Tuesday will be a good day for Manchester United and the Glazer family, when the club are expected to announce record annual revenues in excess of £615 million.
Once again, the self-styled “world’s biggest football club” will prove themselves to be top of the league, certainly among their Premier League counterparts, when it comes to making money. The problem for United, however, is that the good news stops with the financial results. On the pitch, under manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, performance continues to be hugely disappointing as they fall further and further behind Liverpool and Manchester City.
City’s most recent results saw the champions post an annual turnover of £581m, while Liverpool reported £455m. Even 12 months ago, United outstripped them both by announcing turnover of £590m.
Since Sir Alex Ferguson retired six years ago, United have excelled in just two areas: making money off the pitch and failing, repeatedly, on it. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, the man charged by the owners with running United on a day-to-day basis, stated in May last year that “playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.”
Playing performance is certainly not matching up to commercial success right now. Whether it truly matters to the Glazers, only they can say.
At a recent fan forum, United did insist that “while our successful commercial operation helps drive investment, the priority is the focus on achieving success on the pitch.” And that means Solskjaer is in the firing line as United continue to tread water in the Premier League.
Sunday’s 2-0 defeat at West Ham was United’s 10th in their last 19 games under the Norwegian, an abject run of form stretching back to their last away win in all competitions, against Paris Saint-Germain, in March. The buck always stops with the manager: David Moyes, Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho can all attest to that. But he can only work with the hand he’s dealt and as such, questions must be asked of the Glazers and Woodward.
As part of his responsibilities, Woodward will have to give his assessment of United’s current health when he addresses investors on Tuesday. It will be a tough call for him. If he focuses purely on the financial results, it will be akin to Nero fiddling while Rome burns. But if he addresses the failures on the pitch, and how United continue to drop behind City and Liverpool while being forced to play in the Europa League, will he speak about the shortcomings in the boardroom that have left the club in its current state?
Since Woodward stepped into the role ahead of the 2013-14 season, in tandem with Moyes’ appointment as manager, United have finished an average of 21.5 points adrift of the champions. But the money keeps rolling through the tills.
Throughout that time, Woodward and the Glazers have overseen the sackings of three managers, the signings of expensive flops like Angel Di Maria, Memphis Depay, Alexis Sanchez, and well as poor strategic planning behind the scenes.
When Mourinho was sacked last December, United spoke of the determination to hire a technical director to help with the process of player recruitment, yet almost 10 months on, they have still not made that crucial appointment. Sources have told ESPN FC that some candidates have shied away from pursuing the role because they would have to report directly to Woodward rather than have a direct line to the owners — a red line for those who believe that the position requires some kind of relationship with the people who sign the cheques.
The Glazers, meanwhile, remain silent on the decline of United as a force on the pitch and those who have dealt with the owners talk of nice guys who lack the edge of those who simply want to win.
Supporters have never accepted the Glazers due to their leveraged takeover in 2005, which plunged United into debt (net debt stood at £301.7m in the last quarterly figures) and, as reported by The Guardian in October 2018, their ownership has led to more than £1 billion being drained out of the club in interest charges.
Across town, Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan has invested more than £1 billion at Manchester City in 11 years, so the shifting fortunes of both clubs is perhaps easy to understand.
While City have spent wisely, recruited smartly and upgraded the Etihad Stadium on a regular basis, United have gone the other way, with the lack of investment at Old Trafford being summed up by the leaking roof ahead of last season’s derby game against City which saw a torrent of water gush down onto the seats in the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand.
Bad signings, an aging stadium and a lack of urgency when making key appointments are all issues that have defined the Glazer era, and most noticeably since Woodward replaced David Gill. But perhaps it’s no real surprise. Supporters of the Glazers’ NFL franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, have witnessed a drift into obscurity since the team won the Super Bowl in 2003, and United now appear to be heading the same way.
The money is still coming in, as Tuesday’s numbers will show. And as Woodward admitted, what happens on the pitch doesn’t affect United’s financial power off it. In the eyes of the Glazers, maybe the ongoing struggles of the team are only a minor issue to them.