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MAJOR LEAGUE SOCCER MEDIA CONFERENCE
May 18, 2010
THE MODERATOR: We have the executive of Manchester United, Mr. David Gill, and the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. Following my formal remarks, we'll have remarks from manager Sir Alex Ferguson and also David Gill, then we'll go to a Q&A session.
To get us started, I'm going to kick it over to David Gill for some opening comments.
DAVID GILL: Thank you. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. It's a great pleasure to be here to announce the club's tour of North America. My thanks to Dan and MLS and CAA that have made this event, by extension, this tour possible.
Exactly 60 years ago yesterday, the club's first touring site of the continent, beat a New England All-Star Team 2-0 in Massachusetts. Not everyone knows that, but that's a fact. I'm not sure what Alex would think if we proposed to repeat that tour this year. It lasted for six weeks and involved no fewer than 12 games after the follow-up visit in 1952.
So while we are playing fewer games this year, tours have changed markedly in their purpose. No longer wait for the team finishing the season and having a bit of a holiday, they are a vital part of a top team's pre-season preparation. There is all-important match fitness for players returning from their summer breaks. For Manchester United, they play three very other important roles. They allow us to bring the team to fans that would otherwise not be able to see them.
In North America, as you saw in the video, our research shows we have around nine million followers. They also give us the opportunity to visit our increasingly global family of commercial partners in local markets. That's key to their relationship with the club.
In the case of this year, it gives us a chance to meet key partners and our new shirt sponsor E.On on home soil. Especially in E.On's case, their global headquarters are in our first stop, Chicago, then we move on to our first game in Toronto.
They also allow us to engage in the cities which we play in the Manchester United Foundation, our charitable arm, which does great work in the uniting communities and inspiring children to fulfill their potential. But above all, the preseason has prepared the team for the rigors of a 50-plus game season involving obviously the premiere league, hopefully the latter stages of the UEFA Champions League, and also long runs in domestic cup competitions. We also see from our experience the training facilities in North America are excellent. There's one reason that we are returning to Philadelphia, which was a main training venue during our visits in 2003 and 2004. We're absolutely delighted to be playing the Philadelphia Union in their debut season in the MLS. I believe there's an encouraging sign for soccer in the U.S. that there are great growth prospects for MLS, two teams coming on board next season and then Montréal in 2012.
But as a former board member of England's 28th World Cup bid, you'll forgive me if I don't play up the health of the game here too much as you are rival bidders for those particular competitions.
We also know, a couple of players said it in the video, that the crowds are knowledgeable and there's an appetite for coming to see the European teams in action. The crowds in 2003 and 2004 were exceptional. Again, we are very pleased to be playing MLS teams in two of the venues and obviously the All-Star Game.
But it's clear as I'm sure one of our old boys David Beckham would agree, the game here is on the up. We're actually honored to be part of the All-Star's future. We'd like to be the first visiting team to beat the All-Stars this year.
Houston is a place the club never visited before. For us, we're not on visits for as long as those visits in the '50s and '60s, it's great to be able to break new ground and we thank the MLS for their kind invitation.
We hope in the World Cup year' the U.S. do very well, after the first game, of course. Alex may disagree, but he'll have a few comments in a minute.
The World Cup always helps to build enthusiasm for the game. The real catalyst is having a successful performance by the national team. I'm sure that enthusiasm will spill over into these games and create a bigger sense of occasion and atmosphere.
So to finish, we're actually delighted to be coming back to America. It's a place, as you saw in the videos, is a place the players enjoy coming to. We're looking forward to the courtesy that is always extended in this part of the world around we're hoping to give our nine million fans from top quality football to cheer.
So, again, thanks for coming here today. We do appreciate that. Again, very warm thanks to the MLS for making this possible.
With that, I'll ask Alex to say a few words from his perspective.
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: That's the longest plug I've ever heard (laughter). It should be pointed out in 1950, we went by boat, we traveled by boat in 1950. How long it must have taken, that whole trip. Now we take advantage of flying, and our own charter, it makes it much easier for us to keep the players in good shape.
As I said four years ago when asked about the progress of football in North America, I made the point that you have so many kids playing and being coached all over the country, there has to be somewhere they have to go to when they reach that point of leaving college, whatever. And they find themselves going to Europe.
For instance, at the moment you have six, seven, eight players playing in England, four goalkeepers, which is quite remarkable, I feel. We had one of them, of course, Tim Howard, and young Jonathan Spector, who is doing very well.
So the point we're seeing now within MLS soccer, MLS teams, it's also a challenge to see the progress you are making. Obviously, we won't be taken serious because at the stage we are now, at this particular time, we have to get the show on the road, and that means a concentration, a tempo, a rhythm of a game. It's got to be found quickly after the disappointment of last season. It's always difficult to maybe go for our trophies in a row, but we felt we could have done it.
