Friday 21 July 2017

Neymar, Bale and Ronaldo back on agenda as United plot summer spending spree

Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo
Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo

Ben Rumsby

The stage was set for Manchester United’s biggest summer spending spree on Thursday night, after they announced record revenues that could make them the first club to break the half-billion-pound barrier.

The threat of another silverware-starved season failed to halt United’s relentless march towards overhauling Real Madrid as football’s most profitable team, as they remained on course to earn £500m in a single year.

Following quarterly financial results that showed United made £133.8m – up 26.6pc year on year – in the three months to Dec 31, chief executive Ed Woodward hinted at money being made available for “world-class” signings at the end of the season.

With the club also boasting a year-on-year surge in their cash balance from £37m to £121.6m and with their share of the first tranche of an £8.3 billion Premier League television deal to come, it appeared that failure to qualify for the Champions League would be the only barrier to success in the transfer market this summer.

Providing they do finish in the top four, the odds of the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar or Gareth Bale ending up at Old Trafford could depend solely on the whim of whoever is manager.

In a conference call with investors to discuss the quarterly figures, Woodward made no mention of the possible departure of Louis van Gaal and arrival of Jose Mourinho, for what could be a mouth-watering renewal of his rivalry with the incoming Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola.

But he made it clear whoever was in charge would be under “pressure” to sign top players, fuelled by what he described in the financial results as “our strong commitment to investing in our squad”.

Responding to a question about why Leicester City were leading the Premier League with a team who cost just £22m – more than 10 times less than fifth-placed United spent last summer – Woodward said: “Some players are bought by other clubs with an eye to them developing into something special in a few years’ time, whereas there’s a bit more pressure perhaps on some of the bigger clubs to bring in players that are going to be hitting the ground running and top players, verging on world-class, almost immediately.

“So there is a slightly different market, perhaps, in which people are buying.”

Woodward admitted the rise of China as a footballing powerhouse could impact upon United’s recruitment plans, but after declaring the club to be the biggest on the country’s social media network, Weibo, added: “If nothing else, it’s another useful market if we’re looking to sell any players.”

He was similarly bullish about the future of United’s academy, the standard of which has recently been compared unfavourably to City’s state-of-the-art facility. In what appeared a thinly veiled swipe at the number of young players blooded by City, Woodward revealed that a “root-and-branch” review of United’s own academy was complete, which could see a new director announced in the coming days. “The academy continues to be at the heart of the club. Giving youth a chance is part of our philosophy, part of our DNA,” he said.

Joe Rothwell, who scored the winner in the Manchester under-21 derby on Thursday night, is a product of the Academy

“Our key competitive advantages are still very strong. The two ones I would call out are an unmatched record of player development compared to any other team, in particular in England. And, secondly, the runway we deliver of first-team opportunities to those players coming through. Again, very different to some of our competitors.”

Woodward’s assertion in the financial results that “success on the pitch” was United’s “No 1 priority” did not stop him being congratulated during the conference call about their commercial success, which provided a boost to its dwindling share price on the New York Stock Exchange.

Highlights from the quarter were identified as the renewal of the club’s partnership with Thomas Cook, a new contract with Cable and Wireless Communications and licensing deals with New Era and Heroes.

Also cited was the impact of United’s £750m kit deal with Adidas, which began this season.

It all added up to commercial revenues for the period of £66.1 million, up 42.5 per cent year on year. Broadcasting revenues were also up 31.3 per cent to £37.3m.

That should help United easily weather whatever commitment they end up making to reduce ticket prices next season, with Woodward confirming moves were afoot by all Premier League clubs to “deliver something more to away fans”.

“We had the away-fan initiative last year and, obviously, there are discussions happening,” he added.

Although Woodward avoided a grilling about the possible arrival of Mourinho, he was unable to keep the former Chelsea manager out of the news altogether.

Speaking on ITV’s This Morning programme, Frank Lampard gave his former manager a ringing endorsement.

Asked whether Mourinho might end up at United, he said: “I think it’s a possibility. If Louis van Gaal goes – which I think he’s said he’s going to leave at the end of the season at the latest – I think Mourinho’s the type of manager that will certainly come into their thinking.

“He could certainly handle a club like that, that’s what he’s about.”

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