For years, rival fans claimed that Manchester United “bought” their success. Unlike Liverpool, we took advantage of our big name globally, cashed in nicely on the Sky Sports money, exploited fans with regular new shirts and merchandise, so we had money to burn in the transfer market.
We broke the British transfer record in 1981 when we paid £1.5m to bring Bryan Robson from West Brom, two years after City broke the record to sign Steve Daley for £1.45m, who The Observer later called the “biggest waste of money in football history”.
Over the next four seasons our club broke the records again, this time for the fees paid to our club when we sold Ray Wilkins to AC Milan (£1.5m) and Mark Hughes to Barcelona (£2.3m).
United next broke the record in 1995 to bring Andy Cole from Newcastle to try and help us secure that third title on the bounce but we lost out to Blackburn on the final day of the season after failing to beat West Ham. The £7m we paid for him was superseded by Arsenal a few months later when they paid £7.5m for Denis Bergkamp and that same month, Liverpool paid £8.5m for Stan Collymore. The following summer Newcastle paid an incredible £15m for Alan Shearer after he shunned us, meaning we forked out just £1.5m for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer instead that same week.
After winning the unprecedented Treble, United meant business in the transfer market, signing Juan Sebastian Veron for £28m in the summer of 2001 and Rio Ferdinand for £29m the following year. Rio was money well spent whilst Veron was shoehorned in to arguably one of the best central midfields of all time, with Roy Keane and Paul Scholes, and never really worked. Thankfully, we made more than half our money back on him when Chelsea took him off our hands a couple of years later.
The transfer record was next broken by Chelsea in 2006 when they signed Andriy Shevchenko for £30.8m before City broke it two years later to bring Robinho from Real Madrid for £32.5m.
However, it’s obviously not just breaking transfer records which you need to look at, indicated most clearly by both City and Chelsea who have spent shedloads of cash over the past few seasons but have only broken the transfer record once each in this time.
This table proves better than anything anyone could say that money does not necessarily equal success. Of course, there’s no denying that money gives you a much better chance of being successful and in most situations, it will make you more successful than you would otherwise be without it, but spending lots of money does not guarantee success, certainly not on the scale that United have enjoyed over the past few decades at least. Per season, there’s next to no difference between the spending of Spurs and United, for example, but the difference between trophies won is obviously vast. Liverpool are the third biggest spenders in the Premier League years yet have never even won it!
In the past eight seasons, four clubs have a larger net spend than United, with Aston Villa less than £3m behind us, yet when we compare the success in this time it’s laughable. United have won four league titles, Chelsea have won three and Arsenal have won one. United have also won the Champions League, the FA Cup and three League Cups. Chelsea have also won three FA Cups and two League Cups. Arsenal have also won an FA Cup, as have Liverpool and City, whilst Tottenham have won the League Cup. Aston Villa, of course, have won nothing.
The teams are ranked in order of how much money they’ve spent but this money isn’t reflected by the success they’ve had, particularly where United are concerned.
After winning back to back titles in 2005 and 2006, Chelsea strengthened their squad with one of the best players in the world for three positions, in Ashley Cole, Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko. In contrast, United just signed Carrick, despite selling top scorer, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and buying no replacement. It was United that won the league for the next three seasons though, as well as beating Chelsea in the European Cup final in 2008. If success can be bought, why did that happen?
Chelsea’s time as the biggest spenders has more or less come and gone, although they did spend more than City in the season just gone. However, with City now the biggest spenders, the most successful club has still been United. If they do win the league this season, as they are clear favourites to do, that will make it four Premier League title wins from the past five season. This table shows the net and total spend over the past five years.
So, to reiterate the point made earlier, money is needed to be successful, but it is just one of the many ingredients needed to win trophies. When you look at what United have that Chelsea and City don’t, like a brilliant manager who is a stable presence, as well as a constant stream of youth players in the first team squad who not only care more about the club but who also allow you to spend money elsewhere because they have no transfer fee, it illustrates clearly where our success comes from.
If you could buy success, Chelsea would have won the title every season since 2005, with City taking it off them last season and this. As it stands, we’re eight points clear at the top and likely to win back to back titles yet again.
Transfer fees taken from TransferLeague.co.uk
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