An article was published on RoM last week to quell the misconception that the reason why United ended the title drought of 26 years was because Sir Alex Ferguson spent a load of money, the same as Chelsea and City have done more recently. When Chelsea or City are criticised for “buying” success, a usual response is that United did exactly the same in the 80’s and 90’s. This is quite simply not true.

In Ferguson’s first five years he spent the same amount as Spurs (£19m) and less than Liverpool (£24m). Whilst United’s spending was more than the average team, we were by no means blowing others out of the water in the same way that Chelsea and City have done.

Comparing how much teams have spent by looking at the pricetag alone is a fairly pointless task if you’re comparing what one club was spending in 1992 with what another is spending in 2013. In 1992, for example, the most expensive player in the world was Gianluca Vialli who cost Juventus £12m, whilst the most expensive player in the world today is Cristiano Ronaldo, who Real Madrid paid £80m for. So like for like over different time periods is a waste of time.

Instead, if we look at how much more a team spent compared to another in terms of percentages, it gives us a better idea of who is spending the most money, but more importantly, how much more money they’re spending than other clubs in the same period of time. The figures below aren’t for the top seven spenders in each of the time periods, but a comparison between seven clubs who have historically spent more than others, whilst always including the biggest spenders for that period of time, and/or have been competing for titles. In the last five seasons, for example, the likes of Stoke and Aston Villa rank in the top five in the country for highest net spend, but weren’t big spenders twenty years ago, but to keep the same seven teams (particularly when all of them have been competing for titles/top four finishes for large chunks of the Premier League era), gives a better comparison.

1992-1998 net spend
Newcastle: £40,570,000 (> 4000% more than United)
Arsenal: £31,070,000 (> 3100% more than United)
Liverpool: £29,625,000 (> 2900% more than United spent)
Chelsea: £27,705,000 (> 2700% more than United spent)
Spurs: £18,630,000 (> 1800% more than United spent)
City: £12,070,000 (> 1200% more than United spent)
United: -£40,000

United rank: 7th biggest spenders

In one of United’s most successful eras, our net spend over six years was in negative numbers. We won four titles in this time as well two FA Cups. It’s worth noting that during this time, Ferguson put his faith in players from the youth team, despite the mocking of others. When Mark Hughes, Andrei Kanchelskis and Paul Ince were replaced with the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Nicky Butt, Alan Hansen wasn’t the only person saying we wouldn’t win anything! It’s also interesting to note just how much money Arsenal spent ahead of their double win in 1998.

1999-2003 net spend

United: £90,050,000
Liverpool: £60,110,000 (United spent 50% more)
Newcastle: £56,950,000 (United spent 58% more)
City: £54,662,000 (United spent 65% more)
Spurs: £46,552,500 (United spent 93% more)
Chelsea: £40,760,000 (United spent 121% more)
Arsenal: £17,916,000 (United spent 403% more)

United rank: 1st biggest spenders

Having dominated English football, United then wanted to follow on in the footsteps of Sir Matt Busby and win the European Cup. Whilst Newcastle had broken the British transfer record in 1996, signing Alan Shearer for £15m, teams on the continent were breaking the world transfer record like there was no tomorrow. Inter signed Ronaldo for £19.5m in 1997, Denílson went to Real Betis for £21.5m in 1998, Vieri went to Inter Milan for £32m in 1999, and Crespo to Lazio for £35.5m in 2000. Whilst spending in England wasn’t increasing at these rates, the teams spending all the money in Europe were the teams United were going to have to beat if they wanted to win the European Cup. Still, throughout this period, we only spent 50% more than the next biggest spenders, Liverpool, which is dwarfed by how clubs had outspent us in previous seasons, and how Chelsea and City have outspent others since. The biggest gap is with our title rivals throughout his period, Arsenal, with us spending 403% of what they did. It’s important to remember that in the six years before this, they outspent us by more than 3100% though.

1992-2003 net spend
Newcastle: £97,520,000 (8% more than United spent)
United: £90,010,000
Liverpool: £89,735,000 (United spent 0.3% more)
Chelsea: £68,465,000 (United spent 31% more)
City: £66,732,000 (United spent 35% more)
Spurs: £65,182,500 (United spent 38% more)
Arsenal: £48,986,000 (United spent 84% more)

United rank: 2nd biggest spenders

Between 92 and 03, before Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, United were one of the biggest spenders in the league, but Newcastle were the top spenders. There was also next to no difference between United and Liverpool. It’s also interesting to note that City spent five years outside of the top division during this time, yet United still only spent 35% more than they did.

