Doom and Gloom in Manchester!

Doom and Gloom in Manchester! These were the headlines following Manchester City’s and Manchester United’s recent Champions League exits. With both Mancunian clubs currently occupying the top two positions domestically, in what is arguably the toughest league in the world, why has there been such a big fallout?

Two fundamental reasons: 1) Money and; 2) Kudos.

1)   Money

Just in case you have lived on a deserted island for the past 3-4 years (without WIFI – how frustrating), let me help you. Manchester City were purchased by Abu Dhabi United Group in August 2008. The acquisition resulted in a virtually unlimited war chest for the development of City on and off the pitch. City’s rivals were filled with envy as City could financially outgun anyone, even Abramovich’s Chelsea.

City unleashed a statement of intent by shattering the British transfer record, by signing Robinho for £32.5m in August 2008. Following this landmark acquisition, there was a frenzy of transfer activity, highlighted by two astonishing bids of £103m and £32m for Kaka (Jan 09) and John Terry (Jul 09) respectively. Both players evaded Sheikh Mansour’s grasp. No matter, as Carlos Tevez, Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Roque Santa Cruz, Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott all signed for a combined sum in excess of £100m in the summer of 2009. The following summer was no different, with James Milner, Edin Dzeko, Jerome Boateng, Yaya Toure, David Silva, Aleksandar Kolarov and the colourful Mario Balotelli all signing on the dotted line, declaring their love for miserable weather and Francis Lee.

12 months later in 2011, Arsene Wenger was caught muttering something along the lines of dejavu. Arsenal had been raided for a second time in three summers. Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri were persuaded to sign for City along with Stefan Savic, Sergio Aguero and Owen ‘watch me train on You Tube’ Hargreaves.

City’s net spend on transfer fees since Aug 2008 is a staggering £315m (total expenditure of £359m less player sales of £44m). The club recently announced an annual loss of £197m which is the biggest ever recorded loss for a football club.

This is a problem since UEFA’s Financial Fair Play rules have come into play this season. These measures are being implemented over a three-year period, with the break-even assessment covering the financial years ending 2012 (this season) and 2013 (next season) assessed during the 2013/14 season. The assessment commenced by collating all transfers and employee payables in the summer of 2011. Translated into English, this means teams cannot spend more than they generate resulting in a rather large problem for City.

Earlier this year, City ‘solved’ the problem by announcing a £400m stadium sponsorship deal with Etihad Airways. Critics argue that the deal has been artificially inflated in an attempt to balance the books. In addition the Abu Dhabi government owns Eithad Airways, opening up a can of worms over related parties. Time to put my Detective Columbo raincoat on…..

Sheikh Mansour, Man City owner, who is also the Abu Dhabi Minister of Presidential Affairs, is the son of the late Sheikh Zayed, former ruler of Abu Dhabi (1966 – 2004) and the founder of the United Arab Emirates. Sheikh Hamed, chairman of Etihad Airways, is also a member of the Ruling Family in Abu Dhabi. Does Manchester City deserve a fair shake? As Columbo once said, “You left enough clues to sink a ship.”

If City wish to adhere to Uefa’s Financial Fair Play rules, Champions League football is a prerequisite. They must avoid replicating this season’s stuttering performances, most notably away to Bayern Munich and Napoli, and progress to the latter stages milking football’s premier cash cow in the process. Champions League income alone will not save them from Uefa’s wrath, but it is a step in the right direction.

2)   Kudos

Sir Alex Ferguson recently celebrated 25 years at the helm of one of the world’s biggest football clubs. He has won the English Premier league 12 times in 19 seasons with Manchester United. He has won the FA and League Cup on nine occasions, winning the league and FA Cup double twice, plus that historic treble in 1999. This is a monumental feat. Furthermore, United have finished Premier League runners-up four times and have never finished below third place (three times) in almost two decades. On average the Red Devils have amassed approximately 83 points per season.  

