Why Manchester United's leaking roof was the perfect metaphor for a club in decline

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Sir Jim Ratcliffe had a front row seat as Manchester United’s decay was exposed on the pitch and in the stands against Arsenal.

As the rain poured through the creaking slats of the Old Trafford roof on Sunday afternoon, the grand old stadium looked less like a Theatre of Dreams and more like a highly-productive metaphor factory – and new minority shareholder Sir Jim Ratcliffe was there in person to see the decay into which both ground and club have fallen.

As most of the country basked in searing sunshine, Salford was battered by torrential rain and hail just in time for the end of yet another defeat. In and of itself, that rather neatly summed life up for a side who have won just one of their last eight league games. These are grim times at a club whose fan base expects rather more, especially given the vast amounts of money spent on their struggling squad. Perhaps some of that money would have been better invested in the stadium – certainly the fans sprinting for cover as gallons of fresh Mancunian rainwater poured onto their seats would have agreed. That certainly wasn’t the waterfall The Stone Roses were singing about.

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Even the presence of Ratcliffe at Old Trafford, whose Ineos conglomerate now owns 25% of Manchester United following February’s partial buyout and runs sporting affairs at the club, was arguably the first misstep of a reign which has scarcely started. While the men’s side suffered a sodden defeat at the hands of Arsenal, the women’s team were beating Tottenham Hotspur in the FA Cup final in a sun-drenched Wembley. Ratcliffe, missing a rather gaping goal in PR terms, instead got drenched as he watched another desolate display from his new charges.

The first misstep, as far as many mocking voices on social media were concerned, was an e-mail sent to all staff at Old Trafford criticising the messy state of the facilities: "I am afraid I was struck in many places by a high degree of untidiness... in particular the IT department which frankly was a disgrace and the dressing rooms of the U18 and U21 were not much better."

It may have been petty – of all the things that need fixing at United, excessive littering and the odd bit of chewing gum under a desk probably aren’t the most glaringly problematic – but perhaps he had a point in calling it out. From leaking roof to messy offices to lacklustre displays on the pitch, there is certainly an impression of a club staffed entirely by people who simply don’t care all that much. You don’t have to believe that a tidy desk means a tidy mind to believe that leaving the place in a bit of a state indicates a lack of interest.

Of course, the Glazer family, who remain the majority shareholders at the club and the men who continue to control the purse strings, don’t have much cause to care. Shareholders have been paid over £1.2bn in dividends since they took over in 2010. They’re making pots of cash as the club rots. And as for the rotten stands? Not really their problem, given that they leveraged their buyout of the club by putting the ground up as collateral. It’s JP Morgan who own the mortgage.

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Ratcliffe clearly wants to make sweeping changes. There has already been talk of building a brand new stadium, likely just a short walk down the Irwell in the industrial park which sprawls northwards of the current stadium’s car parks. He’s said that the object is to build “the Wembley of the North,” and there seems to be similar ambitions of a radical overhaul of the playing squad – reports suggest that United will consider bids for almost the entire team barring some of the more promising youngsters like Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho.

And god knows that everything needs a refresh. Plenty of people have made the obvious jokes about United’s defence being as leaky as the ground – but it’s as decayed as Archibald Leitch’s old designs now look from front to back. Big-money signings have flunked. Players who were once culture setters have declined and seem to have lost interest. The manager, whose position is under review with seemingly inevitable consequences, doesn’t appear to have the first idea how to get a tune out of a team with which he made the top four last season. On Sky Sports’ coverage of the game, Wayne Rooney even went as far as to claim that some players may have been faking injury to get out of playing.

In short, this isn’t just about bad signings, or a bad manager, or dodgy architecture. It’s about the top-to-bottom culture of a club which has completely lost its edge. There is no passion on the pitch, no interest in the boardroom, no investment in between. Ratcliffe really might have been on to something when he sniffed out all those scruffy office spaces.

The question is twofold – firstly, will Ratcliffe and Ineos have enough reach to clear out all of the problematic elements? Can they reset the culture behind the scenes? You can sell as many players as you like but it won’t be long before things turn toxic again if the backrooms are filled with people who aren’t willing to invest time, energy and, in the Glazers’ case, money into the club and the infrastructure around it.

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And secondly, if they can do all of that, will they do it right? Ineos know a thing or two about the petrochemicals industry but their sporting investments have a mixed track record so far. In France and Switzerland, their teams have had ups and downs while going through managers at rate which, while very much sub-Watford, is still pretty fast by most standards. The road cycling team they took over from Sky has fallen off and the best team in the sport, as they were, is now a part of the chasing pack.

But they haven’t demonstrated gross mismanagement anywhere yet, at least. And they do seem to care, even if you can debate as to whether they care in the most efficient and effective ways. That’s still a step in the right direction – but there are whole lot of holes to patch, and so far all they’ve been able to do is tidy the place up a little. Baby steps, perhaps.

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