Sunday 2nd May 2021 saw perhaps the most significant fan protests in living memory, as hundreds of Manchester United fans ensured that what is traditionally the biggest fixture in the English football calendar was postponed. This attracted global media attention, attracting both praise and condemnation; but no-one doubted that this represents a zenith for the United fan base in their opposition to their American ownership.
In the days that have followed this landmark protest, there has been a significant amount of ill-informed and untrue information and opinion expressed by some high-profile pundits, and in the general narrative of the media reporting across the various different platforms. As Sky Sports attempted to fill the airtime created by the absence of a football match taking place, unfortunately Graeme Souness was indulged for far too long in talking about something he clearly knows nothing about, as he perhaps maliciously stated: “They’ve (the Glazers) risked things to buy Manchester United. Since then, they’ve given successive managers fortunes to spend. It’s only since Fergie stopped that the success has stopped. I think that irritates supporters and they have become the focus of their anger. I think it’s slightly misdirected”. Later that night on the BBC’s Match of the Day 2, the consistently atrocious Jermaine Jenas perplexingly referred to the Glazer ownership as the “Glazership”, and then took off on a ramble that failed to have any conclusion: “There’s been big trophies, they’ve spent a lot of money. From the outside, the questions are this is a feeling thing. A feeling the fans have against the Glazers”.
Counter to that, a number of protesting fans were interviewed on Andy Mitten’s excellent ‘United We Stand’ podcast. In every case, the fans spoken to stated that the continued ownership of the Glazers would not stop them going to games next season and supporting their team. When asked where they go from here, there was certainly no consensus of approach. Furthermore, the footage of the fans who broke into Old Trafford and gallivanted around the pitch showed that many of them wouldn’t even have been born before the takeover was completed. It is hard to believe that they would be able to make any salient points about a leveraged takeover, as many of them used the tarpaulin seat coverings as if it were an amusement park, and one particular adolescent fell off the goal net at the Stretford End to become an unintentional viral sensation.
Before we go any further, it is important to establish the facts.
The 2005 Takeover
In May 2005, the Manchester United board wrote to their remaining shareholders to announce their intention to sell up. Details of the leveraged buyout by the Glazers came shortly after, and fan protests began in earnest. In order to fund their acquisition, they leveraged close to 66% of the funds against Manchester United. They have since personally received close to £200 million from the club since spending £270 million in a £790 million leveraged takeover. The Glazer’s ownership has since cost the club £1.5 billion in interest, debt and other outgoings.
Andy Walsh, an activist with the Independent Manchester United Supporter’s Association (IMUSA) explains “A club free of debt since 1931 was placed £580 million in the red, with risky payment in kind notes (PIK) meaning the interest alone in the first year stood to reach £63 million”. The gross debt principal is currently at around £530 million.
The opportunity for the takeover arose following a well-publicised falling out between Sir Alex Ferguson and Irish horse racing tycoons JP McManus and John Magnier, and they ultimately elected to sell Malcolm Glazer their 28.7% stake in the club, giving him a 70% share and overall control. Upon hearing this news, around 2000 fans gathered at Old Trafford and marched around the ground with a ‘Not for Sale’ banner. This included a sit-down protest blocking a road next to the stadium, burning effigies of Glazer, and five people being arrested for public order offences. Sounds familiar.
Throughout periods of success, including several Premier League titles and a Champions League triumph in 2008, the Glazers Out movement has always been sustained. For example, in May 2010 ahead of the final Premier League game of the season, Manchester United fans paid for a plane to fly over Old Trafford with the message ‘#GLAZERSOUT’. Later that afternoon, the side collected their latest Premier League trophy. To suggest that current protests are purely linked to the comparative lack of recent success is entirely failing to understand the deep-rooted sentiment felt by many fans.
The Commercialisation of Manchester United
Whilst making clear the precarious position the Glazers have positioned Manchester United financially, it should be balanced with the fact that they immediately set about revolutionising United’s commercial operation. After inheriting a commercial department of two members of staff, numbers were soon increased to more than 150. Ed Woodward has been a central figure, taking charge of United’s commercial operations in 2007, and growing a stream of revenue that stood at £48.7 million in 2005 to £117.6 million in 2012. This sort of rapid growth has led to other clubs seeking to replicate the model. In 2009, commercial revenue for the club reached £66 million, or around 24% of the annual turnover. By 2019, commercial revenue was up to £275 million, and 44% of the total income (taken from Manchester United Investor Relations website). The club currently have 25 Global Partners, 8 Regional Partners, 14 media partners and 14 financial partners.
