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Kevin Palmer: 'A far bigger crisis is facing Manchester United than their slide in fortunes on the field'

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Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward (Martin Rickett/PA)

Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward (Martin Rickett/PA)

Manchester United executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward (Martin Rickett/PA)

They were the club all the top players dreamed of joining, with a persuasive call from their manager Alex Ferguson invariably ending with a transfer that strengthened a well-oiled winning machine.

With a vice-like grip established on the English game firmly in place, Manchester United were the powerhouse club with the pulling power to pluck the best talent from their rivals and keep the chasing pack off their tails with an arrogance that added to their winning aura.

Paul Gascoigne and Alan Shearer were among a handful of star names who dared to reject Ferguson's advances and condemned themselves to less successful careers elsewhere, with the presence of the greatest manager of them all and the guarantee that he would add trophies to your CV adding to the allure of the United brand.

Yet in a year that looks certain to witness their fierce rivals Liverpool being crowned as champions of England for the first time in 30 years, the crisis exploding at Old Trafford extends well beyond the pain of seeing 'that lot' lifting the trophy that used to be the property of Fergie's dream teams.

A more ominous reality is now dawning for the club that currently finds itself 27 points behind Liverpool in Premier League standings that serve as stark confirmation that United are years behind the best in the land, with their much-maligned executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward steering the club to a point that seemed unimaginable a decade ago.

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Alex Ferguson and David Gill watch on from the stands. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Alex Ferguson and David Gill watch on from the stands. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

Alex Ferguson and David Gill watch on from the stands. Photo: Andrew Yates/Reuters

A curious phenomenon has occurred time and again since Ferguson and his respected chief executive David Gill made their exits from the club in the summer of 2013, with United rapidly evolving from being a club all players want to join into a bargaining chip for agents to use as they look to move their players elsewhere or secure a lucrative new contract

United's track record of spending big on transfers and to caving into the demands of top agents has made them a prime target for agents keen to inflate the value of their asset, even if they have no intention of moving them to a club that fell off its pedestal as a genuine big-hitter in the European game during a disastrous period of decline overseen by their unconvincing transfer chief Woodward.

Speak to those who have dealt with ex-banker Woodward and the message that comes back suggests his lack of football experience has been an enduring flaw in his negotiations, with his failings in his transfer trading undermining managers who have all left the club pointing an accusing finger in his direction for their failure.

Woodward and United initially believed they could cement their status by outspending their rivals, yet the most dominant club of the Premier League years are now facing up to a new narrative that appears destined to condemn them to a period of wilderness on-par with Liverpool's over the last three decades.

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United still have a heritage in the game that will provide a lure to a certain level of footballer, yet the elite list they picked from in the Ferguson years will no longer select Old Trafford as their new home on the evidence of what has transpired in the last six-and-a-half years.

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Mino Raiola. AFP/Getty Images

Mino Raiola. AFP/Getty Images

Mino Raiola. AFP/Getty Images

Attention-seeking football agent Mino Raiola has rarely been held up as a bastion of respectability as he has been the prime benefactor from Woodward's eagerness to find quick fixes at United, but his suggestion that he would not take any more of his players to the Manchester club as they would 'even ruin Maradona, Pele and Maldini' was not without foundation.

Hard though it was initially to comprehend that United are no-longer one of the super-clubs in English football, few would now disagree that Leicester's James Maddison or Aston Villa's Jack Grealish would be putting their careers at risk by moving to a fading former giant that lacks stability at all levels of its sporting structure.

Therein lies the lasting damage of their collapse.

Transfer targets who watched the opening 45 minutes of their humiliating defeat against local rivals Manchester City in the Carabao Cup on Tuesday night were left in little doubt that joining United would mean signing up to play for a team that is many years away from competing with the best.

As Liverpool found when they were knocked off their perch as the kings of English football at the start of the 1990s, the world's best players go elsewhere when you are no longer challenging for the game's top prizes and that is the grim reality now facing Manchester United.


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