Oct 20, 2010

Theatre of Dreams waking up to their own Nightmare

By Stephen Adams

The recent court-room drama at Liverpool has shown even the biggest clubs are not immune from financial meltdown. With things going wrong both off and on the pitch, United look set to be the next team facing a crisis...

It is the end of an era in modern British Football. Manchester United, the dominant force of the Premier League age now find themselves in a horrific melting pot of circumstances which threaten their place at the top table of World football, and dare I say, their very existence.

Their continued success over the last two decades have been built on the lasting genius of Sir Alex Ferguson. His man-management skills have bought the best out of his charges, his shrewd buys have created heroes for the Stretford end to eulogise over, and the trophies have come in droves. He has bought a few duds, made a few mistakes - but all managers do, and regardless of opinion towards him, he will be remembered as a great. A giant of the modern game.

However, off the pitch, the last few years have not gone to plan, and the exacting control for which Fergie is famed for is gradually slipping from his grasp. The most seismic shift came in June 2005 when the Glazer family completed their full takeover of the club. It was paid for with loans, and huge loans mean huge interest payments - figures of around £60m per annum. These payments act as a millstone around the neck, and a handbrake on future plans for the team. Revenues are eaten into, player funds diverted to the banks, and at a time when Oligarchs and Sheiks use Premier League teams as their personal playthings, Manchester United have had to take stock.

Until now, this hasn't knocked the success of the team. Back to back league titles between 2006 and 2009 were delivered by sides operating at their peak, with Cristiano Ronaldo at his swashbuckling best. However, since Chelsea regained the title in 09/10, the wheels have started to come off at the Theatre of Dreams.

Fan unrest has multiplied, although the limited effect that wearing a yellow & green scarf has towards the American ownership has to be questioned as a method of protest. Ronaldo was sold for a world record fee, but Ferguson wasn't allowed to reinvest any of this on the team, it was gratefully swallowed up by the creditors.

Whilst the opposition strengthen, Manchester United weaken. Mediocre players started to filter into the dressing room. The likes of Fabio x 2, Bebe, Gibson, Anderson and Obertan have at times seemed completely out of their depth. Club stalwarts have started to see their own powers rescind, and there seem to be no new generation of talent ready to inherit the mantle left by a group of players, of which some will be remembered as legends.

It is utterly conceivable to picture the Manchester United team within two years without: Giggs, Scholes, Van Der Sar, Ferdinand and Rooney. Old Trafford would certainly hold fewer fears for visiting teams without those 5 players, Utd are only heading downwards.

Rooney is a pivotal figure in this transformation. If he stays, he could be the figurehead for the next generation, the heartbeat of the next Utd team. But if he goes, not only does it take away a lynchpin of the side, it sends out an immense message that Utd are no longer the team that attracts and retains top quality players. Couple this with the retirement of the aforementioned players, and even the lesser lights of the squad such as Evra, Fletcher and Berbatov will be looking for new places to ply their trade.

When the big names leave, other players start looking around for their moves, and transfer targets start to think twice about joining. When the big names go, the fans become even more vocal and attendances start to fall. Debt and interest payments start becoming a larger percentage of revenue, and money for the manager is no longer available.

It is a downward spiral that gets faster and faster, and more difficult to stop. Manchester United are not too big to go bust, and with every new blow faced, the less likely it is that anyone would be prepared to give the Glazer family £800m to walk away.

But perhaps the biggest worry is the retirement of the manager himself, so often the figure who embodied the club's persona, and who built several title-winning teams. All of a sudden the Manchester United manager's job is not as attractive as it once appeared. Disenchanted fans, star players leaving or retiring, and debts meaning that one hand is always tied behind the back. Perhaps United fans should have been a little more reserved in their mocking of Liverpool's plight, for it seems that their own situation could be about to get a whole lot worse.

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