Manchester United, wages and a confected fury…

Date published: Tuesday 15th October 2019 7:47

There’s a reason why so many media outlets were more than happy to jump on a Manchester United wages story that was three weeks old; people are obsessed with money, with impossibly high numbers, with salary figures they simply cannot comprehend. Pound signs bring clicks, particularly if those pound signs are followed by a per-week metric that has somehow become the sole measure for the wages of footballers, but absolutely nobody else.

Not only is football the only profession that makes the media collectively pretend the chief protagonists are paid weekly – presumably because our brains cannot compute the annual sums involved – but it’s the only profession where those on the outside think they have a right to know those numbers. Objectively, it is absolutely nobody’s business but those who pay the wages, those who receive them and the authorities who take a hefty slice for tax. Businesses are paying employees what they think those employees are worth and if you are a club of Manchester United’s size and financial heft, those numbers are going to be considerably higher than most.

Fans may scream that they pay those players’ wages, but that is incredibly naive; TV companies and commercial partners largely pay those players’ wages, and those commercial partners are paying to be associated with the kind of club that pays World Cup winner Paul Pogba £290,000 a week. Headlines of ‘Newcastle hero Matty Longstaff who scored winner vs Man Utd earns just £850 a week’ are designed to infuriate Manchester United fans but they are utterly irrelevant, and not just because that misleading per-week metric is hiding the fact that we are talking about a teenager on a yearly salary higher than the national adult average. It is also irrelevant because Manchester United can afford to pay far higher wages than Newcastle and those wages are not designed to be a guarantee of performance, simply an approximation of on-pitch and off-pitch worth to that particular club at the particular time a contract is signed.

It obviously suits the media – and we are not occupying any moral high ground here as we use our fair share of pound signs – to repeatedly emphasise the enormity of footballer wages because it adds to a sense of injustice; the only people that make fans angrier than under-performing footballers are under-performing footballers who appear to be overpaid. When certain footballers falter, those numbers being broken down into weeks is no longer enough – we are told how much they are paid per minute, per goal, per assist, per piss. And both club and player are derided as if they absolutely should have seen this coming during contract negotiations. Alexis Sanchez is the most obvious example of this phenomenon, demoted from one of the all-time greatest free transfers to a £20,000-per-minute flop in just a few months.

Nobody should really be shocked or even shrug at the ‘news’ that Manchester United’s wage bill is the highest Premier League wage bill of all time; it would be more surprising if it was not. If a club announces record revenues, then a record wage bill is pretty much inevitable unless there are oligarchs throwing indecent money around elsewhere. As United make more money than any other English club, they will generally pay more in wages than any other English club.

And those equations are infuriatingly – to some – underlined during periods of on-pitch struggle because the promise of trophy challenges and the lure of a certain manager can lead to players accepting lower terms elsewhere. It is vital to United as a brand that they employ world-class players, which means world-class wages but crucially does not necessarily mean world-class performances. Because that’s not how football works. Without a proper footballing structure, without intelligent scouting, without an outstanding manager, money buys nothing other than more money.

United’s wages-to-turnover ratio is still right down among the lowest in the Premier League, which illustrates that they are spending well within their means. Their 53% ratio is below that of Liverpool’s last reported figure of 58% for example, and it’s that figure that is far more relevant to United as a business than the top line reported in the media. And it’s knowledge of those numbers that will lead the agents of Manchester United’s most celebrated players to ask for and be given higher wages. A club of United’s stature cannot lose David De Gea, Pogba and Marcus Rashford for the sake of money that is a drop in the financial ocean. But Pogba being ‘worth’ £600,000 a week to United is unlikely to ever translate to the actual pitch; he will never be ‘worth’ that outside of business meetings and balance sheets.

All of which combines to make this iteration of Manchester United a headline-writer’s £332m dream.

Sarah Winterburn


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