The commercial portfolio that has been developed has often been another means of angering fans, with some fans claiming the ownership are more concerned with forging new commercial ties than on-field results. In one of his rare interviews, out-going executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward countered “If you look at the way the approach changed under the Glazers for commercial activity, that has brought an extra £2.5-£3.5 billion. We have spent a lot of money on players”.
It is assessed that the Glazers have added £3 billion in value to the club over their period of ownership. Recent reports have suggested that any potential new buyers would have to be prepared to stump up between £3.5-£5 billion for the Glazers to consider an offer. Despite this unprecedented success in terms of revenue and value, Andy Walsh of IMSUA delivers a damning verdict: “Yes, the Glazers have squeezed more revenue through the commercial deals but in doing that, they’ve suffocated the club, in my view. They are leeches”.
Investment in recruitment, wages and facilities
Nearly £900 million has been spent in transfer fees since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013. According to sports finance outlet Sportrac in January 2021, Manchester United’s annual wage bill is an eye-watering £183 million. It cannot be argued that this spending rivals or eclipses that of the top European teams. This level of outlay should enable the side to compete for the top honours.
The fan’s fury is tied to the fact that that the Glazers have effectively lined their own pockets, and those of their creditors, with over £1 billion, which is more than the total sum spent on players since 2005. Fans will generally acknowledge that the spending has indeed been huge, but this revenue has been self-generated by the club, and by the spending of its supporters. The Glazers have not contributed any of this money – they have continued to profit from their ownership.
The second reason for the widespread unrest is the blatant mismanagement of the club in recent years. Whilst Ferguson remained in charge, he was able to maintain levels of success despite, over that period, relatively modest spending – around £150 million net over 8 seasons. However, he exerted an unparalleled level of control and influence, and he was involved in every facet of the club. He retained a huge influence over player recruitment and retention, and the club remained stable and offered continuity with him at the helm. Upon his retirement, there is little debate around the fact that the structure and continuity that Ferguson, and David Gill had offered, very quickly evaporated. Suddenly, businessmen were making football decisions. It is still unclear exactly how recruitment operated, the role of the succession of managers in making decisions, or any shred of a cohesive playing style or over-arching long-term strategy. Faceless men in suits like Matt Judge, Richard Arnold, and Woodward were responsible for getting deals across the line. Their interest was more engaged in social media interactions gained from high-profile signings like Bastien Schweinsteiger, Radamel Falcao and Angel Di Maria than on assembling a coherent and complimentary football team.
The nadir of this irresponsible management came with the disastrous acquisition of Alexis Sanchez from Arsenal. Heralded at the time, it very soon became evident that the scale of his wages made this signing one of the worst in the history of the game, as they could reach £560,000 per week if add-ons were achieved. This then set a benchmark for other players to seek parity and represented a huge drain on the finances that were being made available. It has been a recurring theme that has only shown recent signs of improvement. This sustained lack of understanding has undoubtedly played a part in exacerbating the fans feeling toward the ownership.
There are also complaints regarding the lack of spending to modernise Old Trafford. In the first year of ownership, the capacity was increased to 76,000 by developing the NE and NW quadrants of the stadium. However, planning permission and construction contracts were in place prior to the takeover. The Glazers went ahead with these planned improvements, but there have been no significant upgrades since. It is notable that some of the only improvements have been spent on refurbishment of the hospitality enjoyed by those enjoying the prawn sandwiches in corporate boxes – not popular with the majority of dedicated match-going support. To their credit, United have frozen general admission ticket prices since 2012, meaning annual match-day revenue has plateaued at around £115 million before the pandemic, which has obviously had a significant impact on the finances of all clubs. There has also been a lack of investment in the Carrington training complex, with the quality of facilities falling behind rival clubs. The sight of a badly leaking roof during heavy rain ahead of a humbling home defeat against a dominant Manchester City in April 2019 has served as an enduring image of the perceived decline of both on-field performance and facilities, whilst their neighbours have spent lavishly to reach the summit of the English game.
The Impact of the Protests
The announcement of the doomed European Super League was the catalyst for the renewed fan protests against the Glazers. Their silence and complete lack of engagement with the fan base over the years has long been resented, but along with the other ‘Big 6’ English club who entered into the ESL, the strength of the fan backlash has been unprecedented. It has been lauded in virtually all circles how quickly football fans across all nations and continents managed to exert their influence to have the league effectively disbanded within 48 hours of the announcement of the formation. It has been commendable, and owners of all clubs have been forced into grovelling apologies.
