A visionary or a hypocrite? David Gill's legacy at Manchester United

The 55-year-old announced that he will leave the Red Devils at the end of June, leaving us to analyse the role he has played in taking the club to their current stature

By Tom Doyle and Jay Jaffa

To some he is a shrewd negotiator and a calming influence during one of the most turbulent periods in Manchester United’s entire history; to others he is a hypocritical turncoat who sings sweet nothings to fans while pocketing the Glazers’ ‘dirty’ money – but just what impact has David Gill had on shaping the club in his 10 years as chief executive at Old Trafford?

There is simply no denying that Gill is a controversial figure for Manchester United fans – or “customers” as the 55-year-old has been known to refer to them. In the evolving world of football, United have capitalised on emerging markets in America and Asia to significantly boost their accounts, despite the spectre of debt which hangs over the club as a result of the Glazers’ leveraged takeover in May 2005.

With Financial Fair Play laws – both in Europe and at home – threatening to halt the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea’s mega-rich oligarchs from splurging money their clubs could never hope to earn, the Red Devils could well be set for another period of financial dominance akin to the 1990s/early 2000s.

Yet many fans – particularly those who identify with the ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ campaign – will never forgive the man who oversaw the sale of the club to the Americans and sang their praises while continuing in his lofty role. Those fans were left crying ‘Judas’ as they left to set up splinter club FC United of Manchester.

United’s latest figures make for cautiously optimistic reading: profits rose 74 per cent for the second half of 2012, with total revenues rising mainly due to a host of spectacular sponsorship deals from the club’s revamped commercial department.

Total revenues were up, with income from sponsors particularly strong, though broadcast revenues were down. The debt still hangs at £366.6million (with the 66.6 a particularly apt given the fans’ depictions of Malcolm Glazer as a money-hungry Beelzebub), while staff costs rose 10% to £84.5m due to new signings and contracts.

Despite this, the club is now a prime example of how to exploit emerging markets and secure lucrative business arrangements, proving they are once again ahead of the curve in terms of economic thinking in the world of football.

The club’s surge into Asia was the first pioneering steps of a Premier League club seeking expansion into emerging markets and Gill oversaw the majority of these commercial developments as one of his key responsibilities as Chief Executive. A survey undertaken in 2011 and published at the end of last season claimed that the club could boast 659 million supporters globally, with 325 million in Asia alone. Indeed, 90% of the club’s supporters hail from emerging markets; a remarkable statistic, and testimony to the work done by visionaries like Gill who helped evolve United as a brand.

It may seem contrary to the traditions of Manchester United, but as the winds of change swept through football from the early 1990s to the present day, the club have kept pace with the financial opportunities and off-pitch culture, while remaining clinically successful on the pitch.

Inevitably, there have been moves that have soured relations with the club’s fans, such as the decision to remove “Football Club” from the club crest, or moving the official headquarters away from Old Trafford and to the Cayman Islands, while the slew of commercial sponsorship deals have been a bitter pill to swallow for the purists at M16. The nadir could be the introduction of the Chevrolet logo to the first-team kit from 2014 onwards, yet, at a startling cost to General Motors of £357m, Gill and Co. should proudly view it as further evidence of the growing might of the club.

Overall, such enterprising work has kept United in front of their rivals – even with the billionaires at Chelsea and Manchester City threatening to steal their mantle. The club have always rebounded on the pitch (as evidenced by United’s 12-point lead over City as they look to wrest the title back from their noisy neighbours), while off it they continue to grow. The steady redevelopment of Old Trafford has kept fans pouring through the gates and placed the club on an unmatched pedestal in the British Isles.

Over time, Gill’s influence in matters outside of Manchester United have increased (though some speculate that the right word should be “conflicted”), as he was appointed onto the board of the Football Association. Part of his reason for leaving United is his belief “that all businesses need to refresh themselves with new management and ideas,” but many will point to his elevation to vice chairman of the FA in October last year.
Sir Alex Ferguson said: “He always wants the best for United, whether it’s the players, the training ground or the staff,” in a kind tribute to only the third man Ferguson has worked for at United.

Supporters rarely, if ever, hold the money men in any sort of esteem, such is the ever-increasing divide developing between the man on the street and the power brokers behind these multi-million pound juggernauts. But the warmth with which United have signed off Gill’s career suggest he is as highly valued as his position at the club dictated.

Only last month Forbes magazine declared Manchester United the first sports franchise to surpass the $3 billion valuation, eclipsing the Dallas Cowboys in second at $2.2bn. Put simply, United are the gold standard in global sports marketing and Gill will be remembered as the poster boy for the years of unstoppable growth. Will he be remembered fondly by the “customers”, though? Unlikely, but then again, who in business is?

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