Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Is it time for United fans to concede that they owe a small debt of gratitude to the Glazers?

Source: The Times
(edit: FC UNited related text in bold)

SEVEN HUNDRED piddling grand? If Wayne Rooney really wants to talk about debt, he should see an expert. Take the lift to the fourth floor at Old Trafford, Wayne, turn left, end of the corridor. David Gill, chief executive, Manchester United. Present debt: 270 million quid. Give or take the odd five million. Now that’s what you call a tab.

This time last year, Gill was arguing passionately against taking on such a burden. Now it is under his management. He should be nervous. He seems strangely relaxed. He is enjoying being wrong. It is time to re-evaluate the Glazer takeover.

Predictably, ticket prices went up this week, by more than inflation, but not by the astronomical sums first forecast. United will continue to have among the cheapest seats in the Premiership and Gill insists that any future rises will be moderate. There are no plans to sell naming rights to the stadium, either, as was predicted. Players have arrived and there are more signings planned for the summer.

Would it be better if the Glazer brothers were seen more regularly at matches? Yes. Would it be a socialist Utopian paradise if United could be owned and run by their supporters? Yes. Is it going to happen? No. Ever? No.

Gill and the faithful who did not desert to form and follow the noble FC United will have to make do with what they have got: $1.47 billion (more than £800 million) of someone else’s money and a club who are making progress the best way possible in the modern football world. Privately.

We have been yearning for old-fashioned owners who kept their heads down, their mouths shut and their hands in their pockets and now we have some. Roman Abramovich and perhaps Malcolm Glazer, too. Abramovich’s Chelsea are reshaping football’s landscape. United are straining to make an unexpected tilt at their title, having survived a minor crisis thanks in part to the composure of the new boss. Not, as Gill is at pains to point out, the same as the old boss at all.

On November 23, Vodafone announced that it would terminate its shirt sponsorship, worth £9 million a year, at the end of the season; two weeks later, United were removed from the Champions League by Benfica in Lisbon, the first time the club had not been involved in the knockout stages of the competition since 1995-96.

There was a time when this unexpected departure would have been disappointing, but not damaging. Such is the strength of football’s elite, however, that United felt confident enough to budget for a place in the last 16, meaning that a group-stage exit represented a minimum profits shortfall of £4 million.

“It was a bad time,” Gill said. “We were losing Vodafone, so everybody was down, and then to go out to Benfica, we were very concerned. But I’ll tell you this: it was better to go out as a private company rather than a public company.

“I was very glad to have the Glazers in Lisbon, believe me. If we had been a public company, the shares would have dropped and, depending on City forecasts, we would have then had to issue a profits warning, with all the ramifications of that. Instead, we moved on.”

He would say that, wouldn’t he? Yet look at the most consistently successful teams in the Premiership. Abramovich answers to no one. Arsenal’s directors control 61 per cent of the club, with Granada owning 9 per cent and the remaining 30 per cent split between 62,000 people. Liverpool are looking for an investor, but only to buy the 51.5 per cent stake owned by David Moores, the chairman. The plan is to trade up, swapping the present major shareholder for a richer one.

The history of plcs in football is littered with casualties: Tottenham Hotspur under Irving Scholar, Leeds United under Peter Ridsdale. Football’s finances, like football management, work best as the vision of one man; or in the case of Manchester United, one man and three brothers Those who talk of United being run from the United States are missing the point. It always was, in part. Before the takeover, the club was by no means a standard plc, owned by several City institutions as part of an expansive portfolio, taking a restrained view and letting the professionals run the business (or have a £90 million punt with their money, in the case of Ridsdale at Leeds).

United plc was in the hands of a small group of investors: Glazer, John Magnier, J. P. McManus, Harry Dobson. It had all the pitfalls of a plc with none of the benefits, most notably when Magnier and McManus began running a proactively aggressive campaign against the board and the manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. So yes, these days, a significant transfer would need sanction from Florida; but Gill has never known it any different at Old Trafford.

“I had the authority to commit to a player negotiation up to x or a transfer fee up to y,” Gill told me. “And every month we had a plc board meeting and I would explain the relevant activity. Now I make a call to Joel Glazer. So what? Every business has checks and balances.”

The difference, and it is a positive one, is that Glazer is his own man. When Ferguson wanted to buy Nemanja Vidic, a defender, from Spartak Moscow, Gill made one call during which Joel Glazer authorised all finances surrounding the deal, most particularly fees and wages. The transfer was never mentioned again. It is a more streamlined way to do business.

Had United remained a plc, according to Gill, the club would have been forced to take advice from the Stock Exchange on whether to make the departure of Roy Keane public. Had the Glazers been in charge in 2003, news of David Beckham’s transfer to Real Madrid could have remained in-house, avoiding weeks of adverse publicity.

It was sensible to be sceptical about the Glazers at first and easy to continue the caricature of the absentee owner, screwing the fans over tickets and only interested in the balance sheet. There is an element of truth in this, certainly. Yet what is the alternative? At the top end, no clubs are run for purely altruistic reasons and while some chairmen — Steve Gibson at Middlesbrough, for instance — are easier to like than others, even those whose loyalty is most loudly pronounced have a flint-hearted bottom line.

No one doubts Freddy Shepherd’s love for Newcastle United, yet it did not stop him mocking the devotion of the supporters in an unguarded moment. So what makes Shepherd preferable? The false perception that he is one of us? The aims and ideals of FC United are to be admired. The club are a force for good, not least for the money distributed to obscure outposts of the North West by disaffected Manchester United fans. FC United’s average attendance this season is 3,003, their biggest gate 4,328. In the same division are Castleton Gabriels, watched by 2,791 fans all season, of whom 2,473 turned up for the match against FC United.

It is the same throughout the North West Counties League second division. Chadderton’s biggest gate of the season is 101, but expect that to rise at least 2,000 per cent when FC United visit a week today. At this rate, of course, FC United will one day be a Football League team.

It is to be hoped that they will also still have their manifesto in place and be a member-owned, democratic and non-profit-making organisation, their board elected on the basis of one man, one vote. The appeal of such a club is simple: FC United are everything Manchester United are not.

Yet the reality is also straightforward: FC United are everything Manchester United never were. Barcelona and Real remain member-run because that was the way the clubs were founded. By the time Malcolm Glazer became involved, United were a billion-dollar business that had been growing steadily since Newton Heath became a limited company in 1892. They were never going to belong to the people; they never had and they never will.

Those who walked away last summer see Malcolm Glazer as the embodiment of everything that turned the game bad and even those who stayed loyal to United are not yet comfortable with the concept of him as a force for good, certainly not in the week that ticket prices went up.

He is, however, progress of sorts. If Ronaldinho’s man was to phone this afternoon and suggest that he was not happy with life at Barcelona, in a matter of minutes Gill could get a decision on whether a rival offer from United could go ahead. Still slower than a breathless “da” from Abramovich, maybe, but not by much.