rss twitter facebook mobile

Did United buy success like Chelsea and City? Course not

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.

About Scott

Scott is the editor of Red Matters - 50 Years of Supporting Manchester United and an author of Play Like Fergie's Boys and Not Nineteen Forever. He writes for ESPN, The Metro and Bleacher Report. Follow @R_o_M on Twitter.

View all posts by Scott »



  1. belfast red. says:

    Great stats Scott, thanks. Im sick of abu,s spouting off how United bought the league just like city and chelski. These stats show the truth and shuts them all up!!

  2. FletchTHEMAN says:

    I really don’t see the issue with spending unless it cripples the club. The Sunderlands, Rangers, Portsmouths, Forests, Leeds models are what needs sorting. Time will tell if City and Chelsea follow that path or not.

    While one really appreciates what United, Barcelona and maybe Arsenal have done with fan based income, I can’t really see why the League would want to say to an owner that they can’t compete with PSG or Real for expensive talent. I say the League, because this is the perspective that needs to be taken if you want to understand things like fair play rules (FFP).

    The League needs to make sure that clubs can afford wages and owner control over future earnings (Portsmouth especially) for years forward of any investment. City and Chelsea couldn’t afford their current wages based on Match day income alone. But what you may not appreciate, NEITHER COULD WE. MDI only covers about 50% of our wages as well. While the difference is much worse at Chelsea 2.4 fold and City >5fold, clubs like united still rely on TV, sponsorships, and other income. That is fair enough if the business model will hold for the period of a players contract. But many teams can’t prove they have the funds coming in.

    Take Arsenal, they actually have been doing OK, but there are dozens of doom and gloom stories about what if they didn’t make the CL knock out stages.

    The point that Scott seems to be making, is that United are a self made club, with owners that have been leaches for years, we had to be.

  3. 1970Blue says:

    The figures should be indexed to the current values. It is also imperative to look at income levels during those earlier times to get a complete picture of what has happened. The trend always is that clubs aim at improvement through investment in players. Owners with filled pockets and not only looking at the club as an investment tend to invest more than the “normal” owners. Some owners convert their own debt into club debt, some write off debt to club.
    All in all, Utd did invest a lot during 1960-80 and thereafter, but City and Chelsea have invested heavily during recent decades.

  4. Ian says:

    It’s an old argument that will go on and on. I remember back in the 80s Spurs breaking the transfer record with Gazza and Everton with Cottee. People think Utd always held the transfer records. Back then Utd’s spending and pulling power was comparable to these clubs. People remember Utd breaking the record for Cole but not Arsenal breaking it again for Bergkamp or Liverpool with Collymore.

    There’s been too much football inflation to compare transfers over the years. What you need is a comparison with the average 1st division transfer fee of the day, and then scale it to today’s numbers. Was Roy Keane or Pallister the same as a 30M transfer today? Did we get 50M from Inter for Ince? It would be nice to see the price of Utd’s 1993 teamsheet in today’s money. I just haven’t got the time to find the data!

  5. Jarrod says:

    What a load of arse! You have united spending near on nothing in last 10 years but RVP cost 25% of the last 10yeara united have spent hahaha you absolute d&$khead. United are also in about 450£m debt. So how does that happen if they are making money and not spending hahahaha

  6. DreadedRed says:

    Jarrod – have you heard of the Glazers?

    You ask: “United are also in about 450£m debt. So how does that happen?”
    Do you think we secretly spent it on players?

  7. belfast red. says:

    Dreadedred. There’s no point even trying to talk to a moron like that. If he thinks we are in debt because of transfers then let him think that… Lol.

  8. FletchTHEMAN says:

    RIP Sir Matt Died on Jan 20 1994.

    Former Liverpool man turned things around at Old Trafford when the club were truly sh*te!

  9. knightsmith says:

    Quick question, when was the last time United finished out side the top three please, is it 21 years ago?

  10. Gopher Brown says:

    @Jarrod, it’s ‘net spend’ you complete cretin. Try reading the fucking article before writing your knobbish comments.

  11. FletchTHEMAN says:


    On May 20, 1991 (1990-1991) we finished 6.
    Since May 2, 1992 (1991-2) we have never finished outside the top 3.

