One of Sir Alex Ferguson’s biggest regrets when he left Manchester United after 26 years was that he did not enjoy greater success in the Champions League.
Twice they were crowned European champions under the Scot’s reign, but it was not enough. They had under-achieved.
He, like many at Old Trafford, will now similarly lament the plight of the current side as they struggle to reach the competition in which they were perennial contenders.
The impact of last season’s seventh-placed finish, in a Premier League where United triumphed on 13 occasions with Ferguson in charge, was felt in recent financial figures for the first quarter despite a profit of £8.9 million (Dh51m).
Missing out on the Champions League – worth £36m (Dh206.7m) through broadcast payments in 2013/14 – saw revenues drop £98.5m (Dh565.6m), in the three months to September 30 last year, to £88.7m (Dh509.3m) this time, including matchday revenues down from £19.3m (Dh110.8m) to £15.1m (Dh86.7m).
With inconsistency and defensive problems causing concern about their ability to achieve a place in the top four in this campaign, is it time to panic at a club named the world’s third most valuable by Forbes at $2.8 billion (Dh10.2bn)?
“I don’t sense that,” says Stuart Mathieson, who has covered the club for local paper, the Manchester Evening News, since 1995.
“But when you see the results, in black and white, of not being in the Champions League it is a sobering thought.”
While United’s hierarchy may not be too worried, comforted by the shirt deal with Chevrolet and forthcoming 10-year sponsorship with adidas, worth a record £750m (Dh4.3bn) and shattering the £302.9m (Dh1.73bn) agreement with previous kit suppliers Nike, the reality is that the club cannot afford continued failure on the pitch.
Not only will that disappoint and disillusion fans, but also players who strive to play in the major tournaments.
And factor in a penalty clause in the adidas deal that will see United’s income drop from £75m (Dh430m) per year to £52.5m (Dh301m) if they miss out on Champions League football for two successive seasons once the new contract starts in 2015.
“So much of the way the club is now, it is dependent on them being among the elite,” adds Mathieson.
“We have been told in the past they can function and survive with one year, possibly two without Champions League football.
"They have budgeted for that in the past, but beyond that, that’s when things start to tell.
“It also becomes harder to get all these partners and sponsors because they want to work with a successful club.
"The adidas deal is a massive cushion for them. They could have been in trouble without that in place.”
A summer spending spree of £118.5m (Dh680.5m), including the £59.7m (Dh342.8m) British record purchase of Angel Di Maria from Real Madrid, has seen them try to improve fortunes.
With an average home crowd of 75, 207 last season, and merchandising popular worldwide, there still remains a loyal, fervent following too.
Supporter and financial analyst Andy Green, though, believes more needs to be done.
Despite the spending on employer benefits falling by £3.5m (Dh20m) to £49.4m (Dh283m) through lower wages and no European bonuses, he was bemused by comments from executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward (pictured) that there was a “low probability” of further signings in January.
“It did concern me a lot because you can see the holes in the back four and there’s a need for further investment,” says Green, who writes a blog on football finance.
“The club has under-invested historically in the last five years and they need to catch up.
"It was astounding how quickly the wheels came off last season from a championship-winning squad.
“Having that big spend and then saying we are done is pretty dangerous.
"They have to spend consistently more to compete with other clubs and get into that top four.
“The Champions League contributed to about 30 per cent of the club’s profits last year so it’s a massive financial element in the club’s strategy.”
It will also help to control the oft-criticised gross debt, which now stands at £362.2m (Dh2.07bn) as the figures revealed it had increased by £1.1m (Dh6.3m).
A proud and trophy-laden history has helped elevate United to a global status envied by many, but no team can live off their past, nor be immune to troubled times.
After all, United themselves ended a 26-year wait for a top-flight title when they finished first in 1993.
Green accepts it will be interesting to see how their fan base will be affected if they falter again.
“What hasn’t been tested is, with all due respect to supporters in Jakarta or Bangkok, is how much they remain supporters if the club spends a long time out of the Champions League,” he says.
“Liverpool retained a lot of their foreign fan base despite being out for years. On that basis maybe the club will do OK, but I do think there’s a lot of flaky supporters.”
They can also be fickle, with the pressure bound to increase if the big names don’t deliver for Louis van Gaal, just as they did not for Ferguson’s much-maligned successor David Moyes.
“The club are still convinced they will get it right,” adds Mathieson.
“But as we saw with Liverpool many years ago, you don’t just get it right because you are Manchester United or Liverpool and because you always had success before.”
While Chelsea and Manchester City look to have the resources and quality to assure themselves of a place in the top four, there is intense competition for the remaining two spots with Arsenal, Liverpool, Spurs, Everton and Southampton sure to challenge United.
Mark Ogden, Northern Football Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, says: “Man United are built on Champions League and European football so, for them, it’s important to get it.
“If United are in the Champions League they are like a juggernaut.
