When Manchester United, not unexpectedly, failed to retain a title which had been held for three successive seasons, the common expectation was that the time had finally come for Sir Alex Ferguson to blow the cobwebs off his cheque book and start spending much of the £80 that had been stashed away from the transfer of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid this time last year. Chief executive David Gill had after all repeatedly assured everyone that the cash was available for his manager to strengthen the squad in any way he saw fit.
What had been confidently predicted was for Ferguson to clinch a big money deal to bring in one, maybe even a couple, of the many high profile world stars that the club had been linked to. A top class goalkeeper to replace Edwin van der Sar when his expected retirement takes place at the end of next season was thought to be an iron clad certainty. A class midfielder looked a strong possibility as was a proven goal scorer to give Wayne Rooney the much needed support which was so evidently lacking, and very probably costly, in both the Premier and Champions League campaigns this term.
It’s hard to know therefore what will have made Manchester United supporters feel more uneasy today – the news that the Glazer family have taken more money out of the club to help pay down their spiralling loans or confirmation that Barcelona have just signed David Villa for £34.2 million from Valencia.
United, of course, took a long, hard look at Villa – what pedigree striker have they not scouted in recent years? – and opted against making an exception to their unwritten policy of not signing players aged over 26, as they did with Dimitar Berbatov to little avail, because of a perceived lack of resale value.
Some players are worth making an exception for. Berbatov was not, but Villa would have been. The Spain striker does not turn 29 until December and his scoring record is quite astonishing – 271 goals in 510 matches or in other words, one goal every 1.88 matches for club and country.
Along with Fernando Torres, Villa’s strike partner for Spain whom Liverpool would never sell to United, Villa was, up until today at least, the outstanding forward available on the transfer market. His performances in the World Cup finals may just come to underline that.
The other train of thought is that even if Ferguson had wanted to sign the Spaniard, he could not have afforded him. That seems unlikely given that United did bid £30 million for Karim Benzema, the France striker last summer and that Gill has gone out of his way to insist there is money to spend, but the purse strings do appear to be tightening.
The revelations this morning that the Glazers could already have taken out part or all of the £70 million dividend stipulated in the bond prospectus to help pay off some of the crippling Payment In Kind (PIK) loans will be a troubling development for most United fans.
That money, they will argue, could have been spent on players. Instead, it will be swallowed up by the giant PIK debt, whose interest rate will, from August 16, increase by 2 per cent to a mindboggling 16.25 per cent. Most people would refuse to pay that kind of interest rate on a credit card. Moreover, the total debt will have ballooned to scarcely believable £662.6 million by the time it is due to be repaid in 2017. And that is before we address the matter of the club’s £504 million bond issue.
These are uncertain times at Old Trafford. On the one hand, Ferguson’s rather ominous claims that “there may be one signing, but it’s not easy in the present climate – the market is very difficult” could just be mind games. The United manager takes great delight in pulling the wool over people’s eyes, and its supporters will hope on this occasion that he is simply up to his old mischievous tricks again, but what if he is not? This is the third time in the last few weeks that Ferguson has cautioned that transfer activity may be minimal at United this summer.
“The structure of our squad is good in terms of ages, the balance, the numbers and there’s a lot of good young players” he told a press conference in New York yesterday to promote United’s summer tour of America. “Sometimes you have to trust in the development of the last few years and I’m going to stick with that, or most of it.” Things can always change. One or two more players could follow Ben Foster, who has joined Birmingham City for £6 million on a three year deal as Ferguson opts to shake things up a little.
But when Barcelona, who already boast a flurry of world beaters, signal their intentions for next season by signing Villa in May and make clear their desire to buy Cesc Fabregas from Arsenal, the idea of Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez joining United for a combined £19 million suddenly seems desperately underwhelming. Gill also made it clear that the emphasis will be on youth. “The Premier League is bringing in squad limits of 25 next year, but there will be unlimited Under 21s and other rules and we’ll be taking all that into consideration” he said.
United could probably get away with not signing another goalkeeper this summer – Ferguson said in Foster’s absence that Ben Amos would be promoted to third choice behind Edwin Van der Sar and Tomasz Kuszczak – but they need a midfield player and a striker. Jack Rodwell, the highly rated young Everton utility player, who is comfortable in central defence or midfield, may well arrive and effectively cover two positions, but a striker is the most pressing requirement.
The prospect of going into next season with Berbatov, Michael Owen, Hernandez, Federico Macheda, Mame Biram Diouf and Danny Welbeck as support for Wayne Rooney will not excite or encourage United fans when Torres could possibly team up with Dider Drogba at Chelsea and Barcelona will have an embarrassment of riches at their disposal.
If Ferguson had his squeaky bum time towards the end of the season, Manchester United fans could now be forgiven for getting a little bit twitchy themselves.
Has massive debts cost Ferguson the chance of bringing David Villa to Old Trafford?