The challenges, again, aren't just to bring that trophy back. It's an important trophy because of the competition in England is so fierce now, we can't dismiss it in terms of the season. That and the European Cup is always important. Hopefully you'll see us at our very best. Whether it's Scholes, Giggs, Neville, will all be there, Fletcher, Van der Sar, Berbatov. There's a good collection of players for your supporters to see.
So hopefully they enjoy it.
THE MODERATOR: Thank you very much, sir.
We'll go ahead and open it up for questions from our journalists in the audience.
Q. Sir Alex, just quickly, can you tell me how is Wayne Rooney's fitness and what is the situation with Ben Foster at the moment?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: I don't have much idea of his fitness because I haven't seen him since the last game. I take it he's fit. I'm sure if he wasn't, there would be headlines all over the papers. You would probably know the answer before me. I'm sure he'll be all right. I'm sure he'll be okay.
Ben Foster, he accepted a bid from Birmingham City. Certainly a lot of discussions with Ben in the last few months about his future. He is concerned, and I can understand. I think it comes from the disappointment of not having enough football to get him on the England squad this summer.
I feel, and I feel very strongly about this, I think he's the best English goalkeeper. I think that's a disappointment not to be considered simply because he didn't have enough football.
Sometimes your conscience does come into it. I think we have to be big enough to understand the player's feelings in that respect. He's been very unlucky with the one or two injuries he had with us last season. I think he deserves that opportunity to do better for himself. That's the reason we accepted the offer.
Q. Sir Alex, another question, your star striker Mr. Rooney. Can you talk a little bit about the maturation process for Wayne Rooney since he's been at Manchester United? What have you seen him do as a player, and as a man, that sort of brought him from the young striker that he was to now the star of the England team?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Well, maturity is one of the vital parts of the development. They can't have it at 16, 18, 21. You have to wait till the mid 20s before they get the maturity, timing, authority that those qualities bring.
I think what we're seeing with Wayne, it's quite interesting, there were signs last season that some maturity had come to his game, but not all the time. That's sometimes something you get with young players.
This season, it seems to me that all of a sudden, he's accepted the fact that to get the best of himself, he has to conserve his energies for the best part of the pitch, i.e., in the penalty box area.
Now, as you probably noticed with Wayne in the last few years, when he came to us, he was a point of great energy who had to learn to use his energy. Sometimes he was outside drive, sometimes he was midfield. By doing that, he's limiting himself to goal-scoring opportunities.
So this season, he's accepted the fact we need him as the further most player in our team towards goal. I think that in itself has brought a tremendous improvement in his goal scoring. I think his maturity has done that.
Q. What is the key to being the same bench for too many years in the same team? How did you see Xavier Hernandez, to see that he's a good player in the future for Manchester United? What are the qualities of that young Mexican players?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: As soon as you started to speak, I knew what the question was going to be (laughter).
Well, I think it's easy for me to be motivated to coach Manchester United. I don't find it difficult. I think you need good health and energy to carry on football for a long time. Other managers have done it, but maybe not as long as myself. I'm very fortunate that way.
Hernandez, we had some information about him last October. We were getting good reports on him. We decided to concentrate one month on what he was doing in terms of his progress. I sent a scout down to Mexico.
The amazing thing, we were able to do without anyone knowing. Not a soul knew, which is remarkable for Manchester United, believe me, remarkable. And we see the boy as a very talented young player. Two-footed, very quick, very spring in the air for a player of his size, although he's not small. You know, the difference between height of center forwards is always questionable. Natural goal-scorer.
I think we're excited about him. We're very, very excited about him. Hopefully he'll have a great career. Obviously, I hope he does well in the World Cup also.
Q. How many players from your starting lineup will be playing in the U.S., if that includes Hernandez, if he's going to be in the U.S. tour? From your perspective, how long will it take the MLS to be on the top list around the globe?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: The last part?
Q. From your perspective, for the MLS, how long will it take it to be on the top, the top leagues around the globe?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Well, what we're doing with Hernandez, it depends when his last game is for Mexico in the last match. Normally, we give all the players 28 days' rest. But in the case of Hernandez, we're playing him to Philadelphia as soon as his duties with Mexico are finished, for the simple reason, first of all, he's young and I think he can handle training. But the most important part is to integrate him to the squad because he doesn't know any of the players.
So it's an important period to get him to join us immediately as the World Cup is over for him. It's hard to know because it's such a difficult tournament.
Whether he'll play in the States depends on his condition, how many games he's played for Mexico, et cetera. But we are definitely expecting him to play part of the game in Mexico, that's for sure. I think that all depends how he does with Mexico.
