The root causes of David Moyes's troubled tenure at Manchester United lie with the owners
The Glazers said it themselves, back in 2010, when they were seeking £500m in bonds to refinance the £525m they borrowed five years earlier to seize Manchester United with their leveraged takeover. Within their 322-page bond prospectus, the Glazers had to inform potential investors of the risks weighing against the profits being promised for lending to the "most valuable global sports team".
The risks, given sport's uncertainty and a club put into £700m debt by its buyers, ran to 15 pages. The strategy ran to only one and was, in short, to keep United at the top, to ensure that supporters', television and sponsors' money would continue to flow into Old Trafford and the low-tax Nevada base where the Glazers had relocated United's ownership. "We aim to maintain the historic success of our first team," the offer stated, "by continuing to seek to attract some of the best players in the world and committing significant resources to developing the highest quality players through our youth academy."
Should United slip or fail to qualify for the Champions League that would "negatively affect our ability to attract or retain talented players and coaching staff, as well as supporters and sponsors." That was the risk.
Another was the managerial succession, for which the Glazers had so long to plan, yet which seems to have come upon the Americans so suddenly: "We are highly dependent on … our management … including Sir Alex Ferguson," the Glazers acknowledged. "Any successor to our manager may not be as successful as he has been."
Feguson was always the Glazers' key figure at United, the manager who fired the drinkers' club of the 1980s into the football cash cow for the Premier League era. Now his leaving has illuminated more clearly how United were in fact run down while servicing the Glazers' debt mountain – at a cost of £680m so far – rather than signing "some of the best players in the world".
In the light of the stuttering performances under David Moyes's management, last season's Premier League title looks not the triumph of a robust squad, as Ferguson reflected when he bade farewell. Instead the trophy stands as a final monument to Ferguson himself, his genius of wresting the best from players and fashioning teams into greater than the sum of their parts.
Without him, the parts are exposed: ageing defenders Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand; too little in the centre of midfield, wingers – Adnan Januzaj's talents aside – too ineffective, and insufficient attacking bite when Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney are not on form.
As Manchester City, fuelled by Sheikh Mansour's dynastic wealth, were spending £1bn in just three years on their plan, determined in 2008, to have two world-class players in each position, United were making do. The signpost to where they went, in ambition and players, came in 2009, when they sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for £81m. Carlos Tevez also left, for City, Mansour paying Tevez's third-party owners £45m for the Argentinian who had won two Premier League titles and the 2008 Champions League in two years at Old Trafford.
Ferguson's reinforcements that summer were Luis Antonio Valencia, £16m from Wigan, Chris Smalling, £10m from Fulham, and Gabriel Obertan, £3m from Bordeaux. United took Michael Owen on a free transfer from Newcastle, at the injury-wracked end of his fine career.
That was when Ferguson declared the transfer market overpriced, and vowed United would look for "value". Before signing Van Persie, his pre-retirement extravagance, Ferguson stuck to that, eschewing any players, David de Gea possibly aside, who might cross the radar of the voters for a Ballon d'Or.
It seemed flagrantly obvious that Ferguson's comparative frugality after a career of big-money signings – Ruud Van Nistelrooy for £19m in 2001; Ferdinand for £30m in 2002 and Rooney for £20m in 2005 to cite just three – was due to the money leaking out to the Glazers' bankers. Ferguson, though, has always been clear, as have the Glazers, that despite the debts and accounting losses, there was always money to spend. Ferguson's best explanation for his continued praising of the Glazers, which has disappointed so many United supporters, has been: "They always backed me."
So the truth may really be that they left Ferguson to it, and he alone allowed United to fall behind their rivals. As Moyes struggles with his inheritance, doubts once again focus on the Glazers' leadership, and the wisdom of allowing Ferguson to choose his successor. They look to have been a little over-focused on the eager accumulation of club sponsors helmed by the new chief executive Ed Woodward in the London office near the Ritz, rather than the defence, midfield and attack requirements in Manchester 16.
Just three weeks ago, Moyes gave United's "don't panic" assurance that the club were unlikely to sign a player this month. Now after being knocked out of the FA Cup by Swansea, Premier League defeat to Chelsea, and this week's tame Capital One Cup exit against Sunderland, they have, pending a medical, smashed the club's transfer record, in January, on Juan Mata.
Talk of financial doom is premature, even if Moyes' team misses out on Champions League qualification – £5.5bn of Premier League TV money, abundant sponsorships banked, and matchday revenue at 76,000-seat Old Trafford will pay the bills, although the debt is still £389m and United are no longer football's financially dominant force.
Ferguson, by maintaining United's success, enabled the Glazers to allow the club to carry their debt and emerge intact. Now the great football man has gone, the questions over their stewardship are being exposed.