Manchester United, business and matters of the heart

Opening day. First home game of the season. The Theatre of Dreams is filling up. Lifelong Manchester United fans and youngsters attending their first games are buzzing with equal measure. The atmosphere is electric. In the director’s box, Ed Woodward looks out at the masses and then at his high-profile guest and says: Hear that? That’s what £2.7 billion sounds like.

The beginnings were humble. Manchester United or Newton Heath LYR Football Club as it was then called, was formed in 1878 by the Carriage and Wagon dept. of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath. United started playing games against other departments and railway companies at their North Road home ground. The club’s players worked the railway during the week, and still had blackened hands when they pulled on their Newton Heath shirts for their club on Saturday afternoons.

Fast forward a few decades to the early 1950s. United had already come a long way. Growing, but keeping in touch with the values that the foundations were laid upon. The club moved to Old Trafford, and they had already begun to show signs that this wasn’t any ordinary football club. Under the tutelage of Sir Matt Busby and West Bromwich Albion’s former half-back, Jimmy Murphy, we had a young, hungry and talented squad. None more talented than a scrawny little lad from Bedlington Grammar School, Bobby Charlton.

As good as he was, Jimmy Murphy had a hard time promoting Bobby Charlton to the first team. He was too afraid of disappointing the fans because Manchester United fans expected a certain standard of football on the pitch every week and young Mr. Charlton was too unproven a quantity. Jim Murphy took Bobby Charlton out to the Old Trafford pitch, pointed out where specific families sat on match days and pointed out how the club had an obligation to give them the very best every week. While he had faith in the player, he knew what it meant to pull on the United shirt and what was expected of those who donned the badge. We all know how that turned out. Apologies in advance for the rude image I’m about to draw next.

To say that things happen a bit differently now would be quite the understatement. From almost everything being about the fans, football seems to have gone through a dystopian evolution which has landed us in today’s reality in which everything clubs do seem to be motivated by money. It’s everywhere. On shirts, on boots, on stadiums, on the cars that drive incoming players to Carrington for their medical, on players’ minds, and in the owner’s hands. The fans are as disconnected as they’ve ever been. And long gone are the days when keeping the fans happy (even if that didn’t mean an obvious commercial gain) was in fashion.

Transfers happen after meetings with the sponsors of the players. Brands weigh in on whether a particular move is commercially viable and profitable. Shinji Kagawa is a prime example. He joined the club in 2012 so that we could grow our fan base in East Asia. Taking nothing away from his talent, the commercial side of this particular deal can’t be ignored. Similarly, adidas allegedly doesn’t support a James Rodriguez to United transfer unless the no. 10 shirt is vacated for him. Brand and marketability is now everything. Sure, talent still matters, but now there are contracts and sponsorships and clauses and buyout clauses and brand images that have to be taken into account.

Foreign investment in the league has skyrocketed in recent years. Add to that mad TV deals and you get an explosive inflation in players’ transfer values, the likes of which have never been seen before. You don’t have to look further than the back pages of today’s papers to see the evidence of this. Last year people balked at the sum we forked over for Paul Pogba, yet this year, it’s being made to look like a bargain. This transfer window is firmly on course to smash that record by a good £50 million. And this is a trend. It’s amazing to think that in the 2007/08 season, the highest transfer fee paid was the £32 million Liverpool paid for a 23-year-old Fernando Torres.

Foreign royalty, oil tycoons, and billionaires have come to the Premier League and have reinvented and rebuilt their clubs as businesses from the ground floor up. Throwing money around to significantly speed up the process of becoming clubs who challenge in Europe and domestically. Make no mistake, I’m not trying to take the moral high ground by saying the red half of Manchester is not party to this. While we don’t have oil money to throw around, we are the richest club in the world. And we are playing their game to remain competitive. We didn’t become the richest club in the world by beating out the likes of Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain by taking the moral high ground. But we do still have a legacy to live up to and look after.

The game has changed. Love it or hate it, that is the irrefutable fact of the matter. And while ignoring it is not an option, how we play it is still very much in our hands. Louis van Gaal and David Moyes have experienced firsthand how important having the fans on your side is and how damning the flip side of that can be. Even after all the deals and shaken hands, the fact remains that the fans are the fabric of the club. And through the changing times, we’ve got to keep our sights on the club we were. Our legacy. The club that had Jim Murphy show Bobby Charlton why it was always about the fans. The railway club with perpetually blackened hands.

Manchester United meant everything to the fans. It still does. And as long as that holds true, the future’s bright.

“… As the Reds go marching on, on, on.”

Written by Anish Bhattacharya


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