Source: The Observer
The Premier League champions have secured a £500m lifeline – but that should not be enough to head off an Old Trafford revolt, says Julian Coman, a lifelong supporter
* Julian Coman
* The Observer, Sunday 24 January 2010
Deep into the second half of Manchester United's match against Burnley last week, there was a moment to lift the heart and revive the spirit. It didn't involve Wayne Rooney and it didn't take place on the pitch, but it could have repercussions far beyond the significance of United's flattering 3-0 victory over their lowly neighbours.
The Burnley supporters were goading the locals, and their choice of topic was incendiary – a gleeful chant of "we've got more money than you". This was an ironic reference to the huge debt inflicted on the English champions by their American owners, the Florida-based Glazer family, who also own the American football team Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The response came from behind the goal where the old Stretford End has traditionally housed the most fanatical section of the crowd. A group of young men unfurled a banner that read simply: "Love United, Hate Glazer". Orange-jacketed stewards scrambled to confiscate this brazen example of thought crime at the "Theatre of Dreams" and frogmarch the dissidents out of the ground. But the piece of agit-prop achieved its purpose. For the next 10 minutes, furious chanting against United's American owners swept around a stadium that suddenly seemed to regain its passion and sense of identity.
I wasn't there to experience it because in May 2005 – when Malcolm Glazer bought Manchester United and passed on to the club the £540m worth of debt that he incurred in the process (it now stands at more than £700m) – I stopped going to Old Trafford after regularly attending games for 32 years.
Like 4,000 other dissidents, I became a founder member of a club formed in protest at the takeover, FC United of Manchester, who currently play in the upper reaches of non-league football and try to give a glimpse of how a football club could be differently run – by fans.
It was not necessarily a popular choice at the time: some United fans accused the FC crowd of "splitting" and betrayal. There was tension and, on occasion, violence in and around Manchester. Other long-standing supporters also made different and often heartbreakingly difficult decisions. Some threw their season tickets away and stopped going to a football ground where they no longer felt at home.
A substantial proportion of the hard core continued the passion of a lifetime, but committed themselves to a Fight From Within (FFW) against the enemy regime. Some went only to away games, where they were not giving the Glazers their money. Thousands and thousands of fans simply buried the memory of ever having sung "United: Not for Sale" and got on with watching the football.
And for five years nothing happened. FC did gain three promotions in a row, but the FFW never materialised. After a shaky start to the Glazer era, United were inspired once again by the club's long-serving manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. The Glazers kept a sensibly low profile and enough supporters swallowed the savage annual hikes in ticket prices to keep Old Trafford at its 76,000 capacity and the debt serviced. The place was changing; it was more nakedly about parting people from their money, but resentment was passive and muted.
This month all hell broke loose. And battle, possibly, is about to be rejoined. The club's 2008-09 accounts reveal that, two years after Northern Rock crumbled, Wall Street trembled and Sir Fred Goodwin marched RBS into the abyss, it may be United's turn to suffer the consequences of the economics of "irrational exuberance". The figures demonstrate that, even after the most successful spell in the club's history (three successive league titles, one Champions League, one losing European final and the highest average attendances in world football), a huge loss was only avoided last year through the sale of perhaps the world's best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, for the world's biggest ever fee, £81m.
Like a footballing Lehman Brothers, England's best-supported club has maintained its outward swagger while being devoured from within by a toxic combination of excessive debt and wildly irresponsible assumptions of future success. Too big to fail? Probably. Too big to go into wholly unnecessary decline? Certainly not. And if United's results turn sub-prime, who will finance the debt, currently standing at £711m?
The level of indebtedness forced on to the club to pay for the unwanted Glazer takeover, and the punitive interest payments (£68m last year; £325m since 2005), require that United somehow sustain a level of success never before achieved in English football, simply to keep the debt under control. Within Old Trafford, those who might speak out are choosing not to.
Ferguson, to the frustration of many, has remained silent on the state of the club's finances. Gary Neville, the veteran full-back and club captain, said last week that the debt and its implications were not an appropriate subject for players to discuss. David Gill, the chief executive, originally opposed the Glazer takeover on the grounds that the debt loaded on to the club would cause "significant strain on the business".
Last week he was pitching a £500m bond to potential investors, secured (of course) on United, but designed to ease pressure on super-high interest accruing on loans now amounting to £201m, for which the Glazers are personally liable. News that he had succeeded came on Friday, and the merry-go-round of deferred, repackaged debt goes on, predicated on an asset that cannot guarantee its future returns. Doesn't it sound at all familiar?
What hope there is for rebellion lies with the likes of the ejected rebels. MUST (Manchester United Supporters Trust) is attempting to organise a protest march outside Old Trafford before the home leg of the Champions League tie against Milan in March. Hopefully the "don't go any mores" – the FC fans, the only-aways and the FFW lobby – will all be there, fighting to wrest the soul of United back from a form of corporate extortion.
Resistance has to come from those who either remember or are capable of imagining a different ground and a different club, one that exists to promote its own sporting glory as a community, rather than to pay off the debts of a businessman based in Florida or provide a dividend for uninterested shareholders. For not all the blame lies with the Glazer family. For 30 years, those in charge of Manchester United have attempted to monetise the charisma of an institution that gained a special status after the Munich air disaster in 1958 that wiped out a successful side. The club was in the first wave of football plcs and pioneered the development of merchandising revenue.
It aggressively positioned executive seating sections in the heart of the old Stretford End and renamed it the West Stand, a gesture of intent towards the plc's less profitable "customers" if ever there was one. The words "football club" were dropped from the badge on players' shirts – the future lay with Manchester United, the brand. In the process the business laid itself open to the ruthless exploitation of Glazer, who would analyse the drive for profit and, recklessly, believe that he could do better, at the expense of those who created the value in the first place.
Since 2005 the cost of match tickets has almost doubled. In the 1970s, as an overawed boy from a gentle market town, I used to gaze in intimidated admiration at the working-class lads in flares who divided the Stretford End up between themselves and infused the ground with a rawness, noise and intensity almost absent today. If you want to find the 21st-century successors to that generation, you'll find them watching the game at the pub. They're not part of the United family any more.
It's not only the young. In recent years, if United are on Sky, a sizeable crowd gather at the Bishop Blaize pub, a stone's throw from Old Trafford. They've "gone to the match" but they can't afford to leave the pub. Some of them don't want to. Inside the stadium, as the current edition of the respected fanzine United We Stand puts it, "the 'Theatre of Dreams for the working class' has turned into 'the Disney of football stadiums'". It is a place where all too often a monied demographic passively consumes a product and is quick to complain if it doesn't come in the form of a win.
There is a famous story involving George Best during the early 1970s when drink and womanising were taking their toll. Best was found in bed with Miss World and a pile of banknotes from a casino win. "Where did it all go wrong, George?" a waiter asked in mock despair. United are currently champions of England, lie third in a tight race in the Premier League and play Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League. And via the £500m bond, the Glazer family have succeeded in refinancing their debt and escaping the immediate clutches of the vulture funds. "Where did it all go wrong, Malcolm?"
But it has gone seriously wrong, and if the fans don't push for it to be put right and for the Glazers to be forced out, all United fans will live to regret it.