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.

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