Yet for all of Sir Alex’s domestic dominance, success on the Continent in Europe’s Premier club competition has been comparatively meagre. Two Champions Leagues (1999 & 2008) have been won in 17 attempts (United did not qualify in the 1992-93 & 1995-96 seasons). They have finished runners up twice, (2009 & 2011) succumbing on both occasions to a Barcelona side widely considered as one of the best teams ever.

Fergie won his first Champions League title in 1999. United beat Bayern Munich 2-1 at the Camp Nou thanks to last minute strikes from Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, after being largely outplayed by the Germans. Man Utd fans expected a European dominance after this victory but were disappointed as United were knocked out in the quarter finals in the following two seasons by Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively. In 2001-02, United did make it as far as the semi-finals but were dumped out by the unfancied Bayer Levekusen.

In the following three seasons, Real (again), Mourinho’s Porto and Milan proved to be immoveable objects with United only progressing as far as the quarter finals (against Milan). 2005-06 was a low point as United were eliminated in the group stage mustering just one win in six games against Lille, Benfica and Villareal.

There was a considerable improvement in 2006-07 until they faced Milan in the semi-finals. United, who had a score to settle from 2005, won the first leg at Old Trafford 3-2. Anything other than a defeat at the San Siro would have resulted in their first final in eight years against arch rivals Liverpool. However, the Rossoneri failed to read the script and swept United to one side with a comfortable 3-0 win.

Lessons were learnt and United eliminated favourites Barcelona in the 2007-08 semi-finals resulting in an all English final against Chelsea in Moscow. After waiting nine long years, Fergie finally had his hands on title number two after defeating the Blues on penalties. John Terry slipped at the crucial moment, hitting the post with the decisive spot-kick. Cue the tears.

Since 2008, Fergie’s track record has certainly improved. United reached the 2009 final in Rome, confident of creating Champions League history by being the first team to win back to back titles (Milan being the last club to achieve this feat in 1989 & 1990 when the tournament was in its original European Cup format). Barcelona, going through their own period of dominance, turned United over with a masterclass of a performance winning 2-0.

In 2011, the two sides met again in the final, this time at Wembley. In the build-up, Ferguson was adamant that United had learnt from their mistakes in Rome. Behind the scenes, he prepared meticulously. He was confident that his side was going to smother the threat from the likes of Messi, Xavi and Iniesta. In addition, the final was being held on English soil. Combining these factors together, pundits expected a closer match than 2009, with more than a few tipping Fergie to win his third title. Barca, though, stole the limelight again with a breathtaking performance of effortless, pass and mesmerise football. Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney did combine to produce a solitary flash of brilliance in the first half to equalize (1-1) but it only prompted Barca to crank up the gears and run out worthy 3-1 winners.

That final must have hurt Ferguson. Two winners’ medals are not enough for a man who has created history in England. When he joined United in 1986 his main aim was to knock Liverpool off its perch. After celebrating United’s record 19th league win last season, Ferguson said: “It’s more important that United are the best team in the country in terms of winning titles. Same with the FA Cup. We have won it more times than everyone and now we have won the Premier League more times than anyone.

That’s all well and good but Liverpool remain the most successful English team in Europe with five European Cups / Champions Leagues. With this season’s early elimination, Ferguson and United are left at 5-3 down. Setting yourself a target of three additional Champions Leagues wins (just to knock Liverpool off its perch) is a tall order for anyone, let alone when your next birthday is your 70th.

In addition, during Fergie’s Man Utd tenure, Milan, Real Madrid and Barca have each won the Champions League three times when they have been nowhere near as dominant as United have domestically. Then there is Jose Mourinho’s achievements of having two winners’ medals but in less attempts than Ferguson (with different clubs). The Scot gets all the kudos at home but in Europe it is a different story. He is not number one. This must annoy the man, who according to Arsene Wenger, “thinks he has the prettiest wife at home.”

Categories: Football

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