Manchester United is flying high in the Premier League title race after a 10 match unbeaten run. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team is a weird success story in the Premier League, at least for now. Fans initially did not seem happy with the club's handling of the transfer processes and subsequent bad performances in the early stages of the season. Were the fans right to register their emotions this early? Does United really have a problem in the transfer market?
We wanted to explore these questions under the lens of a fan’s perspective, with the January transfer window well underway. We talked to some official members of Manchester United and members of the admin panel at Manchester United Supporters Club Bangladesh (MUSCBD) to get a grip at what the fans are thinking.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson left the club, United showed a trend of hiring popular managers which initially looked good, but then backfired leading to the point where the managers got sacked. This cycle kept repeating itself until Ole was hired.
Each manager brought their own philosophy to the club, for which they required their own squad and broke the bank at the club. For instance, Jose Mourinho during his two-year tenure spent almost 466 million euro in the market. In fact, four managers since the Ferguson era, had a combined expenditure of almost 1.1 billion euro in the last seven seasons, compared to 710 million euro during the 27-year tenure of Ferguson. It is a lot even if we count inflation.
In many cases, the new arrivals were a big disappointment. Players like Ángel Di María and Alexis Sanchez were a complete flop and had to be offloaded after a season. Fans believe that the chain reaction from buying these players is the reason for failing to sign major players.
“We always went for signing big names without considering if we really needed that player in that position. When the other clubs started taking advantage of this situation, United officials had to set their foot and stick to the maintained wage structure,” says Aneek R. Haque, who has been an official member of Manchester United since 1994 and also an admin at MUSCBD. This restriction ultimately put United in a bind and they were unable to acquire the players they needed, later on.
The club clearly had troubles at the top level about transfer management. The latest debacle occurred during the last transfer window, after the end of 2019-20 PL. It was common knowledge that Ole wanted some quality players to bolster the ranks of United. He reportedly wanted a good centre-back and a right-winger to increase the strength in those positions, but the club executives failed to deliver.
“Ed Woodward (executive vice-chairman) and Matt Judge (executive in charge of player-negotiations) did not have prior experience in professional football before joining Manchester United. So if fans have to point figures for any failures in the transfer window, then it should be at them,” said SM Tauhidul Islam Neon, who is also a long time United official member and one of the founding members of MUSCBD.
Glazers, the corporate family that owns a major share of the club has faced the wrath of the fans for a long time. At the very early stages, the rage was against them for bringing in a large debt to the club. After an attempt by the fans to take back the ownership of the club through an entity called ‘Red Knights,’ the Glazers finally paid off the hard debts by themselves in 2010.
The recent griefs are about profit hunger of the Glazers. In a 2019 statement, United had announced- it made a whopping £627 million in revenue and acquired a profit of £50 million. It was a very good financial performance, even though the team was performing poorly.
This is another area where the fans feel like they are being cheated. “The club is owned by businessmen, not by the fans. It is understandable that businessmen will look for higher revenue and profits and in many cases, those are not directly correlated with on-field performance. But as a fan of the club, my priority is solely on performance in the field,” said Mr. Islam.
Last year, before United formally made a bid for Jadon Sancho, his price tag was believed to be around £90 million, but as soon as the club made its bid, Borussia, the current club of the player, hiked the price to £108 million. It has become a common phenomenon nowadays. “If United targets any player, suddenly his every move comes under the microscope and the other clubs start to hype him up,” said Mr. Haque.
“Gone are the days when Sir Alex could just sign Cantona over a phone call,” he recounted the emphatic times of Ferguson. “Nowadays, even agents like Mino Raiola or Jorge Mendez use the media to hype the player up so that they can make a huge earnings through commission.”
The fans are conservative in this regard. They believe Ole is doing well with the cards he has. “He just needs some quality players. Let's see what we can do in this winter and the subsequent summer transfer window,” said Mr. Haque.
“I do not expect Manchester United to turn around the transfer business this season. Firstly, the winter window does not offer many players; secondly, the Covid situation has worsened the financial situation everywhere. So, the club will have to think twice before making a decision. But I believe United will be a major force in the next transfer window,” Tauhid hopes.
Every club hits a snag once in a while. It is proper management that lifts a club from a poor situation. The Ferguson era is a big example of that. Installing basic management apparatus, like the long-term fan demand for creating a position of a ‘Director of Football’ at the club, could be the start of bringing back the glory days.
The writer is a third-year BSS student at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]