Exclusive: Ex-Man United CFO on the Glazers, big transfers & the FA

Nick Humby was the CFO of Manchester United between 2002 and 2007. He has recently held another influential leadership role at the FA. These two positions have given him a unique viewpoint on football in this country from a business point of view. In an exclusive interview with Football FanCast, we quizzed him on what the Glazers were really like, Man United’s transfer policy, and just what being a finance director at a one of the world’s leading football clubs involved.

Man United – biggest club in the world?

“To be honest I didn’t quite appreciate how big a club it was till I got there.

“It was a fantastic five years. What soon dawns on you is the responsibility you have for protecting the history and heritage of the club. That overwhelms you not long after arriving. One really feels the need to be a custodian, even if it’s only temporary, of a great sporting and cultural asset. When you go around the globe with the club, the intake of breath from the people you meet, the recognition of the club logo even – you had people saying, ‘can I keep this business card’ and it’s just the logo!”

What does a finance director actually do?

“My role at Manchester United was much wider than just overseeing the financial accounts and the budget spending. It also involved being an integral part of the executive board, helping to make key decisions, getting out into the City of London and telling shareholders what we were planning. I was also responsible for the stadium, how it ran and was maintained. And then I was asked by the board to oversee the construction of the two new quadrants that took the stadium capacity to 76,000 and added new restaurants. That involved the design process, construction programme, naming the suites and selling the first season capacity.”

The Glazers

“Obviously part of my job was to meet shareholders in the City and explain why United was worth investing in (unlike many other businesses and clubs). These names (the Glazers) soon started to appear on the register – people who we weren’t quite sure who they were or their intentions and then obviously we gradually found out as they built their stake.

“We had to work out several things of course – what were their intentions? Were they long term investors? Were they going to be good for the club’s development or not? There was rival stake building by Magnier and McManus at the time. As a Board we were in the middle of that, trying to understand and work it through in the best interests of the club.

“There was of course the third option, which was the option a lot of fans would have wanted – try and keep the club independent. There was of course a clear, visible anti-Glazer campaign, but as a director of a company your duty is to make the right decision for the club and its shareholders, taking into account the legal advice. As we know the Glazers eventually purchased the club with a great deal of debt, and that was a big worry. It’s a duty of the board to be satisfied that any organisation that takes on debt can service it successfully and feels comfortable managing it. However, it was always very clear that if we stayed in the Champions League we could manage the debt, and as well as that the Glazers did a wonderful job of building the commercial side of the club, which has obviously helped enormously when it comes to steadily paying down that debt.

“Joel and Avi were the two main directors, I didn’t speak to them much, and they were based out in Florida. That was the way they wanted to work. We went out there a couple of times.

“In my view the Glazers were very fair, straight people. I obviously left after five years there, and in the five years after I left the club won a lot more than when I was there! Commercially and internationally what they’ve done for the club is extraordinary. The club is in good shape financially now, it’s still got debt of course but it’s in much better shape now than anyone might have thought.”

Transfers

“I obviously helped in planning budgets and doing the paperwork for transfers, fortunately David Gill had a fantastic relationship with Sir Alex and they managed the transfer deals.

“We were rigid on controlling player wages and very clear on transfer budgets. In terms of wages we were very clear that we would operate to 50% turnover spent on wages – it’s interesting actually that there’s traditionally been such a strong correlation between a club’s wage bill and their league position, but obviously if you can’t afford to spend big and you do, you can end up in trouble. Discipline when it comes to spending has to be strong in that respect.

“One of the biggest challenges when buying players for Man United is that great players don’t necessarily fit in that pressure cooker of an environment. On the whole though I think we bought some good players in those years – Rio Ferdinand, Wayne Rooney, Patrice Evra, Nemanja Vidic, Edwin Van der Sar, they were pretty good buys. Michael Carrick was another big buy – you know, the heart of a team that won some pretty impressive stuff during Sir Alex’s last years as manager.

“That relationship between Sir Alex and David Gill was a great one and there’s no doubt it was right at the heart of Man United’s success – and I think it unfortunate but probably inevitable that they would both leave at the same time. That was a big moment for the club, as they had such a great relationship which is hard to immediately replace.”

Expanding Old Trafford

“It was a very interesting build, as well as being very complex and expensive at around £45million, or over £5,000 per seat. We had to combine the north, east and west stands, and at the same time make sure no matchday capacity and revenue was lost. It worked because we opened some hospitality restaurants in those sections which helped with the revenue as from corporate hospitality. I believe they still sell those out, and looking at it from the outside the new developments definitely made the stadium look more exciting, and help generate a better atmosphere inside.

“Interestingly, one legacy of the Glazers is that originally we weren’t going to put glass on the outside of the quadrants, but then they came along and said just do it. I think when you look at the stadium exterior, it’s now much more attractive because of that.”

The FA

“Greg Dyke rang up in January, when the current general secretary Alex Horne was leaving and asked me to tide it over for a few months until a permanent replacement could be found. The new Chief Executive (Martin Glenn), arrived in May.

“The biggest challenge Greg set was finding £30million worth of savings from the current budget to spend on frontline activities – which has been very tough for the organisation, but I think we’ve managed it successfully. The good news for football is that money will be reinvested in the England teams, youth structures, coaching; which is absolutely critical. It’ll also go towards better football pitches, particularly artificial grass pitches in cities. Hopefully I’ll look back in a few years and see that money properly invested and that being reflected in the way the England teams are playing.”

Club or country?

“United was a business. It was a football club; the fans don’t like it being a business, but you have to run football clubs as businesses because financial stability is crucial. Success on the pitch and financial success was the fairly clear criteria, which in turn gives you a clear sense of what you need to do. The FA has a whole other spectrum of interested parties, more activities and stakeholders – the government, Premier League, county FA’s, the Football League, UEFA and FIFA… Managing that complex stakeholder group creates a very challenging environment.

“Obviously it feels very different to United in terms of trophies; of course it’s been 50 years since England won the World Cup and that’s a burden that hangs over football in this country, the reason why the FA has this new energy to invest in football and England teams is to break that burden and win it.

“The real goal Greg has set is to win the men’s World Cup in 2022, and the women’s World Cup in 2023, so I look forward to that and hopefully the money we saved while I was there will contribute to that goal!”