For soccer here, I think you see the progress. There are some very good players joining in America. We have Thierry Henry join the Red Bulls, and of course David Beckham. The difficulty for soccer in the United States, they can't join the South American Cup against the best Brazilian teams, the Argentinian clubs. They can't join the European Championships, can't play the European Cup. They're isolated in that respect, which is why a lot of the players have to move to Europe to progress their own careers, which makes it difficult for American soccer to get to the very top.
But what does happen, and you've seen it over the last few years, the national team does very well because most of the players are playing in Europe. And because they're naturally athletic individuals, apply themselves very well, have good organizational abilities, they're always very difficult to play against, you know.
I think that's what I see as the measure of your progress.
Q. I recognize the value of an American-owned, American-sponsored team touring the United States. What do the players expect in terms of the level of competition they're going to face?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Well, I think probably some of the American players, we always expect them to be athletic, we always expect them to have a natural winning habit about them. I think that's inbred in them.
When you play players with good winning habits, you play against teams with good athleticism and good organizational skills, they're always difficult to play against. I think we'll find it difficult, which is perfect for us because we want to start this season very quickly.
We want to start on the front foot. Therefore, the games we're going to have here are going to be challenging for us in terms of our game.
Q. I was wondering if you could give us your thoughts on how you think the American team is going to do in the World Cup and which of their players you think will be poised to have a big tournament?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Well, in the group they're in with England and Algeria, it's not beyond them to qualify. I think they'll find it difficult for the reasons I said earlier on. England will be very, very motivated under Capella. He is a very understanding coach. Of course, he has some issues what his team is going to be to start with, but they will be difficult to beat.
If they can survive after that in terms of the next two matches, they have a very good chance at qualifying. In fact, I think they will qualify. You know, they've proved themselves in previous World Cups. Donovan, Dempsey, have some experience of being there before. I don't think they're going to be overwhelmed with the atmosphere of the World Cup, the importance of the World Cup, the intensity. I think that will be easy for them. I think they'll be used to that. Those players have that, Donovan, Dempsey. Dempsey has had a great season in England this year.
As I said, very athletic, apply themselves very well, and are difficult to play against.
Q. Do you expect to sign a replacement for Ben Foster? How many other new signings do you expect to bring in over the course of the summer?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Well, when we decided to let Ben go, we have a very good young goalkeeper called Ben Amos on our 21 team, we want to enroll him to accommodate the goalkeepers we normally like to have for European football in particular.
But when the consideration of Ben's future came into my domain in the sense of meetings with him, and we agreed to let him go, I stopped Ben Amos from going out. He will be my third goalkeeper. He's very talented, has a good future ahead of him.
So we had three goalkeepers then, Van der Sar, Tomasz Kuszczak, and Amos. So we're okay.
In the market today, it's very, very difficult. The structure of the squad is good. I have no criticism of the structure of the squad, the balance of the squad. The numbers, I'm quite happy with. We have quite a lot of good young players. Sometimes you have to have trust and faith of what we've developed in the last few years. At the moment, I'm going to stick with that for most of it.
But there may be one signing. We'd maybe like to take a good player to the club, of course. It's not easy in the present day climate. I have nothing definite to tell you because we're still assessing levels of difficulty in terms of who you bring.
DAVID GILL: I think also we've talked about Hernandez. (Indiscernible) from Fulham is joining us. As of this morning, those are two other additions we made. Another point to bear in mind, the premiere league is bringing in squad limits for next year, so it limits the 25 which clearly operate within Europe at the moment has now come into the premiere league. Unlimited under 21s and also homegrown rules, which I won't bore you with this afternoon. We've also taken that into consideration in managing the squad in that regard.
Q. Having managed against Thierry Henry in the premiership, can you talk about what type of challenge it was when he was in his prime and where you feel his skill level is as this move to the United States is on the cusp of happening?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Well, he was an outstanding footballer with us. He was the best player. Incredible speed he had in the game. His goal scoring was exceptional.
When he moved to Barcelona, that continued, although I think that Barcelona's team, as it's proved now in the last year, last two years, found it difficult on that team.
What you're getting with Thierry Henry is enormous experience and presence. That is what you're getting. I would not say he's deteriorated by any means. He's still a very competent player. He doesn't have the buoyant pace he had five years ago, but he's still quick and he's experienced.
You know, I think that when players get older, they know how to use speed better, their timing is better. I think he'll be a success here, I have no doubt in my mind about that.
Q. Mr. Gill, can you give us some insight briefly into the thoughts of playing this summer in markets like Kansas City and Toronto, instead of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York?
DAVID GILL: We discussed that with the organizers of MLS. As Alex said, there's huge markets out there. Kansas has got a lot of attractions from a football perspective. Houston, clearly that was the home of the All-Star Game. It is an honor to play in that particular game.
