By Paul Little
Just how much do you want your club to succeed? To the extent that you would be happy to see it sell its soul to an oligarch or an Arab emirate, perhaps? And should success come, as it has to Chelsea – what is that success really worth? Was it the club’s success? Can fans genuinely and morally revel in it – or is it the success almost exclusively of the billionaire who bought himself a plaything?
The issue has troubled me ever since Roman Abramovich changed the face of English football, increased with the happenings at Manchester City and has been magnified by suggestions that Manchester United will be prioritising the repayment of debts heaped on the club by its owners in their purchase of the club.
When I was growing up and falling in love with the game, club ownership and financing were not a factor. This is not to say that they were unimportant – obviously they must have been. Money makes the world go round after all. But in an era where Liverpool bestrode English football, and English football in turn dominated the European game, in no sense did money seem to be the critical route to success.
If and when money hit the headlines, it often revolved around the seemingly unfeasible transfer fees that Italian and Spanish clubs were prepared to pay for the stars of the game. I am talking about the days when the mighty Liverpool were unable to turn down the advances of Juventus for the great Ian Rush. When £3million bought you the best striker in the world – and not just a full back for your second string.
Liverpool’s greatness seemed to be more about how well the club was managed on and off the field. The foundations laid by Shankly were built upon by the canny promotion of managers inculcated with the spirit and knowhow of the bootroom. Liverpool did not have to blow away opposition with the power of its cheque book.
When Martin Edwards brought Alex Ferguson to Old Trafford in 1986, Manchester United seemed to be the polar opposite of Liverpool – a club without direction, drifting and unable to revive the great Busby days. Edwards’ decision to appoint Ferguson and his subsequent, inspired and brave backing of the Scot during some tough early days were the turning point for the club, heralding United’s dominance of the domestic game ever since.
United’s prolonged period of supremacy has been down largely to two things – the brilliance of Alex Ferguson and the commercial nous that saw the club capitalise upon success on the pitch and the potential of a legendary club as a brand – the great leap forward if you will.
Naturally, fans of other clubs have yearned for the day when United’s dominance will be dashed. And many will be heartened to hear suggestions that United must retrench in terms of squad investment – and instead focus on using vast chunks of their revenue to service the obscene debt placed on the club by the Glazer family. However, before they revel in the potential decline (relatively speaking) of this mighty institution and pin their hopes on oligarchs, emirs and American opportunists propelling their clubs to glory, they should pause for thought and consider the importance of Manchester United to the game.
For what sets Manchester United apart from the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City – mid-level clubs that did little more than effectively win the lottery – is the fact that its power and success was generated and nurtured internally, organically and with great foresight and patience.
So if indeed it is true that United are being weighed down ultimately by the avarice and opportunism of its American owners, and putting its ability to compete financially at the top table in question, then the reaction of all fans who dream of great things for their clubs should be one of regret.
The model of success and sustainability that Manchester United represented should be the blueprint that fans demand their clubs emulate. But sadly, in a era where patience is not a virtue, the almost instant success that a sugar daddy owner can bring seems just too attractive to many.