Back in 2005, when the Glazer family's takeover of Manchester United was marked by supporters wearing black to the Cup final, some of the more militant fan elements spoke about how the Florida dynasty were a bunch of thieves, stealing from the Reds' heritage. It is hard, reading the latest set of accounts to emerge from Old Trafford, to suggest such a view was wrong.
In one sense, five years of Glazerdom appears barely to have affected United. During the time of their involvement, one Champions League, three successive titles, a couple of League Cups and a world club championship have been popped into the trophy room. So why is it, then, that the club is heading for the brown stuff faster than Alastair Darling?
On the surface, the accounts make no sense. In every department at Old Trafford, turnover is up. No club has ever seen more money flowing through its coffers in the history of British football than United did last season. The stuff was flooding through the turnstiles. Yet still they had to conduct a fire sale of their finest talent to remain in the black: if Ronaldo had not gone for a world record fee the bottom line would have been redder than the team's home shirts. Now we learn that the training ground may be sold off, the very piece of shenanigans that prefaced Leeds United's financial implosion a decade ago.
There is only one reason for such an inverse piece of financial alchemy: because of the manner of the takeover. It was, is and always has been utterly unsustainable. The Glazers didn't have the money to pay for it, so they borrowed it. And borrowed big, against the club's assets. Not only that, at a time when you and I are handing over about three per cent on our mortgages, the Glazers are forking out 14.5 per cent on their borrowings. What magnificent businessmen they are. How clever they must be to have delivered such a deal. No wonder they paid themselves £20million over the past five years for such "consultancy". Skills like theirs don't come cheap.
Now they are looking to pay off the more ferocious elements of the debt by issuing bonds. But these won't be consequence free. They will require repaying at some point in the future, with a tasty premium. It is just shifting the numbers around. And this at a club that had not a single debt on its books five years ago, a place that one senior insider recently said to me would right now be "drowning in profit" had it remained a plc.
Surely United's fans must have gained something from the plunge into debt? Well, actually, no. Not one tangible benefit has been accrued by those whose money has sustained the enterprise for 135 years. Not even a Leeds-style spending spree. The success on the pitch has been entirely due to the stewardship of Alex Ferguson. The Glazers have added no value whatsoever. They call themselves investors in the club, but not a single penny has come from their pockets to purchase players.
Indeed, as the accounts reveal, they have had their hands in the till all along. Rather, the money to pay for their folly has come from the fans. Reading the prospectus for the bond issue the Glazers even boast about the way in which they have raised ticket prices above inflation and will continue to do so. How cheerfully they mock the hand that feeds their debt.
And the real horror lies over the next season or two. Ferguson will soon need replacements for the men who delivered all that success: Giggs, Neville, Scholes, Van Der Sar and in all probability Vidic, Ferdinand and Hargreaves will not be around for much longer. Judging by the resources in his youth section, to rebuild the manager will need to buy and buy big. But from where will the money come for that sort of outlay when every single penny generated by the club is required to prop up its utterly unsustainable ownership model?
There is a very real possibility in two years time that the only world class players at Ferguson's disposal will be Rooney and Evra. And you don't win much with resources like that. Once the success stops, then what? After all, if they can't make the place pay when they win everything, how will the Glazers generate the sort of money the circling loan sharks need when the rot sets in?
For those rivals who smirk at United's predicament, who see it as the righteous consequences of hubris, consider this: back in 2005, dazzled by their mystique, those who run the English game cheerfully reckoned the Glazers wholly fit and proper persons and did nothing to prevent the takeover. Which means it can and will happen again. Indeed, at Portsmouth it already has. It could be you next.