Not one investor in Manchester United questioned Ed Woodward on Louis van Gaal's position as manager or the team's performances during a conference call with the club's executive vice-chairman on Thursday.
Woodward had been expected to face a grilling from shareholders with United having exited the Champions League at the group stage, their manager's job frequently linked with Jose Mourinho and the team six points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City.
Instead, he was given the tamest of rides from representatives of JP Morgan and Credit Suisse, among others, with questions ranging from the impact of the Chinese Super League on future transfer fees, ticket prices, the youth academy, apparel opportunities and the expansion of the Old Trafford retail store.
One investor did ask what impact failing to qualify for the Champions League would have on employees’ expenses – player’s wages – but those financially sensitive figures were not forthcoming.
The most pointed football question related to United’s return in the transfer market, with over £250 million spent under Van Gaal compared to the £22.25 million Leicester City team that convincingly beat Manchester City on Saturday to extend its lead at the top of the Premier League.
“Leicester is a fantastic reference point for everybody this year,” Woodward admitted. “The philosophy we have is to target quality players based on the huge amount of scouting we do and analysis within the training ground and then we do our best to do the best deal we can.
“Some players are bought by other clubs with an eye to them developing into something special in a few years time whereas there’s perhaps more pressure on bigger clubs to bring in players who are going to hit the ground running, top players verging on world class almost immediately. There is slightly a different market in which people are buying.”
While on-the-pitch matters may not be investors' primary concern, the performance of Van Gaal's team and the club's financial results are inextricably linked. On Monday, United's share price dropped below $14 for the first time since flotation in 2012 before recovering later in the day. But unlike February 2014, when Woodward was forced to deny United would suffer financial damage if David Moyes failed to secure Champions League qualification, he did not have to refer to Van Gaal or his team's results once.
The first question concerned the ramifications of the Chinese Super League’s extravagant spending on Premier League transfer fees. “Of course it can [have an impact],” said Woodward. “This [summer] will be the biggest window in preparation for next season after real movement in interest following the Premier’s comments on it [president Xi Jingping’s declaration that China will become a “soccer powerhouse”].
"I do think there will be more activity coming in the summer but it's very, very difficult to predict what impact it will have. If nothing else, it's another useful market if we are looking to sell any players." Wayne Rooney was linked with Shanghai SIPG, managed by Sven Goran Eriksson, in December.
Woodward announced that a significant appointment is imminent at United’s youth academy, which has been without a manager since Brian McClair left for the Scottish Football Association in June. Asked about the academy, over-shadowed by Manchester City’s investment in young talent and new facilities, Woodward said it was “at the heart of the club”.
“Giving youth a chance is part of our DNA,” he added. “Brian McClair’s departure gave us an opportunity to conduct a root-and-branch review. That is completed and announcements will follow in the coming days. Our key competitive advantages are still very strong. We have an unmatched track record of player development compared to any other team in England and the runway to our first team is very different to some of our competitors.”
On the current controversy surrounding Premier League ticket prices, the United official said: “I’m not going to comment on what other clubs have done. The Premier League is looking at options to help away fans. There were discussions happening at last week’s Premier League meeting and indeed behind closed doors now and into the next meeting in March when we will deliver something more to away fans.
“But that is only part of it to us. We are working closely with our supporters’ trust to assess what we can do for our fans. Our general admission season tickets have been frozen for the past five years and into next year. That is as good a guidance as any to where we are on admission.”
Woodward was speaking after United posted second-quarter results for the 2016 fiscal year, showing commercial revenues of £66.1 million for the three month period ending December 31st 2015 (a 42.5 per cent increase on 2014’s figure of £46.4 million) and broadcasting revenues of £37.3 million. They were up 31.3 per cent on the previous year’s figure of £28.4 million when United were without Champions League football.
Match-day revenue, however, was down £500,000 to £30.4 million, primarily due to two fewer Premier League home matches and the Argentina v Portugal international friendly that took place at Old Trafford in November 2014.
Profit for second quarter was £27.8 million before tax but the club’s astronomical debt under the Glazers’ ownership stands at £322.1 million, a 6.2 per cent decrease on the 2014 level of £343.4 million. United’s accounts project revenue to be £500-£510 million for the financial year and adjusted EBITDA (profit before depreciation, amortization, profit/loss on disposal of players’ registrations, exceptional items, net finance costs and tax) at £178 -£188 million.
The executive vice-chairman commented: “Our strong commitment to investing in our squad, youth academy and the broader club are ultimately underpinned by our financial strength and the hard work and dedication of everyone at the Club. Our solid results off the pitch help contribute to what remains our number one priority – success on the pitch.”