The Premier League club's lacklustre showing on Wall Street highlights the link between the stock market and the top-flight table – past performance is no guarantee of future results
In the Premier League era, it is often hard to tell where the financial section finishes and the sports pages begin. The line between the two has not so much blurred as collapsed. So as relentless scrutiny of his transfers, tactics and team selections has intensified the pressure on David Moyes, so the effect of Manchester United's lacklustre form on their Wall Street share price has been reported as though enunciated by Charlotte Green.
It stood on Tuesday at $15.16, only three cents above its 12-month low, as it continued its drift from a high of more than $19 in the heady days of May as United celebrated their 20th championship. That slide, which has wiped $250m off United's overall value in a little over six months, has refocused scrutiny on the business model and future intentions of the American family that have bitterly divided fans throughout their ownership.
Since the Glazers surprised some analysts by persuading investors to pay $14 a share for a 10% stake in the club on Wall St in August 2012, at a price lower than that initially hoped for but still considered high given the lack of voting rights they conferred, that figure has fluctuated. It initially dipped sharply below the offer level, and hit a low of $12.18 in September 2012, before beginning a steady climb and reaching a high of $19.04 on 2 May as Sir Alex Ferguson celebrated his last, and arguably greatest, achievement in squeezing the last drops from a squad that was creaking at the seams (not to mention their joints).
The announcement of his retirement sparked an immediate fall, followed by a recovery into autumn as the club announced healthy financial results that underlined the further potential for revenue growth. It then fell sharply from mid-December onwards, coinciding with a fresh wave of concern over the Moyes era. The initial public offering (IPO), originally planned for Singapore but then switched to New York and leading to the club's incorporation in the Cayman Islands, was the latest in a series of moves that repackaged, sliced, diced and refinanced the debt that the Glazers had incurred to buy the club in the first place.
It is only in hindsight that the huge debt they owed Ferguson, who saw no contradiction between his socialist Govan shop steward roots and the product of global capitalism that United became, has truly become clear.
Not only did his spat with the Coolmore mafia effectively usher in their takeover bid but his steadfast support in the face of massed fan protest and his insistence that he was never refused money for transfers did much to solidify their tenure when it was tottering. And that is before you consider the feat of alchemy he performed by maintaining a winning streak on a relative shoestring. In doing so he arguably left behind a heap of trouble for his successor, exacerbated by the failure of new vice-chairman Ed Woodward to land the sort of statement signings required to usher in a new era.
Yet it was Ferguson's genius, combined with the acumen of Woodward in minting a commercial model that has become a juggernaut, that allowed the Glazers to pilot a course through a series of risky financial manoeuvres that blogger Andy Green has calculated will have cost the club more than £1bn in fees and interest by 2016.
While picturing what sort of club they may have become under alternative ownership is inevitably an exercise in guesswork, what United might have done with that money instead will always remain the biggest stain on the Glazer era.
Football clubs are notoriously hard to value because they are not like any other business. Nor is it easy to disentangle the fluctuations in United's share price from wider market conditions and it would be wrong to draw a direct line between results on the pitch and the graphs on traders' screens.
But any sensible investor will be keeping a concerned eye on what Ferguson's departure means for the Glazer model, the level of investment likely to be required and what a period of relative underachievement on the pitch – and, in particular, an absence from the Champions League of more than a season – might do for revenue forecasts. United's financial predictions are based on the club finishing third in the league and reaching the quarter-finals of cup competitions – which looks like an ambitious target at this juncture.
As does the promise, made at the time of the IPO, that annual net transfer spend would continue to average £25m to £30m a year. At at time when the need to rebuild the squad looks more urgent with every passing day, significantly more than that may be required. Nor is it quite right to say the Glazers are paying little attention to the share price fluctuations – they will be monitoring them keenly.
In the short term, any plans they may have had to float further tranches of shares and cash out, while retaining overall control, will surely have to be paused until a more attractive "narrative" emerges.
Following the float, the best guess at the future intentions of the ever-silent Glazers – having weathered the riskiest point of their debt-funded model and the stormiest fan protests – was that they would sit back and continue to cash in batches of shares, under no pressure to sell unless they received a ludicrous offer. Clouds of uncertainty over the future put that vision at risk. At the same time, some of the wilder talk of the last few weeks that the Glazers might be spooked into drastic action by a fall in the share price are also well wide of the mark. Beyond this period of instability, they still believe – rightly or wrongly – that they have only begun to scratch the surface of a model that will yield further growth and see themselves as long-term owners.
Gazing west to the US and east to China, and mindful of the potential of technology, they can see further riches even beyond the $1bn they hope for from Nike for a new kit deal and the $559m Chevy shirt sponsorship contract. Meanwhile, they hope financial fair play and rising broadcasting income will further lock in their natural advantage.
The contrast between the gloom surrounding United's performances on the pitch and the upbeat announcement last week of their latest global partner, drinks brand Aperol, was striking. Yet if the rewards of success dry up, all the romance and history of the United "brand" will not stop partners looking to Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich instead. It is only then that you might expect change to be considered in the dugout.
For now, Old Trafford insiders preach patience, point to Moyes's six-year contract and insist he will be given the time and money to drastically reshape his squad in the summer. Those hoping the Glazers, considering the task at hand, will falter in their determination not to sell are likely to be disappointed.
Yet as any student of small print knows, if there is one certainty that links the stock market and the league table it is that past performance is no guarantee of future results. Just as it is too early to judge the Moyes era on the pitch, so it will only become clear in time whether the fluctuations in United's share price are merely a temporary blip or a harbinger of longer-term flux.