Timing is curious and life is strange. Those odd little eccentricities that happen. Sliding doors moments that can decide lives, families and even entire civilisations; perhaps creating alternate timelines of lifetimes never actualised. If two people never met. If Gavrilo Princip had not done what he did. If Busby and co. had not been in such a rush back to play Wolves. If Howard Wilkinson had not picked up the phone to enquire about Denis Irwin that day in 1992, would Manchester United have been destined to forever be also-rans?
It’s butterfly effect type dynamics we are talking about here. And before we go down the rabbit hole of Lost and Desmond and alternate times (‘if United had signed Gascoigne instead of Ince or Kluivert ahead of Yorke’), there’s a conventional wisdom within Manchester United support that has never been questioned, but should probably be re-evaluated given what history has shown us since.
It’s almost a given to say, ‘how unlucky were Manchester United that Alex Ferguson and David Gill both left Old Trafford at the same time. What bad timing.’
It’s been six years and given what we have seen since, we should ask: was it actually bad timing? Is it likely that David Gill, a man who had been a senior figure at Manchester United since 1997 would depart at the same time as Alex Ferguson, leaving the club with a leadership vacuum merely to take up a position at UEFA or… had he merely seen the writing on the wall with the Glazer family and their ownership at Manchester United?
Following four years of preaching ‘no value in the market’ regarding transfers and financial prudency, opting to sign free agents like Michael Owen or take punts on young, unproven players such as Nick Powell and Chris Smalling (while Manchester City were signing Vincent Kompany, Sergio Aguero and David Silva), had Gill realised that Manchester United were no longer going to be treated like the premium franchise that they were? Did he therefore opt to leave rather than see the team he had devoted so much of his life to crumble during the last years of his stewardship?
During Gill’s tenure as Manchester United Chief Executive, the Glazer family had purchased the club in a ‘leveraged’ takeover bid, one in which they had saddled much of the debt of the takeover onto the club itself to pay back. By 2013, eight years after this takeover had occurred, Gill could clearly see that the Glazers had made little or no effort to pay back any of this debt and rightly presumed that this was the way with which they would continue.
Alex Ferguson’s genius as manager has often been described as the manner in which he cultivated one last title tilt out of an ageing team, and that in itself was impressive, but forced upon him by the manner of fiscal frugality of the Glazer family. Ferguson has spoken repeatedly of the Glazer family backing him and United to sign Robin Van Persie for £24m for ‘one last go’ at winning a twentieth title, but this is a pathetic hat tip to an absentee landlord family bleeding the club dry.
Crediting the Glazers’ generosity at spending £24m on a player in 2012 rightly demonstrates the type of noose the Glazers had placed around Ferguson, Gill and the United finances. More than a decade earlier, United were regularly spending £24m a year on single players, and more. Spending that money on Van Persie was the bare minimum that should have been considered appropriate.
Especially when factoring in the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo in 2009 for £80m; a player who was subsequently replaced by £17m man Antonio Valencia, £3.6m for Gabriel Obertan and free agent Michael Owen. The bulk of that £80m disappeared into some Tampa Bay yacht, never to be seen again by Manchester United or its supporters.
Having to go hat in hand for £24m in 2012 aptly demonstrates how difficult David Gill’s job had become.
While David Gill had announced his departure more than three months before Sir Alex Ferguson did the same, there is little doubt that neither man wanted to be the last man off the sinking ship. They both saw the writing on the wall and knew the direction which the Glazers had plotted for Manchester United; it would be expensive, uncomfortable and ultimately disastrous for many years to come.
What could David Gill have done had he stayed at Manchester United? He had operated an era of financial frugality with the greatest manager in the club’s history, eeking the last drop of brilliance out of a once great team. Gill would likely have struggled to support and manage David Moyes through his difficult first season, especially considering the lack of financial support that has been apparent over the years, but it is highly likely that he could have at least eliminated the wasteful, spending-for-the-sake-of-it type, spending seen at United since his departure but little could stop the damage that has been done since the Glazers took over.
Who knows? Maybe it was bad timing, but I’m not buying it.