City and United treble talk makes for surprising comparison

With City chasing a treble, there have been inevitable comparisons with the United side of 1999. Inevitably there’s a romanticised look back to Fergie’s team, with it viewed as a purely footballing triumph, while City’s bid is often viewed as something more. A state backed, money no object, inevitable conquest played out on an uneven playing field. Guardiola may be a great coach, but his triumphs come with the asterisk of money (or Messi).

Back in 1999, City and United were in different financial worlds, but what about United and their rivals for trophies? A quick look at the Deloitte Money League comparing then and now makes for interesting viewing.

Compared to their rivals, United were far more financially dominant than City are now.

Deloitte Money League 1999 for football clubs
Deloitte Money League 2022 for football clubs

Looking at the latest figures, City are now top and have been for a couple of years since the pandemic reduced matchday income – which had a bigger impact on other top sides. Former number one, Real Madrid still has 98% of City’s revenue, while domestic rivals Liverpool and United have 96% and 94% respectively. Bayern Munich, who City played in the Champions League, are just below on 89%.

Compare to 1999, where United were top, but the next highest were Bayern, well behind with 75% of United’s revenues. In the Premier League, United’s dominance was greater still as they enjoyed more than double the revenue of every other club apart from Chelsea – who still only managed just over half United’s revenues with 53%.

In fact, United’s dominance over Premier League rivals in 1999, is more comparable with Bayern’s current dominance in the Bundesliga, where Borussia Dortmund have 55% of the revenue of Bayern.

This feels like a surprise and the interesting question is why? With all the talk of state funding and super clubs, there is the view that top level is more financially distorted than ever. Yet that distortion was already in place with United during the 90’s.

City’s bid for a treble has also been described as the inevitable culmination of all the years of investment since Sheik Mansour bought the club. However, Fergie also enjoyed many years of financial domination prior to 1999. Neil Webb was signed for the then huge sum of £1.5m in 1999. A few weeks later, Gary Pallister was signed for the record sum of £2.3m. Nobody could compete with that. Roy Keane’s signing was another which broke the transfer record as United continued to dominate in the years prior to ’99.

This throws up the question of why weren’t United getting 90+ points in a season, like City and Liverpool have done? Well, City fans might like to say Fergie wasn’t quite as good as was made out. He could simply afford more expensive players. Another view might look at changes in modern coaching, squad building and scouting of signings. For example, the analytics and global scouting systems help top English clubs ensure less money is wasted on poor signings with no resale value. The hoovering up of young talent by the academies of big clubs will help too, although you may have heard it mentioned that Fergie benefitted from a class of ’92.

The only time United were threatened financially in this period was by the owner investor model of Jack Walker at Blackburn. Unfortunately for Rovers, this proved to be a relatively short blip and United were back on top by 1999.

There’s a tendency now to look at owner investor clubs as the evil that created the financial inequality within football, with Blackburn and Chelsea as the instigators. Yet United with their commercial deals and matchday revenues from all those corporate boxes were the greater financial powerhouse. Their longevity normalised the dominance, while there was less attention paid to club revenues in those days. What went wrong? Well, put simply, the Glazers draining money and making dodgy managerial appointments, while the influx of funding for City and Chelsea saw them compete for signings. With United off their perch, others like Liverpool have been able to step up.

Some will point to the charges of financial malpractice at City that might have boosted the club’s finances. Well, we have no idea what the outcome of the charges will be, but we do know they only go up to 2018 and all the contracts for City’s current players were signed after that. The accounts of recent years have all been signed off.

The good news for City’s rivals is that Pep isn’t as likely to stick around as long as Fergie did after winning his treble, and City aren’t as far ahead in terms of revenues as is often made out. Despite what all the doomsters might have you believe, City’s revenues are eminently catchable by a United punching their weight and Real Madrid once they complete their stadium upgrade.

So City fans should enjoy these days. They’ve been a long time coming and they probably won’t last forever. It truly is a special time to be a City fan.

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