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Trophies for Peanuts – Correcting Misconceptions of the Ferguson Way

We’ve all seen the argument before that the reason why our success is different to Chelsea’s, and more recently, Manchester City’s, is because we used our own money, hard earned cash put through the turnstiles and so on. Almost an admission, that the only reason United ended that painful 26 year wait for a title, was due to our transfer activity being greater than our rivals. But it’s OK, it was our dosh.

In the wake of City’s title triumph, much debate was provoked about the manner of how it was achieved. United fans argue that our blue neighbours simply bought the league, City fans just shrug their shoulders, enjoy their moment as they should, and say “who cares, so did United.”

It’s said that any team ultimately ‘buys success’ to a degree but the argument United ‘bought the league’ has never washed with me. Yes, we used to spend money but no more than the other big clubs of the day. It’s simply not how I remembered it. So I decided to dig a bit deeper…

The Atkinson Years…

Let me provide some background context to Ferguson’s achievement in building a football empire from what I am going to argue was literally peanuts. In late 1986, he had inherited a side that was ageing, injury prone and had suffered underinvestment for a long time. Manchester United, it would have seemed, were destined for relegation. Who could forget the infamous league table with Wimbledon at the top and United at the bottom?

We have to go back as far as 1982 to find out why the team was languishing.

Since the summer of 1981 and the signing of Bryan Robson it’s remarkable to discover that Ron Atkinson’s net transfer spend actually yielded a profit of nearly the Robbo fee itself! So in the five years preceding Fergie’s appointment, Manchester United had spent nothing in the transfer market. No wonder United had slipped so far behind the likes of the Merseyside giants and Nottingham Forest. And as Fergie would later point out, the youth team, once the envy of British football, had also been left to rot.

1982/1983: -£607,000
1983/1984: -£155,000
1984/1985: £340,000
1985/1986: £610,000
1986/1987: -£1,615,000

Total net spend over 5 seasons before Ferguson: -£1,427,000

Fergie rings the changes…

It’s really little wonder then that the squad needed such an overhaul. Fergie even admits how surprised he was at the size of the challenge he took over. Ferguson then famously started to build his own team, having to let go established stars like McGrath, Whiteside and Strachan for very little to rival clubs. After a few solid signings like McClair and Bruce it was really 1989 when Fergie first splashed the cash by bringing in five top players in a short space of time. Pallister, Phelan, Webb, Ince and Wallace.

1987/1988: £1,465,000
1988/1989: £2,440,000
1989/1990: £6,950,000
1990/1991: £570,000
1991/1992: £2,900,000

Total net spend over Ferguson’s first 5 seasons: £14,325,000 (£2,865,000 per season)

It’s worth noting that the five players Fergie bought in his ‘big splash’ of 1989 were eventually sold on for an aggregate profit of £2.25m

Though Ferguson spent big in this era, he still didn’t spend the most. United spent £19,285,000 (gross) in total on players before securing their first title. In the same period, Liverpool spent £23,965,000 and Spurs spent £19,260,000. Whichever way you carve it up, the spend is fairly evenly balanced… the proverbial level playing field.

The difference between United and the rest however is found on the opening day of the last ever Football League Division One. United, at home to Notts County, attracted a crowd of nearly 47,000. After 25 years of playing second fiddle it was a remarkable show of support in a different era, when turnstile clicks provided core income. A support that hardly dipped that year and would eventually tip United over the finishing line in many matches over the following seasons. United’s average attendance that season was 44,984, the highest in the country. The next largest average attendance was Liverpool’s, over ten thousand less than ours, with 34,799, and the champions that season, Leeds, were ranked 5th for attendance in England, with 29,459.

Champions at last…

What about post-1993 and the era immediately after that elusive first league title in 26 years, the catalyst for all the success ahead? Well again, despite some headline making signings such as Roy Keane and Andy Cole, Ferguson again turned a profit, mainly due to the departures of stars like Kanchelskis, Ince and Sharpe. This, at a time, when United’s commercial revenues were going through the roof as new fans latched onto the success.

1992/1993: £215,000
1993/1994: £2,850,000
1994/1995: £-3,980,000
1995/1996: £2,900,000
1996/1997: £500,000
1997/1998: -£2,525,000

Total net spend over Ferguson’s 6 seasons post-first title: -£40,000

This benchmarks against some of United’s rivals in the same (1992-1998) period paints a clear picture of just how little we were spending.

Newcastle: £40,570,000
Liverpool: £29,625,000
Chelsea: £27,705,000
Everton: £18,660,000
Spurs: £18,630,000
City: £12,070,000

Give these figures a wider context by looking at the aggregate total of the three time periods described above.

United’s total net spend (1982-1998): £12,858,000

Little difference in what City spent between 1992-1998 and United between 1982-1998. The rest have massively outspent United, by two or three fold in less than half the time.


To conclude, United spent nothing in the five seasons prior to Ferguson becoming manager. United were then outspent by major rivals such as Liverpool and Spurs in his first five seasons. After winning his first title, Ferguson then spent nothing again for the next six seasons.

Only then, having built the most profitable football club in the world, did Ferguson start to really spend in a way that would eventually eclipse our domestic challengers.

Why? Because United had already started to dominate the Premier League but were faced with a far greater challenge on the continent where the top Italian and Spanish sides had started to seriously raise the bar spending £30m+ on players, for example, Inter signing Ronaldo for £19.5m in 1997, Denílson to Real Betis for £21.5m in 1998, Vieri to Inter Milan for £32m in 1999, and Crespo to Lazio for £35.5m in 2000.

Follow Michael Di Paola on Twitter.




  1. Bobby Charlton's combover says:

    You’ll never win anything with peanuts……..

  2. irishred75 says:

    great article Scott.

    What are the figures from 98-2013 i wonder?

    Ferguson = Football Legend & Entrepreneur!

  3. Costas says:

    United “buying” their success has always been a common misconception. For one thing, the actual figures might reveal that other clubs didn’t spend a lot less. Plus, it’s not like we depended on a sugar daddy. The club spent money from the revenue that its brand name generated.

  4. Ash says:

    These M.E.N guys are hypocrites. But Honestly I love reading these kind of news.

    Q Who are Manchester City?
    A. A club who were always mediocre club but got one day suddenly they get 1 Billion to spend and now they think they are the best club in England and world.

    People always say we also spent millions. Yeah Agreed we spent but we didn’t spend crazy money. We spent our money. Money that we earned yet even after that we didn’t spend like Chelsea or City have done. How could anyone compare the spending that City does with ours. This is called jealousy. I can’t blame them they need to stir controversy and the best method is by targeting the Best and that is Manchester United. The Media guys and Pundits try their Best to prove Torres is not a flop. But from the moment we bought berbatov from Spurs for 30 Millions , Media and Pundits were bad mouthing Berba. Hell some even went on to say he was the biggest flop. This is called hypocrisy. Even today when they are asked who has been the biggest flop they will say Veron who I thought was not that bad. He showed his skills but It never worked. Same with Berbatov. For me there are more bigger flops than Veron namely Shevchenko, Andy Carrol, Robinho, Torres etc. Yet the Media never mentions these guys. Have you seen Media ever mention about Sheva’s transfer. NO. But they still have time to say bad things about a Raw talent Bebe. This is called pure jealousy and Hypocrisy.

    These media guys and reporters are very Much insecure that Manchester United are at their top and will win the league very easily if they have the same form through out the season. I can bet if RVP had failed to score in his first three games or so these ABU’S would be calling for RVP’S head and say he is a flop. Fucking Jokers.

