David Gill leaves mixed legacy of trophies, debt

Posted by Musa Okwonga

After 10 years as Manchester United’s chief executive, David Gill is to leave Old Trafford, with none other than Sir Alex Ferguson describing his departure as "a big loss."

Gill, leaving to run for a seat on UEFA's Executive Committee, oversaw Ferguson’s assembly of the second Champions League-winning team of his 26-year reign. Crucially, though, he also oversaw the arrival of the Glazers as the owners of the club, and it is this fact that may loom largest over Gill's legacy.

-- Gill steps down as United chief
-- Ferguson backs Gill's UEFA bid
-- Fans' trust praises Gill

Gill came to United in 2003, when, remarkably, Ferguson's era at Old Trafford looked to be in injury time. Liverpool, Leeds United and Arsenal each had teams that posed a legitimate threat to United's dominance of the Premier League, and in Arsenal’s case, the emergence of a rival dynasty was a tangible possibility.

Gill guided through the purchases that would lay the foundation for Ferguson’s latest great side -- most notably Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick and Nemanja Vidic.

Under Gill, a front three of Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez would take the top prize in Europe and would also see off the challenges of Jose Mourinho's Chelsea and Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool.

Some might question how much credit Gill deserves for this period, when he was working with arguably the finest British manager of all time. Yet he showed great resolve in refusing to buy the troublesome Tevez when the crowd was agitating for his purchase; he showed foresight in the capture of Carrick for 18.6 million pounds, a sum many at the time thought wholly excessive but which has long since been repaid; and he was there for the negotiation of the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo for a record 80 million pounds, an amount all the more remarkable for the fact that Real Madrid was the sole bidder.

Manchester United’s expansion into Asia has been thoroughly successful under Gill, with the marketing team capitalising on the club’s recent cluster of trophies.

And yet, and yet, and yet. There is an argument that Gill got out while the going is good -- before Ferguson leaves and the club is forced to face the reality of being debt-addled without its legendary manager. It is widely argued that no man other than Ferguson could have led the 2010-11 squad to a Premier League title. Without Ferguson, the vampire bite of the Glazer debts will become speedily apparent, as the team’s competitiveness will be sharply affected.

Some will point to Gill’s support of Ferguson in the 2005-06 season -- another time when Ferguson was feared to have lost his touch -- as pivotal in United’s current era of success, and they would be making a strong case. Just as compelling, though, is the reply that, at a time of great financial turmoil behind the scenes, Ferguson was the only man who could keep United in contention on the pitch.

The burdens the Scotsman has borne have been considerable. As time passes, this may well become the more accepted version of events.

It seems churlish, in immediate terms, to admonish Gill, given the growth of Manchester United’s trophy cabinet under his watch. At the same time, it is important not to be too triumphal about the price that was paid for this hegemony. In the short-to-medium term, his tenure as chief executive will largely be viewed as a success. Beyond that, some uncomfortable questions remain.

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