Dissecting the Glazers’ decade of decay (and the Manchester United legend who allowed it)

For almost any other team, the past 10 years would have been considered a period of startling success: five league titles, three League Cups, one Champions League trophy and two other trips to the finals. But while 10 years of the Glazer family at Manchester United have provided some of the finest soccer Old Trafford’s ever seen, they’ve also served up a decade of mismanagement – decline, panic and glory.

Taken out of context, those successes ignore the club’s extensive, perhaps more significant failures. For every near miss Manchester United endured, different management could have pushed for another trophy, and while trophies are not the only symbol of merit for a club, they are one of the most important for a club of United’s powers.

Even now, as it’s clear the Glazers will get away with their debilitating brand of mismanagement, fans should be asking how. How did the Glazer family wreak such havoc on the club? The answers are found in a myriad of places: the club’s accounts; the cost of the supposed players of value; and the complicity of the most important man at the club.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 10, 2010:  during the UEFA Champions League First Knockout Round, second leg match between Manchester United and AC Milan at Old Trafford. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)Laurence Griffiths

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 10, 2010: during the UEFA Champions League First Knockout Round, second leg match between Manchester United and AC Milan at Old Trafford. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Taking a debt-free club to the brink of financial ruin

It all began with a dispute over a horse. Irishmen John Magnier and J.P. McManus, whose company Cubic Expression owned 28.7 percent of Manchester United, co-owned Rock of Gibraltar with the club’s manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. In 2003, Ferguson sued Magnier after claiming he was offered a 50 percent stake in the horse “as a present.” Magnier countersued, and in order to calm the unrest in the board, United sought new investors. Joel and Avram Glazer expressed interest.

The brothers, sons of Florida-based investor and Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer, initially purchased 2.9 percent of the club, paying 9 million pounds on March 2, 2003 through a holding company, Red Football Ltd. Five months later, the family upped its stake to 3.17 percent, then further to 8.93 percent a month later. On November 29, with Red Football Ltd.’s share up to 15 percent, chief executive David Gill met privately with Malcolm Glazer to discuss his intentions for the club.

Three months later, the Glazer’s stake had risen to 16.31 percent, at which point the family was working with a broker, Commerzbank, to explore “financing options.” In October, the family’s stake neared 30 percent, a threshold which would trigger a mandatory takeover bid. Nervous fans eager to understand the Glazers’ internations wanted Gill to instruct the London Stock Exchange takeover panel to force the Glazers to make their plans public. One week later, United’s board publicly stated its opposition to the takeover, concerned that too much borrowed money would be used to purchase a club that had been debt-free for 13 years.

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The game’s end came suddenly, though, with the Glazers buying a series of major stakeholders’ shares after convincing Magnier and McManus to sell on May 12, 2005. The United board acquiesced to the Glazers’ terms on May 26, 2005, the same week Arsenal won the FA Cup and Liverpool heroically claimed the Champions League. Come June, United had taken its listing off the stock exchange to become a private company, allowing the Glazers to offload their loan debts onto the club.

The final cost of the leveraged buyout came to 790 million pounds:

  • £272 million came straight from the Glazers – their 28.1 percent stake prior to the May takeover push plus an additional £50 million of the Glazers’ own money.
  • Between £265 and £275 million was normal, run of the mill bank debt, immediately put on the club books and secured against the club’s assets.
  • Another £265 million came via a Payment in Kind (PIK) loan from three New York based hedge fund companies — Citadel, Och Ziff and Perry Capital — secured against Red Football Ltd.

(The total here is £812 million, not £790 million. £22 million was paid out in “advisers fees” and to fund the expansion of Old Trafford.)

It’s the final bullet that deserves special attention. PIK loans are a very risky lending option, often carrying punishingly high interest rates. Essentially, the loan is held until it matures, with no payments until the maturation date – the date it all has to be paid back.

In United’s case, the club itself was on the hook for the PIK. Failure to pay the principal amount as well as the “rolled up” interest would have given the club to the hedge funds. The Glazers created an incentive to take huge amounts out of the club to help pay debts as soon as possible. They also scared the shit out of many United fans, already furious about the new debt put on the club books.

