You were able to sign Eric Cantona for £1 million instead of 1.6 million. Why do you think you were a successful negotiator?
It is only a negotiation. A negotiation is a strange thing isn’t it, some people have different ways or methods of doing it. When I took over United were hardly making any money. I think we made £210,000 the first year, then we lost money. One year we’d make money, the next year we’d lose it. So I wasn’t in a position where I was ever able to have, in the early days, money to throw around. We had to be fairly cautious with transfers and wages and everything else. So the cheaper we got another player, the more money we had in the pot to do other things or buy other players.
Don’t forget, all through my early years I was always developing the ground. I always had to save some money to develop a stand. So I was quite tight on negotiations and on players’ terms and things. But I had to be because the more money I reserved the more money I had to spend on other things and the more money I had to spend on other things.
But how were you able to get your desired player at your price?
Only by just sticking out really. I mean, who’s to say what’s a good deal and what isn’t. I thought Cantona was a good deal, but I knew they wanted to sell him, we wanted to buy him and they wanted to do the deal quickly and I just held out for the million. But if I had to pay a little bit more I would’ve done, cause we wanted him. I always remember Jaap Stam was a difficult one. They wanted £15 million for Stam and in the end I had to pay 11.5 or something. I didn’t pay the full £15m. Dwight Yorke, Aston Villa were very keen to get £15 million and I stuck out, stuck out, stuck out right until the transfer deadline and we got him for £12m, so sometimes you gamble a bit. You win some and lose some. What you believe is a good deal and what you believe is the right deal.
It’s a judgment and the more you do it, the longer you’re in, the more accurate you’re going to be. Don’t forget I’d had 10 years on the board before I had to start negotiating myself. I’d sat there for 10 years and seen it all happen. I’d seen Matt, father and Les Olive and the way they operated. It’s quite subjective valuing players, but you get a reasonable idea for their value. And of course, the current market has a bearing on it as well. What people have just paid for a forward, what people have just paid for a defender. And you see that now.
Suddenly, Neymar has gone for nearly £200 million. All transfer fees have gone through the roof because of one deal. It does change the market… you shouldn’t pay more than you want to pay. If a player costs a certain amount you always have to be prepared to walk away or you’re not in control of the situation. So I always felt when I came out of a deal that I was happy to do it, no point in saying you’re not happy to do it and moaning about it. If you’ve paid it, you’ve paid it.
How did you control the wage bill?
Well I always believed in paying good wages, don’t get me wrong the footballers were entitled to a good wage, but I always felt that if you brought in one player who was way above everyone else, players always found out what the wages are. Or the press do or somebody else does and they find out and those wages are published. If you got a player – let’s take Juan Sebastien Veron as an example – people say Veron is coming in at £5 million. Giggs will think he’s as good as Veron, Scholes will think he’s as good as Veron, Beckham would’ve thought he was as good as Veron. Keane would’ve thought he was as good as Veron. You’ll have half a dozen players in that squad who say ‘if he’s on 5 million, I’m worth 5 million’.
So suddenly when their contract comes up they all want the higher figure, so what does that do to your wage bill? It pushes it sky high. It’s all a question of control really. You break it now and again because you can’t keep everyone on the same wage and that wasn’t the idea of it. The idea was you could look at another player and say ‘you’re on top wages or equal top wages.’ Every now and again it did get broken.
I remember when Keane held out for higher wages and he was on the same as everyone else – and in the end, the judgment was: Keane’s so good, he’s the captain, he’s so important, that we did break it. And it wasn’t long before everyone then catches up. So you do break it, but you break it in a controlled manner.
This interview has been edited for clarity purposes. Listen to the full audio here on The Football Life podcast.