I think in this modern age of travel, all our followers will have a chance to go around to those particular stadia. With have played in particular markets. We are starting off in Chicago with the training camp.
It was looked at in conjunction with our partners, promotors, to see where was the most appropriate market. In each of those sort of markets, you know, there are reasons to go there. Philadelphia, as I said earlier, it's great to go there and play a debut team in their season. It helps us clearly, but it also helps the MLS in terms of exposure and promoting these new franchises, investments into this sport in this country.
Q. Mr. Ferguson, a number of your players are obviously playing in the World Cup this year. How difficult is it for top players to play at clubs like Man United, playing so many games in different competitions over the course of a season, how difficult is it for them to remain fresh going into the World Cup? Just curious on your thoughts on Donovan, if your perception of him has changed at all?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: What's the last part again?
Q. If your perception of Donovan has changed or how it has changed at all?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Well, Donovan did very well at Everton. I think they wanted him to stay, but the agreement was he had to go back. But it was a good stint he had.
Players today, you have to say that the number of games they play at their level is exhausting. Every game Manchester United plays is a Cup final. The teams we play against are motivated against Manchester United.
I made the point about the players we have in the World Cup have to get 28 days' rest. They must have that or they won't feature next year. They'll just collapse. Exhaustion will get them. That makes it difficult for English players to perform well in the World Cup because the intensity of the English game is so great that it makes it more difficult for those players to perform well in the World Cup.
I know their season finished the 9th of May. Some players have maybe a longer rest than normal. They're all in the training camps now. They're all in the training camps one month before the season starts in some cases. Pak joined up the 10th of May with South Korea. That's what's happening with some other teams.
Q. Alex, you mentioned before Tim Howard. Why do you think it is there have been so many Americans successful as goalkeepers in the premiere league, yet English goalkeepers seem to have trouble establishing themselves with the club?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: I think Tim played basketball for a long time. I don't know if other goalkeepers have played basketball. There may be a link there, athleticism, that kind of thing. He was a terrific athlete.
Tim had just a little bad spell with United and his confidence went a little bit. It was very difficult. But now he's matured. He's experienced. He's been fantastic with Everton. It's a great boost to soccer in America when four of your goalkeepers are playing in England alone. It's tremendous, that. It could be something to do with their upbringing in terms of athleticism, which you need as a goalkeeper. Something we notice in Tim Howard, his strength was one of the best in the club when we did the tests on him.
Therein lies the reason, their upbringing, the sports they played at college or whatever has helped them in terms of athleticism as a goalkeeper.
Q. Mr. Gill, Man U's fans and Liverpool's fans are not very happy with their American owner, threaten boycotts. Is the situation going to change the way the club operates in terms of it does not get the revenues it projects?
DAVID GILL: There haven't been any boycotts. Every game has been sold out.
Q. There's a threat.
DAVID GILL: There's a threat. We'll see. But our upcoming season are on track with previous years. Our executive ticket renewals are on track. So you're right, we'll have to see at the start of the season. But we're envisioning sellout crowds going forward for Manchester United.
Now I think we've been clear, the owners that we have at Manchester United have been true to their word since they took over the club in 2005. They've brought commercial expertise and commercial benefit to us in a number of years. We've seen our revenues grow significantly.
I think the structure we have in place in terms of the bond that was issued in January of this year means that our interest costs are set for the next seven years. The revenues coming into the club, but also into football, are significant. We easily can meet those interest payments. We're very confident the business model we have in place will be secure and will ensure the club can compete at the top of football for many years to come.
Q. You mentioned Tim Howard. Is it feasible for you to gauge how far he's come from the young man that you admit lost a little bit of confidence? In regards to Wayne Rooney, you also mentioned how he matured as he hit his 20s, as he's playing alone up top. Would that maturity have still happened if he didn't have the pressure of playing up top alone?
SIR ALEX FERGUSON: Yes, of course it would have happened. But then I remember at a time he had an opportunity the same as Van der Sar, so I put a whole different complexion on the situation completely.
The difficulty of the goalkeepers is you only have one you can play. Vincent is up, can play with John O'Shea, he can play five positions. He can play midfield, he can play along the back, he's even been in goal.
So the goalkeeper doesn't play, there's nowhere else he can play. So the colleges convinced him because they always want him to play, and Tim is no different from all the rest, he wanted to play. So, therefore, that's the reason, accepted the offer from Everton.
I think it also applies itself in a club like Everton, and other clubs. They monitor the situation. They could be sitting in their office saying, Let's have a go for Howard. Easy target, you know.
He's done very well. He's matured. He's had outstanding success. We're delighted. He's a lovely lad, good lad. He deserves the opportunity.
THE MODERATOR: Excellent, gentlemen. We're going to conclude the formal part of our press conference. Thank you.
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