It was in August 2012 that some old buffer wrote a column on this page and questioned whether Manchester United would finish in the top four at the end of the 2012-13 campaign. He ended up with egg all over his face because in May 2013, United finished the season runaway leaders.
So what did I know? I was proved to be conclusively wrong and the fact United finished 11 points clear demonstrated just how wrong I was. I retreated into a dark corner, but not quietly for, in my opinion, despite the points margin, it was the most unconvincing team United had put out for years. I seldom agree with Jose Mourinho’s utterances, but he was right in claiming the previous two were poor championship races.
United had frittered away a seven-point lead in the run in during the previous campaign and let City wrest the title on goal-difference on the last day. I thought the writing was on the wall for Sir Alex Ferguson and United. The Glazers, who bought a profitable marquee business in the shape of Manchester United, then used the club’s revenue to pay for their investment. They were fortunate in that they were able to ride on the back of Sir Alex Ferguson’s ability and experience.
Very few managers would have been able to forge 2012-13 season’s United squad into runaway champions. Of course Fergie bought Robin Van Persie to paper over the cracks of a creaking midfield and take away the focus from the fact that he and the Glazers had not recruited a great or world class player for years.
Ronaldo was sold in 2009 for £80m – providing United with a £56.5m profit on transfers that year. So the richest club on the planet lost a world class player in the summer of 2009 and two years later had not spent all of that transfer profit in player recruitment, let alone brought in a “great” player.
Fergie told us in early 2013, the current crop was the finest he had managed. I knew then it was time for him to go. United have inherited the failure of the club under the Glazers and Ferguson to properly invest in real quality, while others have outspent them. That, and not David Moyes, is the reason for United’s vulnerability which has been apparent for two seasons at least.
Ferguson kept claiming there was no value in the market, while his rivals bought Kompany, Toure, Silva and Aguero; Chelsea bought Hazard and Mata and the list of good, effective purchases is endless, while United bought a succession of back-up squad players to help out the uninspiring Tom Cleverley.
It is not fashionable to say so, but in my book, Van Persie apart, Ferguson had not bought a decent player in years and lamentably failed to replace the likes of Scholes and Keane. United’s current state is down in part to last summer’s transfer hesitation; Moyes’ tactics; the players’ failure to respond professionally but a large part of the buck should be at Fergie’s door. He had squeezed the last drop of success out of a limited squad.
Otherwise it was quite an interesting season in the Premier League although I did identify with Gary Neville when asked if he wanted Manchester City or Liverpool to take the title; “It’s like asking me to choose the man to run off with my missus.”
United fans, after humiliation at Old Trafford at the hands of City, seemed almost in agreement in the post-match Vox Pop, when asked who they wanted to win their title: “Liverpool. They have worked for it, not tried to buy it.”
I agreed with them in principle but have little care for Brendan “Don’t insult my integrity” Rodgers or his avowal that Luis Suarez is “a real gentleman”. Liverpool did work for it and have broken back into the top four by dint of management skills – the single most important quality that established Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool as forces in the game.
The “Silicones”, Chelsea and Manchester City, artificially inflated way beyond their track record, by vast injections of capital, look set to dominate. They say money does not buy you everything in football, but it comes pretty close. City had spent £930m by the summer of 2013 so we can safely assume the cost is well in excess of a billion.
At least they play decent football.
Mourinho’s Chelsea remain the most boring of the leading sides, often resorting to parasite football, as was the successful case at Liverpool and enabled the pendulum to swing City’s way. Mourinho had spent £207m in his first stint at Stamford Bridge, more than any other club, apart from City.
What sickens me is that Mourinho spends this money, calls himself “Special” and plays restrictive, non-expansive football. And before Chelsea fans counter it is all about winning, style is what you remember when the results fade. In that department, Chelsea and Mourinho have yet to register positively.
Chelsea and Manchester City have caused the wages and transfer prices to rise every year and we have to read the likes of Martin Samuel claiming Fair Play is not fair.
“Any successful business wants to invest, and Fair Play is stopping City investing,” he prattled on television the other week, clearly forgetting any other business has to borrow money to invest and pay it back. City had £400m of debts paid off when the current regime took over and they will continue to bankroll the club beyond the reaches of others, unless Fair Play keeps them on a tighter leash.
It is easy to admire the achievements of Guy Poyet, Sean Dyche, Tony Pulis, Nigel Pearson and company, who work successfully and effectively in less rarefied climes.
It is good that Roy Hodgson has included many promising younger players in his England World Cup squad. If he uses them and fails, he will be told he should have kept faith with experience. If he goes for experience, he will be told by Fleet Street, he should have given the younger ones their head.
Hodgson can’t win but then I suspect he, along with any level-headed fan, knows that.
This article was first published in the Watford Observer on Friday, May 23.