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With such huge debt, refinancing was inevitable. By July 2006, the PIK debt was reduced to 138 million pounds after money had been moved around from one loan to another. The action was born of necessity, as the interest rates on the original loan where about to increase from 14.25 to 16.25 percent. The biggest round of refinancing came three-and-a-half years later, in Jan. 2010, but only after the 2008 financial crash forced the Glazers to cancel a refinancing which would have wiped out the PIK loan. Three more years later, the club went through another round of refinancing, one that finally made the debt seem manageable.

Still, the specter of the PIK loans’ awful interest rates might explain the extreme measures United had to employ with the squad. Former captain Roy Keane, negotiating a buyout at the end of his United tenure, wasn’t offered his remaining wages as a lump sum. He’d have to wait for his regular paychecks. There were rumors, too, that Adem Ljajić, who filled just the position United needed at the time, had his move from Partizan Belgrade cancelled in Jan. 2010 because United could no longer afford the fee (8-10 million pounds). United, of course, claimed the midfielder was no longer good enough.

By that time, some estimates put United’s debt at 773 million pounds, with annual interest payments closing on 70 million pounds. In less than five years, the Glazers had taken a debt-free club and put it in the biggest financial quagmire in England. While estimates of the total debt are not all consistent, the numbers are still scary, even with United posting record revenues each season.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 24, 2010:  Avram and Joel Glazer (R) look on prior to a Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)Getty Images

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 24, 2010: Avram and Joel Glazer (R) look on prior to a Premier League match between Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

In 2010, the Glazers issued a 500 million pound, seven-year bond on which the club would pay out annual interest of 45 million pounds. The move amounted to a longer loan at a fixed interest rate, allowing United to wipe out its bank debt. The bonds also included other titbits about how the Glazers had run United, including the selling and leasing back of the team’s training facility, as well as other dubious fees and “covenants,” like those that allowed the owners to take money out of the club.

But the PIKs still existed, their interest rates finally hitting 16.25 percent in August 2010. Coincidentally, in November 2010, the PIKs were magically paid off (no one knows how exactly, but there are several theories), leaving the club’s biggest problem its remaining, huge debt. In July 2012, though, an IPO on the New York Stock Exchange generated enough money to pay off 62.6 million in bonds, reducing the club’s debt to £359.7 million.

Come 2013, when United underwent its last round of refinancing, interest payments had been reduced to around 40 million pounds per year. The debt had fallen to 307 million pounds, less than half of its 2010 peak. Due to sponsorship deals, increased TV rights and commercial sales, the club is in a stronger financial position, even if those deals lead to the indignity of official noodle and paint partners. The club will be debt free in the not-too-distant future. Truly, this is what sport is made of.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 10, 2010:  during the UEFA Champions League First Knockout Round, second leg match between Manchester United and AC Milan at Old Trafford. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)Laurence Griffiths

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 10, 2010: during the UEFA Champions League First Knockout Round, second leg match between Manchester United and AC Milan at Old Trafford. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

“If you don’t like it, go and watch Chelsea”

The question is whether the Glazers were the sole reason for the team’s increased revenue. If they were, the occasional witless displays from the media might make more sense, with some journalists pointing to trophies won as evidence the family are good owners. One column insultingly claimed United fans should offer a truce to the Glazers, ignoring the fact the fans haven’t been the ones accruing such massive debt. Still, some fans have mirrored these opinions, and all involved should know better. A look at the increased revenues of many other clubs suggests many owners are raking in revenue. Certainly the Glazers can’t claim credit for the largesse of the Sky deals.

What the Glazers have done is increase ticket prices significantly, as the Guardian’s David Conn points out:

The Glazers have also “changed the composition of our general admission seats,” creating many different “options” for buying a ticket and introducing, like most Premier League clubs, “a categorised approach.”