"They can get the best players, they can pay the top wages and compete to win it.
"But if they are not in it, then getting the best players is hard because they want to play in the Champions League.”
It mirrors the scenario for neighbours City before they qualified for the competition in the 2011-2012 season and had to pay substantial wages to lure players of the calibre of Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Yaya Toure.
“It is all about the Champions League for clubs of that stature,” adds Ogden.
“In terms of the impact next season if United miss out again, it would hurt them yes, but it would be more reputational damage than financial.
“I think there are four or five clubs who can withstand a season without the Champions League and that’s Bayern Munich, Real, Barcelona and United.
“Three of them are never going to be out of it because the leagues they are in are soft. United’s problem is they are in a competitive league.
“Another problem will come if the Premier League loses a spot and it becomes three teams who can qualify.”
Unless United can maintain their current position of fourth, then there could be more suffering on a football and financial level.
Robin van Persie felt he was back in business after capping Manchester United’s convincing 3-0 win over Hull with a superb final goal.
The Dutchman struck for the first time in a month as he netted United’s third in a one-sided Premier League encounter.
Van Persie’s form had been the subject of heavy scrutiny ahead of the game after an ineffectual display in the previous week’s win at Arsenal.
It was thought the 31-year-old could even lose his place with Radamel Falcao fit again after injury.
But manager Louis van Gaal kept faith with his compatriot and was rewarded as Van Persie wrong-footed James Chester on the edge of the area and rifled a left-footed shot into the roof of the net after 66 minutes.
“If you score a goal like that it gives you confidence and the team, and if I am really honest I needed that,” said Van Persie, who also teed up United’s second goal for Wayne Rooney.
“You just have to keep working and those goals, or any goals, will come.”
6 – Robin van Persie has had a hand in six goals (two goals, four assists) in four Premier League games against Hull City. Thorn.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) November 29, 2014
— Premier League (@premierleague) November 30, 2014
United have now won three in succession in the league for the first time under Van Gaal, who described the performance as the most satisfying of his time in charge.
The only obvious downside was the loss of record signing Angel Di Maria early on with a hamstring injury.
The Argentinian will be assessed but Van Gaal has already ruled him out of tomorrow’s clash with Stoke.
Chris Smalling, who bundled in United’s opener, played alongside Marcos Rojo in a flat back four, with wingers Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young at full-back.
Van Gaal has previously shown preference for a three-man defence but felt he had the flexibility to adapt as his players are growing used to his philosophy.
The United manager said: “It is not methods, it is philosophy. We have to perform because of that philosophy and then you can play in different formations, and that we are doing.
“It is also dependent on the quality of the opponent.
“We selected the right formation I think to beat a team with five defenders.”
Louis van Gaal has warned striker Robin van Persie he will have to fight for his place as the Manchester United manager prepares to welcome Radamel Falcao back to his squad.
Van Gaal is hoping the injury-hit Colombian can finally display the qualities that have made him one of the most feared strikers in world football – especially important for United with Van Persie struggling for form.
Falcao’s loan spell at Old Trafford has been disrupted by injuries but Van Gaal is hopeful he will be in the squad for the visit of Hull today.
Asked if Falcao’s return would increase the pressure on Van Persie, who was substituted against his former club Arsenal last weekend having had just 13 touches of the ball, Van Gaal said: “Every player in my selection has to fight for his position and I shall always take the best of the players and it must also be suitable for the mix of players. So it is also an obligation of a player that he does that.”
Asked if he felt confident that Falcao can start to live up to his potential, the United boss added: “I hope so because we have him on loan because of that.”
It is not just Falcao poised to provide a huge boost for United, but Argentina defender Marcos Rojo is also in contention after being out with a shoulder injury.
Van Gaal said: “We have to wait and see until the last training session of course. It’s always difficult to say but we have good news, yes. You have to read between the lines.
“I have to train the last session and I live day by day at this moment.
“So maybe Falcao can come back in the 18 [matchday squad], maybe Rojo can come back in the 18. That’s it I think.”
Van Gaal said he was happy that United were in the top four despite their injury problems and having played some heavyweight opposition in recent games.
“When you see how our preparation was, how many injuries, then it was a very big test and after the heavy opponents we are still fourth so I’m happy,” said Van Gaal.
“But we have to be at least fourth at the end of the league and not now.
"Now is not so important. We have to improve our playing style and beat our opponents more easily.”
Van Gaal was also careful to provide an exact statement on England full-back Luke Shaw, who suffered an ankle injury against the Gunners.
A week ago the United manager’s comments on Daley Blind’s knee problem were misinterpreted and led to the club’s 3.5million Twitter followers being erroneously advised the Dutch player was out for six months.
Van Gaal said: “Last time I have said something and it was not interpreted so good so I have asked my medical advisor and maybe the Manchester United Twitter account can pay attention to it!”