Manchester United have been linked with a move for their former striker Cristiano Ronaldo, a transfer which might go some way to placating their fans.
Not all fans, of course. Those who rightly began the boycott of Old Trafford when the Glazer family took over have been proven correct. Years under Alex Ferguson were defined by underinvestment, and once he retired and Ed Woodward took over, there was profligacy alternated with austerity, always overseen by incompetence. The owners might well have correctly identified that United were ripe for a leveraged buyout, and one must now suspect that a competent chief executive would have been able to do more with less.
A billion has gone out of the club in debt repayments and dividends, but more than half that figure has been spent in the transfer market, rubber-stamped by Woodward. It is harder to think of three unquestionably successful signings in his eight years than it is to remember 20 failures he brought in.
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Now that the executive vice-chairman is due to leave at the end of the season, claimed as a victim of the aborted European Super League, it is worth considering how the ‘legacy fans’ will be brought back onside.
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A Ronaldo transfer might be enough for many. Remember, the fans that were happy to watch the Glazers pick apart the Premier League’s dominant club, had their chance to act when they had decisive influence, and chose to keep coming back. If they could stomach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being brought in as an obvious patsy, then it is hard to see why switching the Champions League for the Super League is a dealbreaker.
The concern for many fans has been that the Glazers did not spend enough in the market, and the ESL would give them plenty of ballast for transfers once again. The time to walk away was when their ticket revenue mattered. As we can see now, ‘legacy fans’ will be sacrificed as soon as broadcast income allows. It was not United who bailed on the ESL after all, it was the ESL bailing on them.
For now, though, the fans’ acquiescence is needed. Joel Glazer could perhaps attempt to show he loved the club, and discover an emotional connection with the fans and the players. More likely, he will do what he and his family always have since their arrival: live in America and continue to make rentier cash.
Perhaps he can bring in Edwin van der Sar and allow him to improve the playing side while not spending much more than he did under Woodward, and giving the fans a shiny, returning Ronaldo would definitely get a significant amount of them back in Old Trafford, giddy on vaccines and superstars.
Allowing Ronaldo back is a shortcut to the affections of supporters, and would also provide cover to allow them to deal with the presence, or otherwise, of Paul Pogba. The 28-year-old midfielder has been much improved since the turn of the year and, given he is now playing to get someone to actually buy him, it is perhaps no surprise. If that fails, United might have to hand over £500,000-a-week wages in order to save face, and a headline loss, rather than lose him for nothing.
The way forward could be to offer Pogba up in exchange for Ronaldo. Each team gets a superstar, each team gets a player who might actually want to be there, and neither of them have to write off their investment in embarrassing fashion.
Juventus, too, have alienated their fans with Andrea Agnelli’s attempts to ringlead the ESL, only to lose his position of influence with UEFA, and leave his club still on rocky financial ground. Cutting out Ronaldo’s absolutely enormous wages is a pragmatic move, and bringing in Pogba could help bring them back to a title-winning side, which may help quiet any potential rebellion.
For United, Ronaldo offers the Glazers a hefty part of any rapprochement with the fans who have still not walked away after more than a decade of decay. Just as the Premier League need the Big Six, the clubs need the fans and vice versa. There is too much at stake for everyone not to find a way forward, even if it means that the eventual divorce is merely postponed rather than rejected.
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