This, the Glazers assure investors, means fans are now paying significantly more. “Between the 2005-06 season [the first after their takeover] and the 2013-14 season,” the prospectus says, “the weighted average general admission ticket prices for our Premier League matches played at Old Trafford increased at a compound annual growth rate of 4.4%.”

There has been other rot. Fans are now obliged to become part of the Automatic Cup Scheme (ACS). They must buy the tickets that United qualify for through cup competitions or face punishment by not being able to attend league games. Such schemes, combined with rising ticket prices, only encourage more rapacious owners to get involved with clubs.

Some have tried to change the club. The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) proudly announces over 200,000 members and has drawn attention through its ties with the Green and Gold campaign. The wearing of gold and green scarves at matches, however, did little to disturb the Glazers – the family was even seen laughing at bedecked fans during the game against AC Milan in 2010. The scene called to mind Ferguson’s original combative instruction to fans who accosted him at an airport soon after the takeover: “If you don’t like it, go and watch Chelsea.”

MUST’s most recent initiative involved “investing over £10,000 into building the system to allow MUST members, and also fans of all other clubs, to contact their Parliamentary Candidates to demand their commitment to legislate to change football for good.” So, email. What an organization.

A group of very rich United fans, calling themselves the Red Knights, explored the possibility of buying out the Glazer family. But as soon as they realized there was no bargain to be had, the Knights walked away.

The Manchester Education Committee certainly made a game attempt at threatening its way to success, but it was unable to do much more. Make no mistake of how seriously they were taken, however: the FBI and British police were willing to stick their oar in to safeguard avaricious capitalism, making efforts far beyond those used to protect everyday fans. The hardcore certainly rattled the Glazers, mind, as Daniel Taylor notes in his book This Is The One.

Before the game, more than 3,000 fans march in protest outside the stadium. There are scuffles with the police and chants of, “We can do this every week.” Emotions have been running dangerously high ever since the Glazers took control and it needs a major security operation to smuggle them into the stadium. There are riot vans on St Matt Busby Way, dog-handlers on the forecourt and a police helicopter hovering above. The Glazers arrive in a car with blacked-out windows, a posse of bodyguards and an escort of police motorcycles, sirens wailing. They arrive early to get there before the crowds, and they leave deliberately late for an unspecified out-of-town hotel. United say it is not deemed safe for their whereabouts to be known.

It’s the transfer market, though, where United has suffered the most. Before the Glazers, for all the smoke about giving young players a chance, it’s impossible to ignore the fire of the enormous signings: Roy Keane for 3.75 million pounds in 1993; Jaap Stam for 10.6 million pounds in 1998; Ruud van Nistelrooy for 22 million pounds in 2001; Juan Sebastian Veron for 30 million pounds in 2000; Rio Ferdinand for the same amount, depending on fulfilled clauses, a few years later. Between Cristiano Ronaldo (13 million pounds, 2003) and Wayne Rooney (25 million in 2004), United signed one of the most talented young players in the world two years in row. The club’s been unable to make the same claim since.

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But when Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid for 80 million pounds in 2010, he was replaced by Gabriel Obertan (his own boss expressed his surprise at the move), Michael Owen (his new fans were incredulous) and Antonio Valencia (replacing Ronaldo with Valencia is borderline incredible). When Patrice Evra was being run into the ground – playing 242 times in a five-year span starting in 2007-08 – Ferguson spent 4 million pounds on Alexander Buttner, so useless that it actually increased the pressure on Evra to keep himself functioning. When the middle of defense needed reinforcement, Chris Smalling, a non-league punt (no, I do mean punt) and Phil Jones were brought in. Even if they’re finally benefitting from the coaching of Louis van Gaal, years of buffoonery can now only be offset if they become mixtures of Franco Baresi and Lothar Matthäus.

Ashley Young arrived, but like Jones and Smalling, years of cowardice and shithousery are only being replaced by intermittent effectiveness this season. There was also the arrival of Bebé, recommended by former United assistant Carlos Queiroz and signed, we are told, before Ferguson had seen him play (the Portuguese police are investigating the move).

