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Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney celebrates a 1-0 win over Liverpool with teammates on Jan. 17. (Carl Recine/REUTERS)
Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney celebrates a 1-0 win over Liverpool with teammates on Jan. 17. (Carl Recine/REUTERS)

Kelly: Manchester United’s a failing brand trying to recall its tradition Add to ...

When Florida-based businessman Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United 10 years ago, he did it largely with other people’s money. Loans were taken at ruinous rates of interest secured against United’s own assets.

Here’s the difference between us and them – when they do it, it’s called clever; were we to try it, it would be called fraud.

At the time of purchase, United was valued at roughly £700-million ($1.5-billion). Since then, the club has risen remarkably in value (current estimated worth: $5-billion) and eroded entirely as an elite team.

Once a tradition with no need of a brand, United has become a brand trying desperately to recall its tradition. It’s stopped working.

The only player who bridges the span of the Glazer era at United is Wayne Rooney. He represents the last connection to a time when United expected to attract the best talent in the world.

The secret of success at the very highest levels of soccer is that once there, you don’t have to do any flirting. The talent comes to you. All you have to do is pay for it.

When do you imagine was the last time Barcelona had to do more to secure a player than send him a contract offer? It’s probably been decades.

Since becoming a debt-service machine in the mid-aughties, United has lost that ability. Players have to be convinced to come (or stay). The process generally ends in failure and embarrassment. Top players still like to be mentioned in connection with United, but only so that they can drive up their value to the clubs they’d really like to join.

As a result, United supporters have been fed a steady diet of B or B+ types – good, but not United good. It’s gone on so long, the definition of ‘United good’ has permanently shifted.

Where it recently meant Roy Keane/David Beckham/Paul Scholes-level good, it’s now a laundry list of rough-edged, unidimensional, mentally fragile strivers whose common trait is seeing United as a rest area on the way to somewhere better.

Players such as Anthony Martial, Ander Herrera and Memphis Depay (cumulatively purchased for $175-million) typify this new breed. That they can occasionally be quite exciting is not the same thing as being quality. They are supporting cast elevated to starring roles. There’s a big enough gap between the two to swallow a city block.

Another recent purchase is Italian fullback Matteo Darmian. His arrival over the summer elicited such excited reactions as “Matteo who?” and “What position does he play again?”

On Sunday against Liverpool, Darmian repeatedly drifted pointlessly into the centre of the park, leaving the left flank – the place he was supposed to be protecting – entirely unguarded. Again and again, Liverpool players ran straight through that space onto goal.

In a previous era, someone on the United bench would have come out to fetch Darmian – either dragging him off by the hair or sending hired goons to bundle him onto a plane home. Instead, he was left to flounder about for the whole match.

He wasn’t the only offender. Marouane Fellaini, the kind of player who would’ve been Eric Cantona’s eccentric valet 20 years ago, spent most of the game wandering listlessly around midfield like a malfunctioning Roomba.

Jesse Lingard was listed in the starting lineup, but may not actually have been on the field. If so, he was hiding.

United’s only player of consequence was goalkeeper David de Gea – the guy who was one tardy fax from leaving five months ago.

Luckily for United, Liverpool is even more cursed. It dominated the game, and then lost it to United on a ping-ponging set piece late.

Presumably, they are feeling pretty good about themselves in Manchester this morning. Perhaps manager Louis van Gaal’s eerie, pulsating head has turned a soft, neon blue – the colour of hopefulness.

If that’s the case, they might instead reflect on the team they’ve just beaten.

Liverpool is where United is headed – a once grand tradition reduced permanently to second-best-ism.

Around the same time the Glazer family was assimilating the biggest club in England, Liverpool was purchased by two more easterly oriented carpetbaggers, George Gillett and Tom Hicks. They brought the teetering club close to ruination, then sold it Boston Red Sox owner John Henry.

Henry runs Liverpool like a rational business. As a result, it will never again be anything more than a jobbing club for jobbing pros. Its last real star was Luis Suarez. He spent his time in England talking about leaving, then asking to leave and, finally, refusing to return.

Currently, Liverpool’s most exciting prospect is 24-year-old Brazilian Roberto Firmino, bought in the summer for the well-above-market price of $60-million.

Liverpool (and, increasingly, United) is still big enough to be skinned in the market, but too small to be in the running for whales. It’s an impossible place to exist.

Firmino will go one of two ways – develop into an elite talent and leave; or slam into his own ceiling, hit the ground in a pile, then stagnate until Liverpool can rid itself of him.

There is no world in which Firmino becomes a major star and remains with his current team. It’s one or the other.

That orbit is nearly inescapable. Once there, you are stuck in an endless circuit of mediocrity.

Every once in a while, you may run a great streak of luck – Liverpool won the 2005 Champions League. It also finished a distant fourth in the Premiership, which said rather more about their real quality.

United is close to joining it in that second tier. It sits fifth on the Premiership table. Liverpool is ninth.

If it finishes this way, it would mark the first time in a quarter-century that neither team has been in the top four.

It’s not an era ending. The era’s already gone. It’s the moment when the new reality becomes too apparent to ignore.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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