LONDON — With new investors to attract and a team in need of strengthening, Manchester United is trying to appease its disgruntled fans.
New manager Louis van Gaal has been evaluating this once-mighty club after a sobering loss to Swansea — United’s first home defeat on opening day in 42 years. Two weeks remain for Van Gaal and executive vice chairman Ed Woodward to lure players to a team that failed to make the Champions League.
On the financial front, United’s leadership is intent on highlighting the club’s robustness and downplaying any turmoil in the post-Alex Ferguson era following the team’s collapse under David Moyes last season.
“Manchester United is the most watched club with the biggest fan base”, declares a presentation shown on the investor roadshow.
The Glazer family, which controls United, announced last month it was selling another 12 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange. The six children of the recently deceased Malcolm Glazer will raise $196 million while retaining more than 80 percent of the voting power.
Watching the Glazers cash in, following a 2005 leveraged takeover that has cost the club about $1.2 billion in finance costs, has proved particularly galling for some fans after the 2013 champions finished in seventh place in May.
Success, though, has been measured by other factors in the last year at Old Trafford. Consider one of the slides at the investor presentation. No major trophy was won in 2013-14, but it did take “22 days to become the biggest Premier League club” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram.
Fans have struggled to reconcile their 136-year-old club’s heritage and the motives of the Floridian owners whose affinity to United is to the brand’s money-making abilities. Another slide lauds United as a “leading global marketing platform,” allowing sponsors to have an “association with success.”
Even after last season’s dismal finish, Adidas signed a 10-year uniform deal worth about $1.3 billion from 2015 on top of a seven-year $559 million shirt sponsorship with Chevrolet that has just started.
Woodward has been so determined to reassure fans that the owners are not just milking the club of cash that he boasted in July: “We’re not afraid of spending significant amounts of money … we are in a very strong financial position.”
That’s been clear throughout 2014, but the wisdom of the spending is less so.
Signing Juan Mata in January for a club-record 37.1 million pounds (then $61 million) briefly raised morale under Moyes. But the midfielder couldn’t hold down a regular place at Chelsea and would go on to play just once at the World Cup — in Spain’s group-stage, with the country already eliminated.
The much-vaunted arrivals during the summer transfer period are not established international players. Yet, Luke Shaw and Ander Herrara commanded fees of about $50 million.
Patrice Evra, one of three veteran defenders to leave in the offseason, was replaced with 19-year-old left back Shaw. When the Englishman joined the club from Southampton in June, he had appeared just once at the World Cup — like Mata, in the final group game with England unable to advance.
Herrara, signed from Athletic Bilbao, is a central midfielder who at 25 is yet to make a senior international appearance for Spain.
The challenge is persuading world-class players to join a team that has won 20 English championships but has no Champions League soccer on offer this season, and potentially in the following season unless the team returns to the Premier League’s top four.
United has an admirable commitment to promoting talent from its academy, although to shareholders such players are “carried on the balance sheet at zero book value.” One of the refashioned back three on Saturday was Tyler Blackett, making his first-team debut at 20 in an unaccustomed defensive formation alongside Chris Smalling and Phil Jones.
Hardly a trio of names to instill fear in opponents or plaster on noodles in Malaysia, wine in Chile or credit cards in the United Arab Emirates in the Glazers’ pursuit of global sponsorship riches. Revenue rose to another club-record of about $727 million for the year to June 30, 2014.
Despite Van Gaal questioning the commercial demands during the preseason slog across the United States, fans won’t be able to count on the former Netherlands and Barcelona coach joining their anti-Glazer protests.
In fact, the 2-1 defeat to Swansea on Saturday might have reinvigorated the anti-Glazer campaign online, but the movement no longer has a unified public front following all the success under Ferguson.