Red Devils retain balance of power in spite of City riches
MANCHESTER United are one win from the top of the Premier League or, depending on the hysteria count, one defeat from oblivion.
The FA Cup loss at home to Leeds was seen by the alarmists not as a random blow delivered by a lower-division team high on adrenalin, but as a structural failing linked to a near £700m debt burden.
Each unexpected reverse turns football pundits into Deloitte ratings gurus, sending out ticker-tape messages of doom. Apocalyptic projections are enhanced by financial reports from the other side of the city that show debts converting into equity at the click of a bejewelled finger.
One can imagine the significance that would have been attached to the result last night had the scheduled Carling Cup semi-final first leg gone ahead and United lost to Manchester City. MUTV has already had its first caller demanding the head of Alex Ferguson. The end of the world is nigh at Old Trafford every time the team let a goal in.
It is 2005 all over again. United's answer to the Roman revolution at Chelsea was to fall into the indebted hands of Malcolm Glazer. The club convulsed. Disturbed supporters marched out of the Stretford End behind their FC United of Manchester banners to begin life anew in a Gigg Lane commune. They wanted none of the Americanised commercialisation of Old Trafford, though they seemed happy enough when the money being spun was in the hands of a dynasty of Mancunian master butchers.
The departing faction confused love with ownership. They saw the club's accounts as their own. The debts would bring them down, they screamed as if they were the ones making the repayments. Ferguson was already on the wrong end of a pendulum that had swung towards Arsene Wenger's Invincibles. Then, after a season of overbearing Arsenal supremacy, along rides a Portuguese show pony with a saddle full of roubles.
The Abramovich/Jose Mourinho ticket was a greater threat than the Sheikh Mansour/Roberto Mancini duet because Ferguson was asked to meet a challenge he had not encountered before. City are no more a danger to United because of Abu Dhabi wealth. United do not have to build a club, a brand, an empire. They have been doing that for more than 50 years.
Debt is not preventing Arsenal from coming again this season. United's most prosperous period on the pitch coincided with unprecedented bank charges; three successive Premier League titles and the Champions League in the post-Abramovich era. Ferguson's biggest problem is not a lack of cash but the lack of a Cristiano Ronaldo on whom to spend it.
The graph of erratic results compiled this season is a consequence of the rebuilding phase United are in. Ferguson, even more than Wenger, has demonstrated an ability to work through the football cycle, to disband and regroup, to construct new from old, to renew a club through the sharp husbandry of resources.
Was the Leeds defeat more significant than the loss at Burnley, the draw at home to Sunderland, the rout at Craven Cottage? No. It was part of the same process, of accommodating change in an environment that is intolerant of it. For the fan, football is about instant, not deferred gratification.
Patience forms no part of the terrace pact.
The benefit to Manchester City of the Abu Dhabi jackpot is obvious. Without it the club could not have made the quantum leap to title contenders. The downside is the greater urgency to succeed. More money means less time for the manager to deliver, as the axing of Mark Hughes in December demonstrated. This is not a concern for Ferguson, who has earned the right to lose.
The nosedive against Leeds United had nothing to do with City's lottery win.
Ferguson is recasting his team. That he stands two points behind leaders Chelsea, in the last four of another domestic competition and last-16 of the Champions League are the telling details in this period of reconstruction, not the bank balance of the neighbouring arrivistes. (© Daily Telegraph, London)