There were departures, too, many of which look less reasonable than those of Ronaldo and Bebe. Paul Pogba made just three appearances for Manchester United before joining Juventus for one million pounds per year. Circuitously, he’s been joined in Italy by Carlos Tevez, and both are now key components of the first European Italian force in nearly 10 years. When he moved to Manchester City, Tevez’s astronomical transfer fee went to his owners (not the club), while United had dismantled a front three of Tevez, Rooney and Ronaldo, replacing them with Valencia, Rooney and Dimitar Berbatov. Letting Pogba go was simply gross misconduct on Ferguson’s part.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 20, 2011: Bobby Devyne of Chelsea battles Paul Pogba during the FA Youth Cup Semifinal second legat Old Trafford. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)Michael Regan/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - APRIL 20, 2011: Bobby Devyne of Chelsea battles Paul Pogba during the FA Youth Cup Semifinal second legat Old Trafford. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

And what of those left behind? Almost all of them have followed Ferguson’s lead. Many have been happy to roll over and take the cash on offer to become ‘Ambassadors’ for the club, turning up events in a United-branded bit of clothing and issuing benign platitudes. Luminaries like Mickael Silvestre and Ji-Sung Park use their vital emotional connection to the club to shill for beans, promoting whatever tat is an Official Tat Partner.

Only the greatest living Frenchman, Eric Cantona, was heroic enough to speak out, giving an interview to Red Issue fanzine in 2005:

Glazer could pay me 100 million euros to be manager and I still wouldn’t go there. I don’t think Glazer knows the game. He is nothing in comparison with Manchester United. I love the club but I don’t like it with him in charge.

As a sign of the ultimate defeat – that the Glazers had really won – Red Issue closed earlier this season. The problems with debt had long receded from posing an immediate threat, and the people attending matches had, by and large, long since lost interest in what the Glazers had done to what was once a community club. There was no longer any point trying to sell an insurrectionist magazine to those who had no interest in revolution.

The only way to shake the Glazers out of complacency would have been a sustained and extensive boycott, resulting in a large drop in ticket sales. Though some have walked away from a club they feel betrayed them, the holes they left at Old Trafford have been filled with tourists and daytrippers happy to pick up the slack.

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 27, 2011: Sir Alex Ferguson  speaks with Avram Glazer (2L), Bryan Glazer (2R) and Joel Glazer (R) during a Manchester United training session prior to the UEFA Champions League final versus Barcelona at Wembley Stadium on May 27, 2011. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 27, 2011: Sir Alex Ferguson speaks with Avram Glazer (2L), Bryan Glazer (2R) and Joel Glazer (R) during a Manchester United training session prior to the UEFA Champions League final versus Barcelona at Wembley Stadium on May 27, 2011. (Photo by Jasper Juinen/Getty Images)

The flotsam of Ferguson

In many ways, the Glazer era defines Ferguson more than the 1992-93 title – the club’s first league triumph in 26 years. He recalled the Busby Babes, then exceeded them with the 1999 treble season – a feat that should come to mind first when thinking of Ferguson. Instead, it’s his peculiar downfall, inviting the vultures in to eat a live corpse. All the best and worst parts of his personality — the ego, need for control, obsession with money, his tactical evolution and his exceptional man-management — all played their parts during his time with the Glazers.

For a man who was often openly at odds with previous boards and chairmen, Ferguson was oddly kind to the new owners. Their first summer in charge, Ferguson became their yes-man, telling the press, “The Glazer brothers have been in the dressing room; they spent twenty minutes congratulating the players.” He was little more than a posh Alan Pardew, at times.

Perhaps the reason Ferguson welcomed the Glazers was he knew, however much he was struggling, he needed owners who realized just how much they needed him. Owners like the Glazers would find it hard to locate another genius able to deliver irregular Premier League success under unnecessary budgetary constraints. Perhaps they were also willing to let the 99 Questions about the club’s management go unanswered, where regulations for a public limited company may have intervened.