It still beggar’s belief how all these clubs, with the Glazers and Ed Woodward at the forefront, had such a lack of awareness and foresight in diving headfirst into this abhorrent re-structuring. Obviously, the motivation for all clubs was purely financial. It was felt that the ESL could be marketed to the highest-bidding broadcasters within a closed shop to enable a guaranteed annual income. The fact is, had this idea been developed sensibly and transparently, it had the potential to work. Fans would always reject a competition with no sporting merit, but fans also have no loyalty to UEFA. Had the proposal been for extra qualifying spaces for the larger nations, the likelihood is there would have been little opposition. It certainly demonstrated a lack of understanding of the football community which is unfortunately typical of the Manchester United owners, albeit they were certainly not the only culprits.
The Glazers were subsequently provided with a list of four specific demands from the Manchester United Supporter’s Trust. In summary:
- Rebalance the current ownership structure in favour of supporters
- Appoint independent directors to the board whose sole interest is to protect the interests of the club
- Put in place a shares scheme that is accessible to all and shares the same voting rights as those held by the Glazer family.
- Commit to full consultation with season ticket holders on any significant changes to the future of the club, including competitions we play in
A deadline of Friday 7th May was given for a response to be received in writing. On this date, resulting from the fan protests, Joel Glazer communicated through an open letter to Manchester United fans promising better communication with supporters, investment in Old Trafford, and proper talks over share sales. He made reference to all four points raised, whilst not making any specific promises. The letter states “These commitments are a starting point for further dialogue, rather than final proposals. We want to work together to come up with an ambitious package of measures which will transform our relationship with fans and strengthen the club for the long-term”.
Inevitably, this letter has been greeted with scepticism. A previous reference to “re-building trust” with the fans was met with anger, as there was never any trust to re-build. For any trust to develop, it will require some quick and discernible action from the club’s ownership.
So, what now?
This is the question fans must ask themselves: where do we go from here? If it is to take whatever action necessary until the Glazers sell the club, it will require significant dedication from a majority of the support. The only effective means of removing the Glazers is to seriously impact the revenues of the club and continuing to tarnish their reputation through protesting. It could be a long and painful process, with fans not going to watch the team, not supporting sponsors, and not buying any club merchandise – effectively turning their back on the club until there is new ownership. This approach will also inevitably have a detrimental impact upon on-field performances.
Peaceful protesting can, of course, also have its place. However, paramount to any protesting is preserving law and order. Although the majority of protests were peaceful, there were also incidents of criminal damage, trespass, and assault of a police officer. This is not acceptable. With any mass gathering of people, a sinister element will always be attracted. There is a danger that protests could lose widespread support should that sinister element increase.
Another consideration is if the club is sold, who will buy it? With the value of Manchester United, there would be a very limited pool of potential suitors. There was apparently interest from a Saudi Arabian delegation in 2019. Qatar delegations may have an interest. There is the possibility of a billionaire such as Jeff Bezos or Daniel Ek wanting the club as a plaything. The concern is whether these options are actually preferable. Not many states, institutions or individuals with this level of wealth have the highest of ethical standards. Manchester City, with their untold riches, are owned by Sheikh Mansour of the United Arab Emirates. In its 2017-18 report, Amnesty condemned the UAE for unfair trials, lack of freedom of expression, a failure to investigate allegations of torture, discrimination against women and the abuse of migrant workers. Top level football is already largely morally corrupt – but can we turn a blind eye if the club’s ownership were involved in similar human right’s abuses?
The talk of 50+1 ownership seems fanciful. Boris Johnston made mention of dropping a “legislative bombshell” on club owners, but there is absolutely no reason to believe that this is anything other than hot air. We are more likely to see the £350 million a week for the NHS that his Brexit bus promised.
Alternatively, is there a compromise? The Glazer’s have now indicated a willingness to listen to the fans and have stated they are dedicated to achieving success under Ole Solskjaer. Fans have demonstrated the impact they can have and could choose to continue to have. Should the Glazers be given a chance to be true to their word? They have promised to build trust and invest money. In the knowledge that they will inevitably cash in their chips when they feel they can maximise profits, should the fan engagement make it clear to them that they need to make good on these promises whilst they remain in charge? Ed Woodward’s departure provides an opportunity for them to hire somebody who is effective with both fan engagement and football administration. They at least now know that the fans can choose to exert their power.
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