When Manchester United slapped AIG on their shirts you might havethought they were merely the sponsors. It appears they were secretlyacting as the club's business advisers as well.
What is happening at Old Trafford? The so-called 'richest club inthe world' club has been revelling in the most successful period of itsentire 131-year history and yet it is still posting an annual pre-taxLOSS of £44.8million.
How? Everyone knew the Glazer family's buy-out of United with an unprecedented pile of borrowed moneywas a disgraceful and reckless gamble, but stark reality of the numbersbeing bandied about are almost beyond comprehension.
The club's marketing clout and the success of the team under SirAlex Ferguson generate a whopping annual turnover of £256m. But thatwindfall is being swallowed by the need to service interest on loanstotalling £699m a debt that is rising every year.
The credit bunch: (from left) Avi, Bryan and Joel, Malcolm Glazer's sons and United directors
'I don't know what these figures tell you,' said Ferguson yesterday.Run, perhaps? Admittedly, the accounts are horribly obtuse;deliberately so, no doubt. It's a tangle of holding companies, parentcompanies, 'secured' borrowing, 'debt streams' and 'payment in kind'loans that would require the services of a professional expert tounravel, the kind of professional expert who helped lead us all to thebrink of global financial disaster in the first place.
If you like calculus then they may be bedtime reading. But here is the scenario for you in a nutshell.
The Glazers are basically using their American Express card to pay off the£699m shopping bill they ran up on their Visa card. And next year,they'll shove it all on Mastercard.
In the meantime, they are turning up at the casino and hoping thecards continue to be kind so they can cover the interest payments withtheir winnings.
What could possibly go wrong? Football iscyclical. Although the wheel turns much more slowly at the top than inyears past, there will inevitably be a period when United are lesssuccessful. Ferguson mentions retirement more and more these days andother clubs will surely seize the initiative when that moment finallycomes.
And then what? United are a bad season or two away fromdoing a Lehman Brothers, or a Northern Rock. The club is a sub-primehorror story, where hidden commitments, myriad loans and debts arecomplacently excused and numbers are crunched until they areunrecognisable.
These accounts don't even cover the period when the credit crisis started claiming real victims, including the failed conglomerate AIG. The figures appear to show the Glazers aren't paying off their massive debt and it's not even clear if they're covering all the interest.
More worryingly, the ledger seems to suggest huge repayments are due, starting in four years' time, with bills landing on the doormat of between £75m-£150m every 12 months, followed by a massive £600m final demand in eight years.
Note for diary: 'January 1, 2017 United go bust'.)
What does this mean in the short term? It means season ticket prices will probably go up in the midst of a recession. It could mean the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo are sold, as it's hard to turn down £75m when there is a black hole in the books.
We can only guess at the implications. The Glazers decided to remain undercover in Florida and say nothing about these figures, the ignorant cowards. Supporters deserve better than that.
But to help explain the situation to the worldwide fan base their debt empire is built upon, here is a helpful Q&A with one of the family's trusted advisers:
Q. Where is Malcolm Glazer? He is never seen in public. Is he even alive?
A. We believe he is alive because his face still appears on packets of Quaker Oats. Malcolm Glazer does venture out in public but only when disguised as John McCririck, and to date nobody has dared to approach him due to concerns over hygiene.
Q. Do the Glazer family actually understand United's history or the English game?
A. Yes, of course they do. To use the football vernacular, this is a family that knows how to step up to the plate, adjust the groin cup of caution, swing the bat of success in the fourth down and dunk the hoop of victory even if they then pull the hamstring of recklessness and fall face down on the pitch of stupidity with the snot of greed dribbling out of their nose. Yeah, these guys live and breathe football, from their base in Tampa.
Q. How confident are you that the Glazer family have a real grip on these nightmare numbers?
A. On a scale of one to 10, I'd say they're at eleventeen.
Guus Hiddink is now officially a 'tactical genius' (copyright all newspapers) for the way he has reinvigorated Chelsea and has led them to the brink of a Champions League semi-final place.
Since the manager receives the brunt of criticism when things fall apart on the pitch, it is only logical that he should be hailed as a mastermind when there is a turnaround in fortunes.
But it's impossible to be a great general without troops, and there is one masterstroke that has made the difference, one strategy that has restored Chelsea to form.
He has been able to put Michael Essien's name back on the teamsheet. The Ghanaian is the key. He can control a game with his passing, or destroy the opposition with his aggression.
Essien stamped out the threat of Steven Gerrard in midweek, he frees Frank Lampard and is undoubtedly the type of dominant central midfield player Manchester United lack. I do not want a good general,' said Napoleon, 'I want a lucky one.' Roman Abramovich might have found both.
When I interviewed Flavio Briatore for the BBC, the perma-tanned head honcho had just been installed at Queens Park Rangers and was promising a directors' box full of beautiful people and a 'boutique' club.
After going through five managers in 18 months, Briatore's project at Loftus Road is looking more like Woolworths.
Rumours abound that the Formula One boss tries to select the team, despite his patent lack of knowledge.
Meanwhile, the dismissal of Paulo Sousa after just 26 matches was explained with the preposterous excuse that he leaked 'highly confidential and sensitive information' when he admitted the club's top scorer had been loaned out without his prior knowledge.
It wasn't confidential information. But it was obviously sensitive to someone, at least.
Having a laugh out of the blue If watching cricket was always as enjoyable as England's victory over the West Indies in St Lucia last week you'd never be able to prise me away.
Being at the exuberant Beausejour Ground was one of the most joyous sporting experiences I can recall in recent years.
Over the years I've snoozed at The Oval, watched a football match on the television in a box at Lord's, but this was a celebration of noise and colour from start to finish.
The crowd were fantastic. There were drums, conch shell solos and tunes being played on plumbing pipes as if it was an audition for one of Simon Cowell's reality freak shows.
Another character turned up wearing a blue outfit and waving a blue cricket bat above his head. Peculiarly, he had topped off this ensemble by Sellotaping sanitary pads to various parts of his body.
Obviously, I asked why. (I'd have woken up in the night if I hadn't.) He promptly held up a sign that said: 'I'm batting for a long period'.
This might not seem quite so hilarious now, but trust me, when the guy next to you has a full bar spread out in front of the seats, including an array of quality rums and a selection of mixers on ice, it's possibly the funniest thing you've ever seen.
There may be a more affable and genuinely helpful managing director in the sporting world than the ECB's Hugh Morris but, if so, I have yet to meet him.
Cricket has had a chaotic winter, and the jobs of many at the top are in justifiable peril, but Morris is a safe and intelligent pair of hands who can only help England's emergence from the disruptive debacles of recent months.
In light of events in the north west this week, can I suggest those writing about Amir Khan might quietly drop the nickname 'Bolton Bomber'?
Shooting fish in barrel highlight of the week: After the Liverpool game Chelsea's John Terry complained: 'It's not nice to see them crowding around the referee trying to get him to show a yellow card'. Now I could go on, but there are times as a columnist when you have to tell yourself it's far too easy.
Stephen Ireland calls for Manchester City players to be 'braver'. Alan Shearer calls for Newcastle's players to show more 'bravery'. Forget brave. Try better instead.