Perhaps the other reason Ferguson was so keen on the Glazers was financial. Ferguson was recently asked by HMRC to repay millions in a tax avoidance scheme and was described by his former chairman, Martin Edwards, as “useless with money.” He was so furious about inaccuracies in the BBC documentary about his agent son, Jason, that he threatened legal action the did nothing, so you can be sure Ferguson would not let anything untrue hang in the air regarding any financial benefits. Yet the denials about how much Ferguson, as well as Gill, stood to make from the Glazers issuing shares remained ambiguous.

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Ferguson was able to offset Manchester United’s limitations, particularly in the transfer market, by tricking his players into winning. Perhaps more than that, he tricked the lesser teams into accepting that United was still, deep down, United. But after 2010, it wasn’t so much that United was running on fumes; the opposition was too busy sucking them in and fainting.

If you think that overstates the case, consider United’s record against bigger teams. Look at the success Liverpool had against United over a period when Liverpool was only very briefly the better side. If that’s not enough proof, consider the businesslike way in which United was dispatched by Bayern, Real and Barcelona in Champions League, showing that teams with their own aura were comfortable enough to not be intimidated. Even Marcelo Bielsa – too belligerent and confident in his own methods for his own good – convinced a young Athletic Club side to bully United in its season of Europa League cowardice.

But for all his faults, Ferguson had many qualities that never deserted him. However grim things appeared on the pitch, or however poor the squad was at times, he inspired his side to play as if they still deserved his aura. Even Keane, happy to denigrate his former manager whenever possible, agreed:

One of Ferguson’s great strengths was that he always had a feel for the group when it came to team talks; he knew what would be needed. Ferguson always got it spot on.

When 2005-06 began, the team was in disarray (by its own high standards), about to kickstart a pitiful season in which it was out of the Champions League by Christmas. It proved one of the rare years when fans speculated openly over Ferguson’s future; one of the even rarer when circumstances persuaded the press that an exit, though never likely, could be possible. Several relatively fallow years, problems with senior players, the nagging question of age and new owners combined to heap pressure. That pressure only faded after the signing of Michael Carrick (a masterstroke) and a serious amount of luck combined to allow United to plunder its way to second place.

That team was a Ferguson highlight, but the type of football briefly alchemized was a rarity, not the norm. The decade of the Glazers saw Ferguson become ever more tactically conservative. While United had 1-0’d its way to victory in 1996 with the thrilling duo of Peter Schmeichel and Cantona, for much of the Glazer period it was 1-0 ground out while relying on Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić. Ahead of them was a tombola of mediocre players – Young, Luis Nani, Valencia and Darren Fletcher were just a few. There were Ronaldo and Rooney, but one left to better himself. The other tried before entering a period of severe decline.

By Ferguson’s latter years, Paul Scholes, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra, Carrick, Fletcher and others all needed replacing. Every year they remained meant that the squad would require a seismic period of reinvestment, which would then prevent an easy adjustment and would end up costing more. Nani, Young, Valencia, Smalling, Jones and Rafael Da Silva weren’t good enough to carry a new team, again increasing problems for the future.

There have been far too many near misses and obvious failures to not wonder just how much more would have been won had United continued spending closer to the top of the market, as they had done in the years before the takeover. Instead, United was doomed by Ferguson to use the same players again and again, their obvious limitations denied by many supporters and pundits because they could point to trophies.

There is the biggest lead blown within seven games ever, as United gifted Manchester City its title with a staggeringly pathetic collapse in 2011-12, dropping an eight-point advantage. There’s the first year without Ronaldo, when Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea used nothing more than a fairly well-stocked squad to beat a United side shorn of a superstar capable of dragging almost anyone to a Premier League title. There were the near misses in Europe: against Real Madrid in Ferguson’s final season; against Bayern Munich in April 2010. There were even the tears at Anfield, when Jamie Carragher highlighted just how much gutlessness riddled the squad.

