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United on and off the pitch

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Mihir Bose | 13:08 UK time, Wednesday, 27 May 2009

It was at the end of my interview with Sir Bobby Charlton, during what we call in television terms a 2-shot, that the great man spoke in awe of the history surrounding us here in Rome.

"Look down from the lift of this hotel", he said, "and there are amazing ruins everywhere."

How appropriate that, in this city where history barks at you, both United and Barcelona are seeking to make football history of their own.

But whatever the result, the most significant thing to emerge from Rome may be how comfortable United currently feel in their own skin at almost every level of the club.

While I was speaking to chief executive David Gill at the team hotel, the club's American owners, the Glazer brothers, mingled in the foyer with not a hint of trouble.

Hard to imagine that four years ago, they had to be virtually smuggled out of Old Trafford and many fans deserted the club in protest.

Gill, who himself opposed the takeover, now sees the Glazers as central to lifting United from the 'nadir' (his word) of the protests and relative lack of success the club was going through in 2005.

He argues they have liberated Sir Alex Ferguson, who now operates under a much simpler decision-making process, that they manage the finances very well, and there is no pressure from the stock market to pay dividends.

Of course there is debt, but Gill doesn't see it as unmanageable or as giving the club an unfair advantage. Rome's Olympic stadium is financed by the local government, French local authorities and governments put money into football - so why can't owners borrow heavily to finance their ownership of clubs?

Ferguson clearly relishes the set-up at the club under the Glazers' ownership. But just as significant is that the club appears not to be overly worried about the great question of what happens when Ferguson finally does bow out.

It took United a generation to recover from the departure of Sir Matt Busby and United's rivals have long hoped that Ferguson's departure will provide them a two or three-year window to catch up with them.

But Sir Alex has again recently quashed any imminent retirement talk.

And given how well the club appears to have managed the transition to foreign ownership, those at the top of the Old Trafford tree give every indication they are also in good shape to manage the even more challenging transition of life after Fergie.


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