Manchester United’s policy to sign young players – accepting that grooming young players made more economic and long-term sense (and built a team rather than a collection of superstars) has been used by critics to complain about the club’s debts. Never mind that a focused effort on grooming young players is the hallmark of all ‘big’ clubs across Europe (including clubs with as diverse financial issues as Chelsea and Arsenal) – and that policy is usually matched with buying experienced players where needed.
When these two factors – youth policy and strengthening the squad – are out of balance, you can have problems like the ones Real Madrid have had over the last decade in Europe, or on the other end, how Arsenal have fared domestically.
In Manchester United’s case, it’s a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. In a day and age where clubs are criticised for ‘buying’ success and teams like Arsenal are lauded for their youth policies, Manchester United end up being vilified for their focus on grooming young players after a decade of being accused of buying success (even though the last two decades have been built on a mixture of youth and experience). Before it used to be United’s domination and success, today it’s United’s debt.
There’s also been criticism of how United have ‘missed’ out on players who in any case wanted to go elsewhere (Benzema, Ozil, Villa). It’s telling that Ferguson, despite the much-publicised age limit of ‘under-26’ players only, wanted David Villa (28). Ferguson’s desire to build a ‘team’ and not play fantasy football a la Manchester City or Real Madrid is being blasted as a ‘weakness’ at the same time that Madrid and City are being trashed for their opulence. Anger at United’s debt should not be transfered to Ferguson, his transfer policy or his contracts policy.
Speaking of contracts, this article in the Guardian made me laugh this morning. Apparently not signing players on hefty long-term contracts far into the future is now a sign of United’s weakness. Never mind that in the same breath you’ll find the Guardian complaining about player power and the obscene amounts of money players make these days, or praising Chelsea for their ‘principled’ stand against Frank Lampard / Michael Ballack / John Terry / Nicolas Anelka when it came to negotiating their contracts.
United, like ALL football clubs, give their star players a priority when it comes to discussing contracts and tend to allow negotiations with other members of the squad to proceed at a slower pace. It’s not because of the debt, it’s happened before and it’ll happen even after the debt is gone. It’s good business sense, and that doesn’t change just because David Conn and co are throwing the 700m number in your face every week.
To sum it all up, hate the debt all you want. But don’t criticise the club for make-believe weaknesses (youth-focus, prioritising contracts) when the club has been doing this for long before the Glazers came along, and when every other football club does the same thing.