Other supporters, or Glazer shills, might point to the trophies won and say it’s a bit rich to complain from a position of success. But that success is only relative compared to most other clubs, and it ignores the severe handicap placed upon United by the Glazers’ finances. For some, it was doubly sickening, watching Ferguson and the Glazers getting away the debt-saddling and crippling of their once-special club.

But it is nevertheless impossible to admit that there were not some staggering moments. When Ferguson bought Carrick from Spurs in 2006, it seemed like a sick joke. The only outfield player in the transfer window to arrive, wearing the same number as the now-banished Keane. An ephemeral ball player with obvious skills but obvious weaknesses. How on Earth, people would justifiably worry, was this going to make up for a lack of steel in midfield and a missing Ruud van Nistelrooy, turfed out to Real Madrid, in attack? The answer was with some of the most thrilling football played at Old Trafford and the birth of Ferguson’s third great team, the remnants of which are only now being cleared out from United.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20, 2010:  David Moyes with Alex Ferguson during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)Getty Images

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20, 2010: David Moyes with Alex Ferguson during the Barclays Premier League match between Everton and Manchester United at Goodison Park. (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

There also remains the question of how Ferguson forced David Moyes upon the Glazers. José Mourinho, the best available manager at the time, wanted to come to United. It was obvious when, in the post-match interviews after his Real Madrid team knocked out Manchester United in the Champions League in 2013, Mourinho praised United and Ferguson in lieu of his usual crowing. But for whatever reason, Ferguson anointed Moyes successor. No due diligence, no consensus board decision. He gifted a terrible squad to a manager with no body of evidence to suggest he would do more than struggle.

It is every manager’s responsibility to build for more than his own legacy, but, with a place on the board and the acceptance of the United way, whatever that means, Ferguson always comported himself as more. Yet he left behind a team of chancers and resentful veterans, and a handful of decent men. Ferguson was good enough to ignore these problems, but Moyes being human was his downfall. Too many problems had amassed, and despite van Gaal’s relative success, they still haven’t been fixed in a meaningful way.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 04, 2013: Avram Glazer and Joel Glazerlook on during a training session at Carrington Training Ground on March 4, 2013. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)Alex Livesey/Getty Images

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MARCH 04, 2013: Avram Glazer and Joel Glazerlook on during a training session at Carrington Training Ground on March 4, 2013. (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

A decade of decay

It is easy to see the effects of penny-pinching. When Ferguson left, he left behind a transfer network built from smoke, mirrors and favors. New chief executive Ed Woodward was desperate for admiration but unable to fulfill the demands of his new job, unable to actually able to buy the players he promised Moyes. There is no Cesc Fàbregas, there is no Leighton Baines. There is no Gareth Bale. All the targets were missed, and then he was presented with the unwanted, but excellent, Juan Mata in January – clearly not the player to turn around any toxic situation.

By year 10 of the Glazers’ ownership, there was also no Champions League with which to attract players, meaning the first undoings of Ferguson’s incompetence would come at huge immediate expense. Ángel Di María, Daley Blind, Radamel Falcao, Ander Herrera, Luke Shaw, Marcos Rojo and Víctor Valdés cost loads of money. Toward the end of their first seasons in Manchester, only one has justified his purchase, while the others could end up as more failures caused by an enormous football club operating from a position of panic.

In the summer, the same is being planned. Memphis Depay’s arrival has already been confirmed, while Nathaniel Clyne, Mats Hummels and others are being lined up to bolster the squad. Jonny Evans, Rafael, Tom Cleverley, Javier Hernández, and Antonio Valencia could be permanently banished from a squad that was demonstrably in need of serious overhaul years before Ferguson relinquished control.

All this stems from mismanagement: from a debilitating takeover; from one man having far too much control. If United and Ferguson had wanted, the club could have achieved something incredible, but now it is a collection of rival commercial and egotistical interests, pulling variously apart and together in a vague direction of progress. That United isn’t the equal of Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich anymore can be laid squarely at the door of Ferguson and the Glazers.

*Thanks to Richard Whittall for substantial line-by-line contributions to the section on finance.

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