Ole Gunnar Solskjær broke cover a few days ago, appearing on Sky Sports to tell his pal Gary Neville that once the pandemic is over Manchester United are hoping to be able to exploit any unexpected transfer market opportunities caused by clubs being forced into financial difficulties through lack of income during the long layoff.
That was how the conversation was reported in most newspapers, anyway. The United manager did not choose the word exploit, and though Neville subsequently conceded his question might have been more diplomatically phrased, it is a little late now to be sparing the feelings of clubs struggling through real hardship. The clear message coming out of Old Trafford is that United are riding the storm and once football is back to normal they anticipate being able to turn a market-leading position into an advantage.
Without much else going on in the game that means everyone from Jack Grealish to Jadon Sancho is being lined up for a move – people are already trying to work out if it would be possible to fit Grealish and James Maddison into the same team. Yet, while Solskjær may be indulging in a spot of wishful thinking if he imagines the game’s brightest young talents are about to form an orderly queue outside his office, his reasoning is not purely pie in the sky.
It certainly seems to be the case, for instance, that United find themselves better insulated than most against loss of gate and matchday income, because for some time they have been working to become less reliant on that particular source of revenue. Anyone who has seen the armies of corporate and hospitality staff that descend on Old Trafford on match days will appreciate that United make more money than most from maximising their entertainment and merchandising opportunities, though the club have also led the way – often to the point of ridicule – in cutting lucrative deals away from the pitch and stadium. Yes, we are talking global business sponsors here, noodle partners if you like, the tie-ins with mattress makers and coffee producers that have made the executive vice‑chairman, Ed Woodward, a figure of fun.
At the last count, although counting is often difficult because there are various tiers of sponsorship and new names are still being added, United had 26 main global partners. Supporters have generally found this annoying because they would rather the club devoted a similar amount of effort to buying a new centre-half or reclaiming a place in the Champions League, while fans of rival clubs have regarded it as a comedy gift. What sort of football follower, after all, would rather see results achieved on the balance sheet than the pitch? Who in their right mind would prefer an accumulation of partners to league points?
The available evidence suggests Woodward would (though he would obviously favour a rise in playing standards, too), and for the past few years he has been mercilessly depicted as a money-grabbing know‑nothing, an accountant unwisely appointed to run a famous football name. Not all of the criticism and mockery has been completely undeserved, yet there have been strong signs in recent months – more or less since a posse of angry United fans turned up at his thankfully unoccupied Cheshire home in January – that the tide is turning for the beleaguered boardroom leader.
Solskjær has confounded a few critics and is now looking capable of inspiring respect from his players and producing results. Bruno Fernandes has been an unalloyed success since arriving from Sporting Lisbon in the last transfer window, not only proving United can still source and attract top players but kicking the whole Paul Pogba embarrassment into the long grass. And now, at a time when results on the pitch can no longer be seen and league points are suddenly unavailable, Woodward could be on the verge of being congratulated for his foresight in making sure United’s revenue streams are sufficiently diverse to survive football itself being forcibly removed from the agenda.
Even before Solskjær made his remarks there must have been a few other clubs wishing they had cast-iron guarantees of continuing income from sources unaffected by coronavirus closures. At an early stage in the discussion about wage cuts and furloughs United were able to make it clear they could afford to take the hit. Woodward said much the same thing a year ago when responding with a shrug to a question about the spectacular blip on the balance sheet occasioned by José Mourinho’s decision to recruit Alexis Sánchez. United may not be getting everything right, then or now, but any business able to grin and bear a Sánchez-sized salary must be in fairly robust shape.
Which is exactly what the next few weeks and months could prove. Solskjær will probably not end up with Grealish, Sancho and Maddison all at the same time, but United will most likely be in a position to end up with someone. No one quite knows how and when this will all end, but it is reasonable to suppose the business-as-usual sign will go up at Old Trafford earlier than at most other clubs.
The CEO who began the season as a clown may yet end it considered a visionary. Truly we are living through strange times. Once the lockdown is over, United’s ultras might have to make another house call, this time to say sorry.