evans’ injury against the Toffees last weekend. The former Fulham defender has suffered with injury recently, starting a league game for the first time this year at Eastlands. It was hardly the youngster’s fault, but Smalling’s rustiness was exposed repeatedly on the night, not least by Vincent Kompany’s 45th minute winning goal.

With one enforced change in defence it made little sense to willingly foist another upon the team. Jones has suffered a nightmare run-in, with injuries and a dramatic loss of form hampering the teenager’s progress in all of the three positions that Ferguson has deployed the 19-year-old.

In truth Jones was a bizarre choice at right-back, selected apparently for his height, but displaying all the ‘headless chicken’ qualities that had fans mocking comparisons with the late, great, Duncan Edwards. Shouts of “Duncan! Duncan!” rang around one bar packed with more than 500 Reds on each occasion Jones’ first touch was heavy, and the second was inevitably a tackle.

Meanwhile, Rafael was dropped after one poor performance in the past three months – that against Everton last weekend. In truth it was the kind of slack defensive show that Ferguson’s favourite lieutenant Patrice Evra has descended to on an almost weekly basis.

Yet, the United manager’s odd team selection didn’t end with the back-four. In midfield Ferguson drafted in both Giggs and Park – two players who have between them produced zero stellar performances this season. The Welshman is a genuine legend in an era when that superlative is greatly abused. But, it is a painful truth to admit that the 39-year-old has also suffered, by some considerable distance, his worst ever season in a United shirt.

Good job for those still burdened with hope, Cleese might add, that Giggs was made to “run up and down the bloody touchline” by Ferguson – the very the role United’s manager admitted four years ago that the Welshman could no longer perform.

And if Giggs’ 75 per cent pass completion rate was not wasteful enough, then Sir Alex followed up the Welshman’s inclusion by deploying Park – a player whose one-time epithet of ‘three lungs’ now looks embarrassingly wayward. Thankfully, the former PSV player only touched the ball 17 times – falling over more often than not, those of a crueler persuasion might add.

Unfortunately, Park’s direct competitor Yaya Touré made four times as many passes, as the Ivorian stamped his undoubted authority on the match.

Elsewhere Rooney was moved from the ‘hole’, disrupting a vibrant and productive partnership with Welbeck, and forcing the Scouser to plough a very lonely furrow up front. Meanwhile, United’s most productive player in recent months, Valencia, was dropped for the supposedly more defensively secure Park. It beggared belief.

Yet, none of this really mattered compared to the style in which United played; negative, scared and inhibited. This too was not the United way, and it was becoming neither of players nor manager to perform in fashion that yielded not a single shot on target all night. It was the first time that United had stooped to that particular low in more than three years.

In truth, although Ferguson had vehemently proclaimed otherwise pre-match, United sought nothing more than parity with City and paid a stiff penalty. Ferguson’s team got the defeat the selection, tactics and attitude fully deserved.

Patently, the Scot did not trust a midfield pairing of Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes that had been over-run by Everton the weekend before. With good reason – Scholes’ 37-year-old legs looked their age against the Merseysiders for the first time since the midfielder’s reintroduction to the United team in January. Carrick, outstanding all season, retreated into his shell.

On the night the pair simply could not cope with City’s energy, even if the pass completion ratio was at more than 90 per cent. That neither player made more than 50 successful passes tells a more pertinent story though. Carrick has exceeded 100 numerous times this season, but was unable to exert any control over proceedings on Monday night.

If parking the bus was designed to gain United a point then fans can ask whether the Reds genuinely held a contingency plan? After all, Valencia did not enter the field until the game was almost up, while Ashley Young saw just six minutes of action. United’s caution, as Roberto Mancini astutely observed in the aftermath, was the side’s undoing. City simply wanted victory more.

Little wonder that Ferguson was apoplectic on the sidelines. But it is not unfair to suggest that his ire was directed inwards, and towards neither Mancini, nor the officials. The Scot’s team selection universally backfired, while the tactical approach has brought little bar condemnation.

Moreover, failure at Eastlands simply compounds the real problem this season – United is likely to lose the Premier League title not solely because of double-defeat to City, but through dropped points against Blackburn Rovers, Everton and Wigan Athletic. In each United was exposed both by the opposition and outrageous complacency. The team has proven itself simply not good enough to play with conceit.

The words of a spoilt generation, some will argue. But few Reds want a return to, say, the 1980s when United was subservient not to City, but Liverpool. Yet, this is the doomsday scenario prompted by such comprehensive defeat.

As more than one observer mused today, City’s victory and probable title win could be the springboard for a period of domination. The club will be able to strengthen from a very healthy position, removing any dead wood and unwanted distractions, while leveraging Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth to acquire almost any player available.

Meanwhile, United is quite obviously playing catch-up, with Ferguson at the very limit of his almost limitless power to extract far more than the sum of the parts from his squad. When the greatest manager in the game’s history also makes calamitous mistakes, as he did on Monday, everything falls apart.

City’s victory may be a portent of things to come. United has lost 11 times this season, while exiting four cup competitions at an early stage. It is likely to be United’s first trophyless season for eight years. That glorious run is to Ferguson’s eternal credit during an era of Glazer-inspired parsimony that has eroded the squad’s quality-in-depth.

Nobody should question Ferguson’s ability, but his choices on Monday were proven disastrously wrong. Unfortunately, the talent available is such that United no longer has a margin for error.

And if – it still remains an “if” – United is to end the campaign without silverware then the nightmare scenario of Liverpool, City and perhaps even Chelsea each claiming glory at home or abroad will remind supporters of a certain generation that the club has no divine right to victory. There is no shame coming second as long as there is a strategy to compete.

And that is the rub, of course. Fans fear, with ample evidence, that United simply cannot or will not compete with rivals in the Premier League or Europe. Queue, cynics might add, the soon-to-come proclamations of a belief in youth, the lack of value in the market, or the apparent talent in droves held by Park, Anderson, Michael Owen, Bébé or any other under-performing budget purchase.

But eventually fans will shake off Monday’s disappointment. Slowly, optimism will return, even if the Premier League trophy is paraded in front of Manchester Town Hall on a Blue open-top bus.

Whatever the summer brings, eventually hope will raise its head once again; the despair of Monday night forgotten. Until, of course, the next occasion on which United turns out, without truly turning up. It’s the hope that hurts the most.