2004-2013 net spend

Chelsea: £524,500,000 (325% more than United spent)
City: £434,820,000 (252% more than United spent)
Liverpool: £168,800,000 (37% more than United spent)
United: £123,400,000
Spurs: £100,850,000 (United spent 22% more)
Newcastle: £1,900,000 (United spent 6,395% more)
Arsenal: -£23,570,000 (United spent > 12,300% more)

United rank: 4th biggest spenders

With United dominating English football for years, there is a definite argument for Chelsea needing to spend a lot of money to catch up. When United won the title in 2003, Chelsea finished 4th, 16 points behind United, so of course they needed to heavily invest when Abramovich first bought them so they could compete.

In the first year they spent 1049% more than United and in the second year they spent 121% more. At the end of that second year, Chelsea won the title, United finished 3rd, 18 points behind Chelsea. The gap between the clubs now was bigger than it had been in 2003, thanks to major investment, so surely, if United wanted to catch up, the onus was on them to outspend Chelsea. That isn’t what happened though.

So, despite Chelsea having overtaken us in the league, they still went on to spend 200% more than us, and United won the title two out of three years, as well as beating them in the European Cup final.

2008-2013 net spend
City: £407,150,000 (614% more than United spent)
Chelsea: £229,200,000 (302% more than United spent)
Liverpool: £60,100,000 (5% more than United spent)
United: £57,050,000
Spurs: £6,150,000 (United spent 827% more)
Arsenal: -£31,600,000 United spent > 5705% more)
Newcastle: -£38,300,000 (United spent > 5705% more)

United rank: 4th biggest spenders

In the four years that followed, after City were bought by Abu Dhabi United Group, they’re in a similar position to Chelsea in 2003. But Chelsea already had Champions League football when Abramovich came and were 16 points away from the champions, whilst City had just finished 9th and were 32 points behind the champions, so they had more spending to do if they were to compete.

By the end of the 2009-2010 season City found themselves 19 points behind the champions. They were in a better position than United found themselves in two years before ending their title drought (finishing 26 points behind the champions in 1991, and, interestingly enough, 3 points behind City). By 2011, they were just 8 points away. Despite this, they’ve still gone on to spend 122% more than United. Whilst failing to seriously compete for the title over the past three seasons, Chelsea have still managed to rack up the largest net spend, and their reward for this is the European Cup. They’ve spent 14% more than City and 153% more than United in the last three seasons.

It’s undeniable that United have been one of the biggest spenders in the Premier League era of English football and nobody is trying to deny that or pretend it isn’t true. You can even ignore the fact that United have more money to spend because they generated it themselves, through playing exciting football, bringing through their own young talent, and winning trophies, which increased the fanbase, and not through being bought by a rich owner to pump money in to the club and make a loss every season (apart from Chelsea last year, who made a profit of £1.4m, the same as Dundee United, who finished 4th in the Scottish Premier League and whose home ground has a maximum capacity of 14k). Whilst of course it’s preferable to create your own success instead of having it created for you, like Chelsea and City, that’s an unrealistic aim in this day and age, and even with the debts of the Glazers holding us back, we’d have little competition for the title without Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour. That is not the issue I am addressing though.

The issue at hand here is the claim that Chelsea and City have just mirrored what United did in the past, that whilst the source of the money is different, that Chelsea and City have just replicated the model for success created by United. As the figures above show, that quite simply isn’t true.

When Ferguson took over at United we were in the relegation zone and obviously needed a massive overhaul, yet we weren’t outspending people in any way that is comparable to how Chelsea and City have. We spent the same amount as Spurs and less than Liverpool. Both Chelsea and City were top 10 teams when they started spending, in a much better position than United when Ferguson started splashing the cash in the transfer market, but at no point were we spending 600% or 1000% more than our title rivals, as both City and Chelsea have done respectively when trying to transform their team in to one that was capable of winning the league. United’s spending has always been comparable to the club’s around them and we have never dominated the transfer market in a way that is comparable to Chelsea or City, on any level.

Between 99-03 we were the biggest spenders in the league and already had a squad that was capable of competing for the league title and European Cup every season, but even then were spending just 50% more than our rivals. Compare that to Chelsea, who as champions in 05 and 06, spent 200% more than us.

The net spend figures over the past few seasons leading up to City’s first Premier League win are incredible, with a difference of £350m between us and them, spending 614% of what we spent. Whilst some of this figure can be explained away by spending to close the gap, it’s again obvious that this is not a model that was created by United. All you have to do is look at United’s figures from 1987 onwards to see that, with United not even the biggest spenders in the league, let alone spending 600+% more than our title rivals.

There is no comparison between the investment United made to secure their first title in decades to the way City and Chelsea won theirs, and there is no comparison with the spending that has gone on since. Those two clubs have massively outspent everyone else in the league, whilst the gap between United and other clubs has never been anywhere near as wide.