LONDON: In May 2008 Manchester United beat Chelsea on penalties in Moscow to win the Champions League Final. That victory was one of the highest points of the 27-year reign of Sir Alex Ferguson. It may also be seen, now, as the beginning of the end.
This may appear strange, considering that United subsequently won three Premier League titles and two League Cups. But this was only two years after the highly controversial takeover by the Glazer family and thus had been achieved by a team built on a less-conservative spending policy; after all, in those days, United could spend all their revenue on the club and not in servicing heavy bank loans.
A hint of a more frugal future came a year later, in 2009, when Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid for €94m.
The fee was a massive world record but the signal to the rest of football was clear: United were no longer impregnable in the transfer market. They could be out-spent – and not only by Russian oligarchs.
Manchester City soon proved the point. Initially United and their fans derided City’s scattergun spending, the rapid managerial changes plus the import of wayward personalities such as Mario Balotelli and Carlos Tevez from United – who believed he was not worth keeping on the western side of Manchester.
Ferguson has always been loyal to the Glazers. When he saw a player he wanted, then the money was made available.
Players such as Michael Carrick in midfield, David De Gea in goal and – most spectacularly – Robin Van Persie in attack all vindicated Ferguson’s judgment. He knew the very best players for United and, as a tyical Scot, was never a man to spend unnecessarily.
Oddly, the one factor which Ferguson may have underrated was the power of his own personality and the intimidatory effect inflicted on opponents by a combination of himself, his team and the aura of Old Trafford. It took very special visitors to defy that winning trio: a Jose Mourinho or a Real Madrid or – out in the open and away from Old Trafford – a Barcelona.
A further warning sign arrived in May 2011 when United, beaten in the Champions League Final by the Catalans in 2009, were not merely defeated but massively outclassed by them again and at Wembley, too.
If United had won that night then Ferguson would surely have retired and the rebuilding could have begun with a senior squad, not an over-age group many of whom – it is now clear – are past their sell-by date, long on years and short on ambition and legs.
Ferguson’s competitive spirit continued to drive him forward.
In May 2012, if United had held off City and won the league, again he might have retired. But redressing the upset by City in the last minute of the season was a challenge he could not resist: hence Ferguson stayed to right the wrong, the blow to his Manchester pride, and he drove United back to title-regaining glory last year.
It is impossible to say that Ferguson staged too long because, under his command, United continued to be not only trophy-winners but to maintain a worldwide glamour which the club’s commercial department used to fashion a financial juggernaut.
Only Real Madrid and Barcelona compete with United at the global pinnacle.
The force of Ferguson’s personality not only kept United winning but attracted players to the club. The cost of his departure has been evidenced not only on the pitch but in the failures to persuade Thiago Alcantara, Cesc Fabregas and others that Old Trafford represented their future.
Here again, the Glazers may be blamed for not understanding the value of ‘football men.’ In allowing chief executive David Gill to retire at the same time as Ferguson, they made a deadly error.
Not only did David Moyes arrive ‘late’ – Ferguson liked to have his transfer work concluded early in the summer – but he had a new senior executive in Ed Woodward running the business end of the transfer market.
Hence United have wasted a year in rebuilding terms. Moyes has not been at fault. He is working hard. But he faces major reconstruction in a race against time and the sort of erratic results which could cost United their place in the Champions League for the first time in 15 years.
That, of course, will be costly in terms of reputation, finance and player ‘attractability’.
Moyes puts a brave face on each poor result. He blames the usual scapegoats – Lady (bad) Luck and referees – and continues to praise his players in public so as not to undermine their fragile confidence still further.
But England defender Chris Smalling stared reality in the face after last weekend’s defeat by Stoke when he said: “Really, we need to win all — or almost all — of our remaining 14 league matches. We’re the ones who have to catch Liverpool [in fourth], so we’ve got to win the points and put the pressure on them.
“There’s a lot of games to go, but time is running out.”
Only twice this season have United won three league games in a row and their midfield has been bullied in a manner that invites further pressure.
United face Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City over the next six weeks yet they have taken only six points from a possible 30 available against the present top nine.
Few can envisage United winning the Champions League while the League Cup and FA Cup, like the Premier League title, are already beyond their reach whatever brief inspiration the club record signing of £37m Juan Mata can provide.
To put United’s challenge into perspective Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic and Patrice Evra – long-established in defence – will leave in the summer. Anderson has already gone while Nani, Ashley Young, Shinji Kagawa and Antonio Valencia are surely halfway out of the door.
Ryan Giggs, more interested now in coaching, no longer has the stamina to prop up attack. He was there during two great Premier decades under Ferguson. But time has run out on the Ferguson era.
With hindsight it is clear that the Glazers should have been more aggressive in the transfer market, that Gill and Ferguson should not have be allowed to leave together but, finally, that Ferguson himself was . . . just too successful.