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Fergie counts the cost of debt debacle

IT was October 2005 at Budapest airport when Alex Ferguson was approached by anti-Glazer militants. He was waiting by the carousel for his bags when they started giving him a hard time for not opposing the takeover.

When one of them angrily asked when the ticket prices were going up, Ferguson could bite his tongue no more. "If you don't like it, go and watch Chelsea," he said, before walking off.

It was, as the United manager might one day admit, not his finest choice of words but the sentiment he expressed then -- the support for his employers in the face of fan disdain -- has remained unwavering.

The backing for the Glazers was repeated only a few days ago when he talked of being happy with his resources, even as the club prepared to release the figures yesterday that brought us up to date with just how dry the Americans have squeezed the club.

Estimates vary, but at least £260m went on servicing United's debt in the four years up to 2009. Even if we accept that a manager would not have been entitled to all those funds, just half would buy some very decent players. Spent wisely, it might help to land a couple more European Cups.

Ferguson has not complained once and perhaps he is sincere these days when he comes over all Arsene Wenger and talks about refusing to pay inflated prices (although that did not hold him back from breaking the British transfer record in the past).

He might look at Manchester City's expensively assembled squad and think that he would not have competed for a single player even if he had possessed the money. He was outbid by Real Madrid for Karim Benzema last summer but of the other possible targets, such as David Villa and Franck Ribery, there was no movement at all because the asking prices were beyond what any half-prudent club would offer.


The lack of exceptional, available talent out on the market needs taking into account by United fans fretting over the team's need for replenishment, and many are happy to accept that reality until the market opens in the summer.

To them, the bigger headache is not in the short term but the longer-term extrapolation of the debt figures and the prospect that, particularly with Ferguson nearing the end of his reign, United are entering their most uncertain period for more than a decade just when City are on the up.

If the figures released yesterday brought mostly confusion to United supporters -- who are on a crash course in debts, bonds and PIK notes -- they also had to suffer baiting from City fans whose smugness was understandable given how long they have laboured in United's shadow.

The news that United are now officially a selling club, and would have been tipped into a loss-making business without the £80m they received from offloading Cristiano Ronaldo, was bound to draw a heavy burst of schadenfreude.

On the Bluemoon website, one wrote "tick tock!" in reference to the timebomb of debt at Old Trafford. "£500m?" another commented. "Doesn't the Sheikh have that down his sofa?"

Of course, there might come a day of reckoning for City, too, given their own club's unsustainable model of expenditure -- but that day seemed a long way off as Carlos Tevez struck three times last night in a superb performance against Blackburn Rovers.

The striker was, of course, plucked from United when they baulked at an asking price that eventually rose to £47m as well as wages estimated at £7m a year -- and most of us thought they were wise to do so given his talents could never be deemed worth such a huge outlay.

United fans, too, accepted that it was too much to spend on a player who, at the time, seemed surplus to requirements. But it was the sort of sensible prudence that, over the coming years, they may grow heartily sick of.