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Bruno Fernandes of Manchester United looks dejected at full-time following the team’s defeat in the UCL match between against FC Bayern München at Old Trafford on Dec 12, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

English Premier League

Manchester United 2013: Where it all started to go (comparatively) wrong

Manchester United are victims of their own success. The word “crisis” hangs like a thunderous black cloud over Old Trafford after their dumping out of European competition. Yet the Red Devils are holders of the League Cup, in the European places in the Premier League and have the FA Cup around the new year corner.


The situation appears illogical. But logic and Manchester United are strangers.

The Age of Angst began on May 19, 2013. That was the day United won their 20th and last league title after a 5-5 draw with West Bromwich. It was the day Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager after 27 years which had brought 28 major national and international titles and seen United become perhaps the biggest and most popular club in the world.

United were renowned for entertaining football and Success with a capital S. This was important beyond England. Fans on the sponsor-rich other side of the world pick “their” English club for an association with success. Back in the early 2000s no club embodied that power more than United.


Ferguson was not the only important figure retiring in 2013. So was David Will, United’s long-serving managing director. He and Ferguson had built a winning partnership on and off the pitch.

Their continuation at the club had mitigated against the fans’ antagonism to the Glazer family who had bought United eight years earlier, attracted by a similar magnetism of trophies and money.


The Glazers upset the fans with their purchase method. United had never been in debt but the Glazers funded their purchase through a so-called “leveraged buyout”. They secured the necessary £790m against the value of the club. Hence the club pay £19m every year in interest.

Once Ferguson and Will had left responsibility for managerial appointments and transfers rested solely with the Glazers. The result, in the decade since Ferguson left, has been four trophies and a merry-go-round of five managers and three caretakers up to and including current boss Erik ten Hag. All have been deemed failures by comparison with the achievements of Ferguson in not only winning trophies but in constantly refreshing his teams.


This has been an unfair yardstick for David Moyes, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but illustrates the impossibility of meeting expectations. Ten Hag is discovering the chasm between the pressures of working at Ajax Amsterdam, with their proud history, by comparison with working at Old Trafford.

Ten Hag was appointed in the summer of last year because he had displayed ‘United qualities’ at Ajax: achieving success with attacking football and a mix of big signings and talented academy graduates. This had been a winning strategy for not only Ferguson but for United’s other managerial legend, Sir Matt Busby.

Erik ten Hag, Manager of Manchester United, looks on prior to the UEFA Champions League match between Manchester United and FC Bayern München at Old Trafford on December 12, 2023 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Michael Steele/Getty Images)


Every manager, however, needs to work in peace. Ten Hag has been striving to both win and rebuild despite boardroom uncertainty.

The Glazers let it be known a year ago that they would be open to offers, either for a buy-out or for extra investment. Initially it appeared that the Qatari banker, Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, would meet the Glazers’ £7bn asking price. Then he offered ‘only’ £5bn plus a clearance of the overall £900m debt plus the costs of renovating Old Trafford and the Carrington training ground. Not enough.

Now Sir Jim Ratcliffe, owner of chemicals giant INEOS and a boyhood United fan, is poised to buy a 25 percent stake for £1.25bn.


Ratcliffe’s conditions include taking control of United’s football operations and the redevelopment of Old Trafford. Fans who are cautiously optimistic about a local man’s involvement remain sceptical about his power as a minority shareholder. His track record with Nice in France Lausanne in Switzerland is unimpressive.

Ten Hag and his players know very well that a change in the boardroom can spell swift changes in team management and transfer strategy. Hence continuing uncertainty throughout the club and dressingroom.


United have spent a net £950m on new players in the last 10 years. Mostly responsible was Ed Woodward during 10 years as executive vice-chairman. No overall strategy has been discernible.

The purchase of young player such as Jadon Sancho and Ramus Hojlund was balanced against the arrival of ‘golden oldies’ such as Raphael Varane, Casemiro and most controversially Cristiano Ronaldo. United are no longer a serious transfer market rival to Real Madrid at the top end of the market. Instead they have been reduced to spectators, waiting for Madrid’s cast-offs.

This not a good look for a club which prided itself once on being top of the class.


Ten Hag arrived to a warning from predecessor Ralf Rangnick that he would need to perform an “open heart surgery” at the club. He started well. United won the League Cup – their first trophy in six years – and finished third in the Premier League to reclaim a place in the Champions League. That was a minimum expectation.

Fans expected United to step up this season and challenge neighbours Manchester City at the top of the table. No such luck. United appear to be standing still or even slipping backwards. They need more than occasional winning runs to provide convincing evidence that a corner has been turned.


The public displays of irritation from Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford during the 1:0 defeat by Newcastle fuelled reports of unrest behind the scenes. Several players were reported to be unhappy with Ten Hag, with his training methods and with his tactics.


United reacted by banning reporters from four media organisations, including main Premier broadcaster Sky, from Ten Hag’s news conference before Wednesday’s win against Chelsea. Sky had claimed that as many as half of the players in Ten Hag’s squad had lost faith in him.

The club said the ban had been imposed was taken because Sky but also the Daily Mirror, ESPN and Manchester Evening News had not checked out their reports of unrest with the media department. The reaction just made United look petty and multiplied the publicity.

The ban harked back to the Ferguson era when reporters were regularly banned for asking difficult questions. In the end a Ferguson ban was viewed by journalists as a badge of honour.


United have now gone 10 years without a title challenge. Ten Hag has insisted he is the right man to end the drought. He says: “I know we will get there, where we want to be. Look at my record. Everywhere I went, every season, I hit my targets. If we stick together, stick to the plan and the strategy, we will get where we want to be.”

Naturally Ten Hag has played down reports of unrest. He admitted that “one or two players” had made observations but added that “the majority” are committed to the “proactive, dynamic, brave” style he is trying to implement.


England winger Sancho is one player with different views. Sancho joined United from Dortmund for £73m in 2021 but has no relationship with Ten Hag. Three months ago Ten Hag dropped him for a match at Arsenal because of what the manager described as a “poor attitude in training.” Sancho complained on social media that he had been made “a scapegoat.” Since then he has banished to train alone.

Elsewhere in the squad Varane, who won four Champions League titles at Real Madrid and the World Cup, was reportedly unhappy at losing his place to the back-in-favour Harry Maguire. In attack Rashford, who scored a career-best 30 goals last season, had barely troubled the scorers.


The issue of player disruption is not new. Solskjaer has criticised the behaviour of some players during his time as manager, saying they were not as good as they thought they were. Old United heroes from the Ferguson era such as Roy Keane, Gary Neville and Paul Scholes have been ruthless in criticism.

Ten Hag has learned to take it all in his stride. He has dismissed talk of a crisis while admitting: “Of course, when results are not going your way and you are not performing how you should, criticism comes. Negativity is never good but you have to deal with that. But I don’t care because I know, and all the players know, we are the biggest club in the world.”

Are . . . or were?

Credit: AIPS Media

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