Manchester United may be a money machine but not punching their weight in the Champions League is nothing new
01 March 2018


By Dam Wallace, Chief football Writer

The Manchester United match day programmes for what was their 2017-18 Champions League campaign were framed in that deep royal blue that, even for a club steeped in red, is unmistakeably the colour of the shirts from a warm May night at Wembley 50 years earlier.

It was always a long shot that on the 50th anniversary of Sir Matt Busby’s most astonishing achievement, that first European Cup in 1968, United would square the circle with the club’s fourth triumph in Europe’s premier competition. They have been out of the Champions League altogether for two of the previous four seasons and they have made the quarter-finals or better in just three of the last eight seasons, which is one of the reasons Sevilla were as bold as they were on Tuesday night.

Perhaps in the mind of Jose Mourinho, who has always retained an outsider’s perspective on English football however much he flatters the game, that is where United are now, a big European club in England, but a second-tier club among Europe’s elite. Most of the time, Mourinho can apply a filter to his private thoughts but in defeat he struggles and Tuesday’s claim that elimination for United was “nothing new” might just have been a little window on what he really thinks about the club.

He recalled how he had sat in the same chair having twice eliminated United “with Porto and Real Madrid, so it is not something new for the club”. It was, he conceded, a “disappointment” for United to lose a Champions League tie at home but it was more about what was left unsaid.

Sir Alex Ferguson never turned up for that final Champions League press conference in March 2013 after Mourinho’s Madrid had beaten his 10 men following Nani’s red card, and the old Scot, said to be heartbroken, must have known then he had run his race in Europe. There were times when he would reflect ruefully on United’s failure to win more than the two Champions Leagues he added to Busby’s old-format triumph in 1968, but he always had his domestic supremacy to mitigate.

This might be a bad time for Mourinho, who has won as many Champions League titles over his 18-year managerial career as United have in the same period, to start lecturing the club on their own history – although that never usually stops him. Of course, United have won more Champions Leagues than many other pretenders, the likes of Arsenal and Manchester City with none, and Chelsea who have one, but United have fewer than Liverpool and Ajax before you even get to the top four.

It is hard to throw a blanket over all those different eras, the oscillating fortunes of wealth and power and, yes, back in some eras, the political influence of certain clubs and the stories of the referees who found something special on the table in the privacy of their hotel rooms. But in the recent era, when United have established themselves as the goliath of the modern age, when we can compare revenue and what it returns, there is no question that the club has underachieved.

The Deloitte Money League began recording the finances of Europe’s biggest clubs in 1996-97 and since then have placed them according to revenue, with United having come out above the big two in Spain and Bayern Munich at the top of the list for the last two years. Over the 21 seasons the league has been compiled working on position alone, United come out on top – narrowly from Real Madrid, who finished top for 11 straight years until 2014-2015, but top nonetheless.

Unlike Madrid, United have fallen out of the top three wealthiest clubs just once in 21 seasons, and they may well finish top again next season with the revenue generated from getting out the group stages this season. Yet in that 21-season period, United have two Champions League titles and two beaten finalist appearances, Madrid have won it five times, Barcelona have won four, and Bayern have reached five finals and won two.

Beyond the wealthiest clubs, Juventus, sixth in terms of revenue over the past 21 seasons, and having not been in Deloitte’s top four since 2005-06, have reached five finals. AC Milan, seventh overall, and currently not in Deloitte’s top 20, have two Champions Leagues titles in that period and reached the 2005 final. Financially, United have maintained their status as the biggest money machine in Europe from the early days of the Premier League to the current day struggle for global supremacy in commercial markets. They just have never translated it into comparable success in the Champions League.

Ferguson might well point to the great Barcelona side that existed in his last years at United, as well as Real Madrid’s acquisition of Cristiano Ronaldo, who deprived the club of the Champions League’s greatest-ever goal scorer at a period when United were more competitive in Europe. There are the old complaints about the domestic domination these clubs enjoy in their own leagues, of the players they can cherry-pick, of the games they can reschedule. It is a big picture and life has changed a lot since Ferguson, but it is hard to argue that United have mobilised their wealth to its greatest effect.

Ferguson did his bit, even if he acknowledged that the club never won as many as they should. Before his second Champions League in 2008 he said the club “will always be disappointed that we haven't won it more – I'm sure the way I feel about that is the same way that everyone at the club feels.”

Mourinho has never been particularly robust when it comes to taking criticism but he will see United’s record very differently to those who regard them as perennial favourites. Mourinho has won as many modern Champions Leagues titles himself as United, and as such will regard himself as just as important to their ambitions as the club is to his.

© Telegraph Media Group Limited 2018