  12. @TriangleReverie says:


    Hi Knob,
    The reason United are in debt is because the people who bought the club took out a bunch of bonds and loans during a financial and real-estate crisis in the United States. On top of that Glazers companies investments bombed. And the real-estate (Land for Big Malls in the States) they own ended up costing them a shit load of money. It had nothing to do with spending it on players.

    In fact the Glazers are making up their debt on the success of United’s back. Without spending it on players. That’s why they’re a bunch of bastards!

  13. United Till I Die says:

    Good article Scott, I’ll have to forward this to a few fuckwits I know. Theres no chance we bought our success, if anything we splashed out at the right time, after we’d won the Treble. Chelsea and City spending over 100m each in one season and the like, thats what you call buying success, and even then its only been temporary glory. Meanwhile, we’ve always had a high percentage of Academy and young signings in our Squad under Fergie. Imo our business model is easily the best in England, and because of that, no amount of money can turn City or Chelsea’s youth system into anything like ours.

    @Fletch – thats a good point, owners should be obliged to prove their spending is sustainable. Otherwise, Clubs like ours are at a disadvantage because we spend within our means. Good point about MDI too, as our slice of the global audience continues to grow the income attributable to MDI will continue to shrink. To be fair to the Glaziers, they’ve played a big role in turning that global audience into cash, and thats vital, because the days of match day supporters keeping top Clubs afloat are numbered. The future of this billion pound industry is all about global TV rights, image rights, and merchandising. Because of that, all the big spending Clubs should be forced to prove they’ve got a sufficient slice of the action to justify spending all that money. If they’re not reigned in, player prices and wages will continue to go up through the roof, and we all know that artificial bubbles only end one way!

  14. tim@messioronaldo says:

    I woudn’t have thought it necessary to study the stats, if Ferguson has perfected anything it’s the art of spending wisely and developing the youngsters. I’ve never seen a Ferguson teamsheet comprised of entirely foreign born players, I’ve never seen a Ferguson teemsheet that didn’t include some homegrown talent.

    Ferguson has never bought the league like Blackburn Rovers did, or Chelse or Man City.

  15. MansionOfTheReds says:


    do you have stats comparing gross spend and not ‘.net spend’. united have been successful in selling our players at a premium, which might distort the concept of ‘spending power’. The sales revenue is just another source of income like gate receipts or tv rights. To have a fair comparison of spending power, none of these should come into the picture.

  16. Red4ever says:

    One thing I can say that they are jealous of our succes that we got,,,,you bet your fillthy candy coated ass we spent money on players ,,but still less than them ,,
    They cant buy succes like we did ,,we still dominate world football thats what makes their lousy ass go red that how can so many people be red united,,
    Manchester united will always be the team to beat in world,,and if people are jealous they are welcome to see us rubbing in their faces for the 20 th and many many many more glory glory united tittles we are proud to be reds

  17. Micheldu9 says:

    Who utd are a plastic club.who cares.i love reading you backward articles.who cares.get a job you sad sad people.or go and look after your family.because the Dutch mercenary and shriek couldn’t give a shit about you saddos.

  18. blablabla says:

    Are you for real!! Only way to find out is to do a spenditure points table. Now chelsea have topped it five times, united four times, city three times, newcastle three times. Uinted have been higher up the list on more occasions therefore more points= more money spent to match the times and your answer is yes of course the owe alot of success to money power.

  19. ManCunian_FC says:

    United have been consisten high payers for player transfers and player wages since the i don’t know when, Ted McDougall, Bryan robson, Andy cole, Garry Birtles, Veron, Stam, Kleberson, i could go on and on and on, the fact is United were able to do it when others couldn’t because they had the money to pay silly amounts for players. Look at how much players were worth then and compare it to now, United bought Garry Birtles in 1980 for £1.25million, in 1981 £1.5million on Bryan robson, £7million on Andy Cole…..United were in one horse races back then when it came to buying players, other teams wouldn’t have been able to buy Veron for £29million in 2001 or £30million on Ferdinand in 2002. No team could compete until Chelsea were bought by Roman, ok there were other teams who were buying players for a million in the 80′s and a few million in the 90′s but nothing like United. Nonsense article, with it’s only credible point coming from jarrad in the comments.


You must be logged in to post a comment.