Man United aura fades with each setback, brand risks damage
Dec. 14, 2015
LONDON (AP) — Manchester United is increasingly being viewed as a successful commercial machine with a football club tagged on. It's not only injured club captain Wayne Rooney who is fading as a force, the whole club is losing its aura too.
The fear within the United boardroom will be if the lucrative global brand erodes as a result of the football produced by Louis van Gaal's team which is currently unappealing to the Premier League's worldwide audience.
It might not be Van Gaal's team for much longer if the level of discontent in the stands at Old Trafford remains so vocal. The 64-year-old Dutchman is doing little to offer a glimmer of hope with downbeat public comments that are being increasingly ridiculed by supporters, who are allowed to air grievances on the in-house television channel.
"I want to manage the expectation," said the manager of a club which became so accustomed to glory under Alex Ferguson, when accepting anything but the best was off the agenda. "It is not as easy as everybody thinks."
For the record 20-time champion of English football, this was far from the bravado displayed by United when they are flogging the club to Wall Street investors or any company willing to pay millions of pounds to cover their products with Red Devils branding.
The logo was once a hallmark of success but United has already stuttered through two seasons without a trophy in the post-Ferguson era: First under David Moyes and subsequently Van Gaal.
United appears to have lost the air of supremacy regained during Ferguson's 26-year reign.
Who fears United now? Not even Bournemouth, the newest member of the elite.
A first-ever league match against the southern seaside club ended with United being embarrassed 2-1 on Saturday. This was an opponent that was playing in the fourth tier only seven years ago and docked 17 points for its financial mess.
It wasn't even a case of plucky Bournemouth snatching a freak victory. The Cherries deserved all three points. A draw would have flattered United.
"Who scores the winning goal shall win," a defiant Van Gaal said after the latest loss when injuries were blamed for losing to a team with perhaps the most debilitating collection of sidelined players in the top flight.
The world's second wealthiest team should never have been in a position where it had to give both full backs their full Premier League debuts in the match.
As $3 billion United has struggled for goals the strikers discarded by Van Gaal have being showing just how lethal they can be: Summer sale Javier Hernandez has 15 in 12 games for Bayer Leverkusen and James Wilson has scored twice in his three games since joining Brighton on loan.
Bournemouth was not even the only humiliation of the week. It followed a Champions League humbling at Wolfsburg and the ignominy of instead being in Monday's secondary draw for the knockout round for the second-tier Europa League.
It will seem even more painful in February when Manchester City is playing in the Champions League and United is in the backwaters of Thursday night continental competition.
Steadily as well, City is catching its more illustrious neighbor off the field. Although its manager's position seems no more secure than Van Gaal's — Bayern Munich coach Pep Guardiola is being talked about as replacing Manuel Pellegrini's inconsistent title-challengers for next season — the club seems calmer and more stable.
Internationally, City is also catching up with United by adopting a more innovative approach. United generated almost $600 million in 2014-15 as its commercial operation continues to add to its global array of sponsorships. But City is only $70 million behind and expanding globally in a more innovative way with partner clubs in Australia, the United States and Japan and now Chinese investors taking a 13 percent stake in the Abu Dhabi-owned club.
United vice chairman Ed Woodward, the public voice of the owning Glazer family, has remained silent all season just when the fans seek answers about the future of the team and his often-haphazard handling of transfers and botched deals.
United is far from being in full crisis mode. The team remains fourth in the Premier League with the best defensive record. But too often, Van Gaal's priority seems to be avoiding defeat.
Goalless draws aren't why companies are so keen to associate themselves with United. The squad assembled by Van Gaal and Woodward just lacks the flair and experience displayed by United's salesmen in scoring so many sponsorships.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports