Manchester United is a dysfunctional, reactionary, football club on its knees, although it’s not finished like some claim. The heartbeat from millions of fans is enough to give it life.
Only weeks ago 150,000 watched the team in two games in Melbourne, Australia. This is a club which rose after the Munich air crash, which survived winding up orders, Old Trafford being bombed by the Luftwaffe, which bounced back from second division football in 1975.
Even under Sir Alex Ferguson, United finished in the lower half of England’s top division. But under that same manager United became not just England’s pre-eminent football force, but its leading commercial exponent whose ideas were copied by Real Madrid and Barcelona and by almost every Premier League rival.
United have lost seven consecutive away games in the league, the worst record since 1936; most recently Saturday’s 4-0 reverse at Brentford when United conceded four goals in 25 desperate minutes.
There are United fans of 30, 40, 50 and 60 years standing who say they have never witnessed anything so bad. England’s biggest club failed to score a single goal in six of those games and conceded 21 times. In four of those games United let in four goals.
How has it come to this? United became so successful under Ferguson that vultures started to circle with financial rather than football priorities. It wasn’t a carcass they circled, but the plumpest, healthiest, most envied, hated, adored and never ignored football club on the planet.
The Glazer family from America prevailed and in 2005 rode waves of protests to take control of a club founded by railway workers in an industrial city. Ferguson waved them in, called them fantastic owners. Maybe they were for him since they didn’t interfere and let him continue what he did best, winning football matches and trophies and seeing off all-comers until he retired, a champion, in 2013.
But the scars from the highly leveraged takeover were deep and they are still there. They split the fanbase with divides so deep they persist today. The Glazers didn’t even communicate any of their thinking for 16 years and even then only offered some explanations after a botched 2021 agreement to join a European Super League.
Brentford v Manchester United ratings
Yes, a lot of money has been spent on players in the nine years since the team which had won 13 league titles in 20 years were last champions of England. But so much of that money has been squandered because of a recruitment system so far behind that of United’s main rivals, there’s no comparison.
The Glazers have not been competent owners despite that outlay. Old Trafford, which had been expanded in five major developments between 1992 and 2006, was left to become outmoded and shabby. The paint visibly peeling on the girders for so long above the 75,000 red seats - a metaphor for so much more. While all the time, rivals built up their own stadiums, growing, getting bigger and more confident in their ability to go toe to toe with England’s biggest club.
The gap in revenues in the Premier League narrowed, yet United still had the highest, still spent a fortune on players, still had the highest wage bill. No club in world football has spent so much on players and achieved so little.
Yet the recruitment has been appalling and there’s little evidence that it’s changing under John Murtough. United’s recruitment chiefs and former managers recommended some of the top emerging players around, from Jude Bellingham to Joao Cancelo, Erling Haaland to N'Golo Kante. So many were not signed who became a success elsewhere, so many who were signed did not prosper at Old Trafford.
There are few pointers towards a brighter future right now. There’s so much internal conflict at the club which has undergone more staff changes than ever in recent memory.
United will finally develop Old Trafford – after years of criticism. Just as they finally started a women’s team – after years of criticism. Or took the youth system seriously again (the club won the 2022 Youth Cup) – after years of criticism. It’s all so reactionary.
United will ask for patience from fans since every manager deserves time to do a job. What, again? The Glazers are not there to witness the toxic atmosphere among fans. They sit on the other side of the Atlantic comfortable that the debt is manageable, their annual dividends reasonable.
That’s their bottom line - the club remains a cash cow to them, a success investment. But the bottom line for fans is that United haven’t won a single trophy since 2017, and that 2022 has been one of the worst in United’s history.
"Time to go, Glazers out," read a flag in another toxic away end at Brentford. The air is mutinous among fans towards the owners and you’d be hard pushed to find even a moderate United fan who would disagree with that.
While those fans know their team has no divine right to win anything, they also continue to sell out every single game home and away. Watching United has become a ghoulish soap opera.
Yes, the competition is tougher than ever in the club’s history. Every Premier League club has money. Long gone are the days when the club could go and sign the best players, poaching them from big rivals like Tottenham Hotspur.
Now, United fans look with envy at the transfer business Tottenham and others have conducted, while their own team struggles. The club don’t want to be ripped off by agents yet again, but what choice if those agents are the gatekeepers to talent and United are not as attractive? Could Frenkie de Jong, United’s main summer transfer target, be blamed for not wanting to go anywhere near Old Trafford?
There are no quick fixes here. Building a successful team takes years, not months, but the Glazers need to look at their lot, sell up and pass over the custody of Manchester United.
There will be suitors, just as there were when Chelsea Football Club - which had lost £900,000 per week under Roman Abramovic’s 17 years of ownership - was sold earlier this year. Among the bidders for a club which is smaller than United was Britain’s richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, a Mancunian who grew up supporting United.
Fans would welcome him taking over United with open arms, but the Glazers have never given any indication that they want to sell.
The Glazers have made their money – and some. Their highly-leveraged investment was a wise one for them, inspired even, and not objected to by a limp British government as it would be now. They broke no rules then in how they took over, though they upset just about every fan when they did. But sporting institutions are about far more than profit and loss.
Like a boxer who gets knocked down early in a fight, United can get back up off the floor. The season is only two games old with 36 league matches to play. Last Sunday’s home defeat to Brighton was a big blow (and Brighton’s first win at Old Trafford) as was Saturday’s 4-0 hammering by Brentford (their first win against United since 1938).
But new manager Erik ten Hag and his new signings need to get to grips with the turbo-charged physical level of the world’s best league, because fans have been alarmed at what they’ve seen in the first week of the season and they’re alarmed at what is coming next: games against 19-times champions Liverpool, then Southampton, Leicester and Arsenal. However, any opponent is a serious threat currently. They are exploiting what they consider to be United’s weaknesses.
In 1989, the respected journalist Michael Crick and supporter David Smith wrote an excellent book titled Betrayal of a Legend. The then owners Edwards family were as criticised as the Glazers would be now. The book aged badly. Within a year United won the FA Cup and success did not stop in the 90s. But the legend is being betrayed again and it’s a travesty what is happening to Manchester United.