£600m, that is the record sum that other Premier League clubs have spent in the frenetic past two months in an attempt to wrestle the trophy from Manchester United’s grasp.
The current champions’ last-ditch addition of Marouane Fellaini to the relatively modest purchase of the Uruguayan Guillermo Varela earlier in the summer brought their total spending to just under £30m, but it was the cash left unspent that has provoked the greatest reaction. On forums, television programmes and in even the most esteemed of newspapers, the club’s approach to conducting their summer transfer business has torpedoed from all angles.
‘Humiliation for Manchester United’ cried the Telegraph, ‘deadline-day farce’ opined the Guardian, and ‘Woodward ripped to shreds’ claimed one online forum. The target of much of the venom has been Ed Woodward, United’s recently appointed executive vice-chairman, for failing to close the deals that had been touted earlier in the summer. The finger of blame has also been pointed at new manager David Moyes, and the paucity of big names arriving at Old Trafford has left many fans voicing their frustration. Perhaps it is the frantic nature of the transfer window, the frankly outrageous sums of money being exchanged, or the appetite for instant and endless overload of information through the media, but the real facts are being obscured. A healthy dose of realism is clearly missing.
The details of the failed negotiations to secure the services of Cesc Fabregas, Thiago Alcantara and Ander Herrera may never be known, but the linking of big names with United has always been treated by seasoned fans with hope more than expectation. Wesley Sneijder, Mesut Ozil and Ronaldinho are just some of the names that were keenly awaited at Old Trafford in past years, only to make big-money moves elsewhere.
Admittedly, the public nature of the unsuccessful pursuits this summer is a concern, and would not have helped the lure of United as the destination of choice for the world’s top players. The handling of the Fellaini transfer also left a lot to be desired, with more than a hint of desperation behind the £27m bid which could have been reduced to £23m earlier in the summer had the player’s buyout clause been activated. However, lessons will be learned and any reputational damage will surely be fleeting.
Woodward has neither the stature nor respect commanded by his predecessor David Gill, and he was always due a bruising introduction to the murky world of the transfer market. Likewise, a popular accusation levelled at David Moyes is that he struggles to attract the best players to Old Trafford because he lacks the draw of Sir Alex Ferguson. Was this not to be expected? How many managers in world football have the gravitas of Sir Alex? Fans of other clubs and sections of the media have revelled in whipping up a storm in the hopes that this finally signals the fall of the great red machine, and that United are now destined to tumble down the order of world football. Meanwhile, some United fans seem to have been swept along in the following gloom to the extend that they have forgotten their own recipe for success.
It has never been the United way to spend indiscriminately to keep up with their rivals. The capture of a ‘marquee’ signing may have excited the fans and allowed Moyes to stamp his authority on the squad, but it was never a primary concern of Sir Alex or his trusted team. If a marquee signing is defined as a player at or near his peak, having competed on the highest stage and coveted by many of the top clubs in world football, then with the exception of Robin van Persie, when was the last time United signed such a player? In fact, when did they last sign a player for over £20m, a relatively restrained figure by today’s standards.
Dimitar Berbatov in 2008, and before that Wayne Rooney nearly a decade ago. The sense of frustration felt by many is nothing new. Some venting their anger on the likes of Twitter and Facebook may not remember the summer of 1994 after United’s first successful Premier League defence. 12 players were sold, among them Mark Hughes and Paul Ince who had been the backbone of that team. That was followed by Andrei Kanchelskis and Steve Bruce a year later. Ferguson had lost the plot, according to the detractors of the time, although it did very little to halt the United juggernaut. During that period, a group of as-yet unknowns such as Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and David Beckham were being prepared and integrated in to the first team, who would, of course, go on to conquer Europe. And the trick was repeated throughout the next 15 years – a careful balancing act of continual regeneration of the squad with the consistency required in the first team to ensure there was never a long wait for silverware.
The Fergie philosophy became the Manchester United philosophy – believe in youth, add quality and potential, and an occasional sprinkling of stardust only when required. When the rush of adrenaline has subsided, a glance at the current squad should convince fans that these principles are alive and well at Old Trafford. There are technically gifted defenders such as Phil Jones, Chris Smalling and Rafael, the youthful energy and assertiveness of Wilfried Zaha and Tom Cleverley in midfield, and an attack which include the trickery of Welbeck, guile of Kagawa and the movement of Hernandez. Success may not be instant, and indeed it would be foolish for United fans to expect so.
Moyes’ biggest task will be to restore resilience to the squad and the stubborn refusal to quit that made Sir Alex’s teams so fearsome. It is undoubted that a strengthening in midfield is desirable, and while he is a fine player, it remains to be seen if Fellaini is the answer. It seems an appropriate time to see Kagawa get more playing time and allow him the freedom to demonstrate his talents. And a revitalised Rooney, if settled and committed in a red shirt, could be akin to a new signing. But for now, the Twitterati and hacks in search of a good headline have had their fun and should get down to business on, rather than off, the pitch. And if you are a Red Devil, rest assured that the old Sir Alex mentality still lives on at United, at least for now – we are United, and we don’t care what anyone else thinks.