    I fucking Hate Chelsea and City with Passion. They have spoiled the game and Their arrogance is fucking unbelievable. Thats the same Reason I never liked Real Madrid but atleast they are in our level so I can give them a bye but City and chelsea and also the likes of PSG should be banned. How can anyone respect these teams is beyond me. I dont have problem when some people hate Manchester United but I have a big problem when Someone defends clubs like Chelsea and City. PLASTICS

  5. Harish says:


    Wow that was a great rant. You have made valid points. City and Chelsea are pathetic to say the least. They can never earn respect atleast for the nest 50 years they don’t deserve respect. Even clubs like Southampton or Fulham or any other mid table club would become like city if you give them 500 millions to spend. But no one can become like Manchester United

  6. bigphil2003 says:

    I remember the day we signed Andy Cole – that was the most exciting transfer I’ve experienced until RVP this year!

  7. Bobby Charlton's combover says:

    I feel sorry for the teams who’ve spent fortunes and won fuck all…loserpool, spurs, newcastle….

  8. Tasty Geezer says:

    BC’s Comb . . . .

    I don’t!!!!

  9. kel says:


  10. DreadedRed says:

    ex The Independent:

    Manchester United have taken the young Leicester City attacker Jeff Schlupp on trial. Schlupp, 20, has been training at Carrington. Michael Keane has recently extended his loan at Leicester and forward Jesse Lingard, another young United player, has just returned from a loan spell there.

    Schlupp is relatively inexperienced. He is a striker who can operate on the left and has also played some games at left-back for the club. He broke into the side last season having played on loan at Brentford in the 2010-2011 season.

    A product of the Leicester academy, Schlupp made an immediate impact for the first team, scoring a hat-trick on his debut away to Rotherham United in the League Cup. He played fairly regularly last season in spite of injuries.

    He is a senior Ghana international, his one cap coming in November last year. He played junior international football for Germany – he was born in Hamburg before moving to England as a youngster. He underwent knee surgery last season but the club still gave him a new contract until 2015.

  11. janus says:

    352 million spent by united over the last 5 years should be worth mentioning

  12. Scott the Red says:

    Janus – Is it? That figure is absolutely dwarfed by City and Chelsea’s spending in that time.

  13. United Till I Die says:

    Good article.

    United were pretty much down and out when Fergie joined, people forget that. Meanwhile Liverpool were pretty much untouchable. Looking back, I would’ve never expected the success we’ve had since then. I was happy just seeing us challenge for the Title!

    @Milaneli – that is good news. Its about time the FA joined modernity.

    Bernstein getting the boot is a bonus. No more Ted Baker for me, tho.

  14. United Till I Die says:

    @Ash, haha steady on fella! Top post.

    How anybody can wax lyrical about this or that player being the biggest flop in history, when Chelsea have a FIFTY MILLION POUND STIRLING sack of shit on their books is beyond me.

    Can’t remember what match is was, but Chelsea were playing recently and the commentary was on about Ba (I think) and saying “well you get what you pay for” and “If you spend the money, you get the results” etc etc

    What bollocks! How they could sit there and say that about Chelski with a straight face is a mystery. Torres, the blond haired saviour of all things football, is the biggest flop in sporting history, and the way the game is going, we’ll never see another flop quite like it.

    The media’s reluctance to call a spade a spade just makes me laugh. Any media personality with an ounce of integrity will rightly call the feminine Spaniard the overpriced sack of shit he clearly is. I’d rather spend 50m on 7 street footballers than one Torres. Simple as.

  15. Costas says:

    Fergie says Evans will miss the Spurs game. Damn.

  16. DreadedRed says:

    ex TAOT, Sir Alex’s main points from his press conference:

    Team news: “We’ve got a strong squad. Jonny Evans still isn’t available. He’s not 100 per cent. Other than that, we’re not too bad. We gave a lot of players a game on Wednesday and I thought they did well.”

    Tottenham match: “We now have a hard game on Sunday and Spurs are in good form. We have a fantastic record at White Hart Lane. There’s always a good atmosphere and we enjoy playing there. But we can’t take anything for granted. We have to perform.”

