Whatever happened to Man Utd fans' boycott?
Saturday October 1, 2005
Britons have a curious attitude towards foreign participation in their home-grown sports. South African-born Kevin Pietersen was hailed as an English cricketing hero during the summer. Canadian-born tennis player Greg Rusedski is a firm favourite at the All England club. Sven-Goran Eriksson, on the other hand, has recently been lambasted for his lack of passion at the helm of English football.
But for many devotees of the beautiful game, the purchase of Manchester United by the American serial entrepreneur Malcolm Glazer in May was the final straw. Fans issued death threats to the 76-year-old businessman known as "the Leprechaun" for his ginger beard and small stature. Even the new Archbishop of York, the Rt Rev John Sentamu, was said to be "horrified" by the takeover.
Yet despite all the sound and fury, season-ticket sales have not suffered significantly. Average attendance has enjoyed a slight rise, while the rest of the Premiership has been suffering a stark decline. Fans even queued for autographs when Glazer's sons attended their first match at Old Trafford, although one complains: "It took me longer to get out of the car park while they were smuggled on to a private helicopter."
"We all felt that the focus would return to the team once the season had got under way," says an Old Trafford spokesman. For the most part, so it has proved, with loyal supporters resorting to a very British sense of irony. "Rooney's scored a touchdown," they sang after the potato-faced striker put United 2-0 up at Goodison Park. The Mirror has had fun, too, with a regular column called Malcolm Glazer Talks Soccer. "Yo, Sir Alec," it asked on August 29. "How many dollars will it cost me to buy this pitcher Flintoff?"
Not everyone has been so forgiving. Now playing nine levels below the Premiership in the North West Counties Second Division is FC United of Manchester (FCUM), formed in June this year by disenchanted Manchester United fans. "This is not just a reaction to Malcolm Glazer," said one member of the steering committee. "It is about taking a stand for the vast number of ordinary fans who have been priced out of the game in recent years."
Season ticket holders at FCUM are certainly enjoying excellent value for money on their £112 investment (compared with £684 for a season ticket at Old Trafford). Their team is currently top of the league and attracting crowds in excess of 2,000 in a division which averaged only 71 a game last season.
"There is a brilliant atmosphere on the terraces," says club secretary Luke Zentar. Favourite chants include "Stand up cos you've got no seats"; "FC United, the only club in Manchester not in debt"; and "Marginson's fruit & veg army" (Karl Marginson, the team's manager, gets up at 3am every day to deliver groceries).
Stars include Barrie George, who keeps goal for England's partially sighted team, and Paul Mitten, grandson of the legendary Busby Babe winger, Charlie Mitten. Rory Patterson - who was voted player of the month in August - has gained the soubriquet "the man with no name" after playing his opening matches with no number on his back.
"We're not an anti-United vehicle," insists Zentar, somewhat incongruously. "Many of our fans still support both teams, and we announce the results from Old Trafford over the Tannoy."
As the furore over Glazer subsides a couple of stops down the Metrolink, the better-known Manchester United is, understandably, more worried about its recent on-pitch troubles. "We bear them no ill-will at all," says a spokesman.