In the summer of 2009, Manchester United had the chance to create a dynasty. They had just won the league for the third year in a row, and reached their second Champions League final in succession. A team of kids had taken Everton to penalties in the FA Cup semi-final, demonstrating the depth of talent percolating the senior squad.
Sure, they had been well beaten in the Champions League final by Barcelona, and sold Cristiano Ronaldo days later. But Sir Alex Ferguson still had a core of world-class players in Wayne Rooney, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand. The £80m he received for Ronaldo, coupled with the huge sums being generated through TV and gate receipts, could have funded four or five marquee signings, to address any weaknesses in the squad and establish United as Europe's premier club for years.
What happened? Ferguson replaced Ronaldo with Antonio Valencia, which is a bit like replacing a Ferrari with a Volkswagen Polo. United also brought in a has-been in Michael Owen, and a never-would-be in Gabriel Obertan. Less than a quarter of the Ronaldo fee was spent, the rest of the money poured into the Glazers' debts. The chance to forge a lasting dominance in Europe was squandered.
The remainder of Ferguson's reign followed a similar pattern. United were able to lure Robin Van Persie, who preferred the glamour of Old Trafford to the greater riches offered elsewhere. But other big names such as Mesut Ozil and Wesley Sneijder slipped the Old Trafford net, the club's debt-ridden owners unable, or unwilling, to pay the going rate. Paul Scholes was dragged from retirement in desperation as the squad's world-class core began to age. Meanwhile Paul Pogba, United's brightest young talent, left because he felt the club's contract offer was derisory.
Since that meeting with Barcelona of 2009, United have spent £195m, which may seem impressive in isolation. But compare it with their rivals: over the same period Bayern Munich have spent £240m, Chelsea £393m, Real Madrid £529m and Manchester City £530m. That United have remained pre-eminent in England, and competitive in Europe, while spending so much less than their rivals is testament to Ferguson's managerial genius.
David Moyes has yet to display any such genius during his time at United. Indeed some of his decisions, such as the dismissal of Rene Muelensteen, appear highly questionable. Yet the paucity of United's squad is a problem which long predates his arrival. While Moyes may be at least partly culpable for the dithering over Thiago Alcantara, the ludicrous pursuit of Cesc Fabregas and the sudden volte face over Ander Herrera, he was hardly helped by Edward Woodward, the corporate stooge who was tasked by the Glazers with running the club.
The decision to appoint Woodward, a marketing man without any top-level football experience, demonstrated the commercial obsession of those running the club. After the Everton defeat, he attempted to reassure fans by saying "if you fight hard and just fail, people will still watch you on television, still turn up and buy shirts." Crass, complacent and criminally naïve: it summed up the owners' approach perfectly.
If United continue to struggle it will be Moyes who goes, while Woodward, and the Glazers who employ him, remain in control. Yet their wrong-headed penny-pinching is the root cause of United's current malaise and it's hard to think of any other manager who would be doing better.