    Gareth Bale vs Ryan Giggs comparison: “I think Bale’s a good player, yes. Giggs at 23… I don’t think there was anyone better. It’s difficult to say. They’re different types of players, even though they’re both left-footed and both play on the left.”

    Darren Fletcher surgery: “This operation will hopefully solve the situation and we expect him to be back in July.”

    Nigel Adkins sacking: “There’s no point in saying we’re surprised because it’s a crazy world and strange things happen in football. But it does seem very unfair.”

  17. kanchelskis says:

    Bale/Giggs is no comparison. Completely different types of players.

    Relatively speaking, Bale is predictable, but it doesn’t stop him being devastating. Almost like Valencia, you know what his game involves and what he’s going to try in most situations, but that doesn’t mean you can stop him. Just too fast and too powerful.

    Giggs in his prime was far more of a tricky winger. Feints, flicks, tricks, weaving etc.

  18. dazbomber says:

    bigphil2003 -It was because we all thought we were getting Stan Collymore.

  19. Gorse Hill Red says:

    Excellent article, I had actually had no idea that net spend was in the red when SAF took over. Just goes to show what great mangement can do for a club.

  20. M40RED says:

    United till i die

    Feminine Spaniard………. Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah ha ha ha ha ha brilliant

  21. RedArmy says:


    Nobody is saying that United haven’t spent money. To suggest that is completely ridiculous.

    The issue is where the money has come from. United earned every penny of their money – City haven’t earned any of it.

    United built an empire on the back of Alex Ferguson, which we should all be proud and grateful for. There’s no pride in City getting a leg up on the back of oil money.

  22. mancabroad says:

    Should send this to the fat bloke who writes for the daily mail. According to him we United are apparently responsible for the Chelsea/City’s expenditure over the last 5 years…

  23. PJ says:

    Another killer post!!
    1992-’98: Why can’t I find the Rovers in there?

  24. thetunnel68 says:

    janus says:

    352 million spent by united over the last 5 years should be worth mentioning

    Where do you get your figures from ? I have it as £185m gross and £57m nett , dont forget the sale of Ronaldo in 09/10 @ £80m


  25. greenbank goal post says:

    Great read thanks mate.

    Big Phil 2003 … signing of Andy Cole I remember seeing it on teletex….

  26. UnitedFaithful says:

    Great article.
    The class of 92 played a huge part to keep our transfer spending to a reasonable sum in the 92-98 toppled with 1 or 2 stellar signings

  27. D'GING€r PrinC€ says:

    @Ash,spot 0n mate

  28. brett1985 says:

    janus says:

    352 million spent by united over the last 5 years should be worth mentioning

    I don’t consider lies to be worth much to be honest.

  29. jimmyanderson1872 says:

    A few people have been asking to see the spending since 1998. This website shows the net spend of all premier league clubs between 1992 and today.

    Chelski and Citeh are top followed by Liverpool and then us. With Chelski and Citeh’s net spend both being double that of ours.

    As usual the Citeh fans tend to ignore the facts.

  30. JDMUFC says:

    Great article. I see a lot more city fans coming out now and saying how we were saved from extinction in the 30s by James W Gibson and then saying we are no different to them. How stupid can they get? There was literally no club, we were served a winding up order with huge debts and had NO income. 2 options were available – die or get help. What would any business owner do never mind a football club? We needed rebuilt to give us that solid foundation to then operate within our means. City before the sheikh were handed a stadium and had an income, I don’t care about their financial problems they were nowhere near what we were in the 1930s.

    I’d also like to point out that I’m sick of all these ones saying city and Chelsea need to do what they do to be a success like us – BULLSHIT OF THE HIGHEST LEVEL. Its thanks to the both of them that clubs like spurs and Everton, who are well run and balance their books, miss out on the top 4.


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