Source: The Guardian
Posted by David Conn Saturday 27 February 2010 10.00 GMT
Green and gold will outnumber the traditional black and red at Wembley on Sunday as supporters unite against the Glazers
When a Manchester United supporter still known only as "chatmaster" floated the idea on an internet messageboard that fans might defy the debt-laden Glazer family's ownership by wearing green and gold, he can surely not have dreamed the scale the demonstration would reach. At tomorrow's Carling Cup final against Aston Villa, United fans in their thousands will arrive at Wembley sporting scarves or shirts in those original colours of Newton Heath, the club formed in 1878 by workers on the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, which later became Manchester United.
It will, surely, be the first time in football history that fans choose a showpiece final to protest en masse against their club's owners, and that signifies the remarkably educated nature of this United fans' campaign. The half-hearted argument that they have nothing to demonstrate about given three Premier League championships, a Champions League trophy and now yet another Wembley final since the Glazers bought the club in 2005, is having no impact.
Last month the Glazers published their bond-raising prospectus setting out the details of their ownership. The fans know that Sir Alex Ferguson and his team's success has been achieved despite the £716m of debt the Glazers loaded on to the club, the £464m fees and interest for which United have since become liable, and the £22.9m the family have taken out in fees and personal loans. No justification of that, or attempt to say it has not affected the club, from Ferguson, the chief executive, David Gill, or the Glazer family's representative, has swayed general outrage among fans whose ticket prices have steadily risen to pay for it all.
"It had a very powerful impact for fans to see from the Glazers, in their own document, that so much money is going out of the club," says Duncan Drasdo, chief executive of the Manchester United Supporters' Trust. "Green and gold has become so effective because it is a clear way to protest against the Glazers while supporting the team and proposing a better vision for United. It feels now like a widespread movement for change."
The yearning fuelled by this reaction is for United to be owned not by investors like the Glazers, but by the supporters, for the club to be truly a club. Given the scale of finance required to buy the Glazers out, presumably with a profit, and the £716m debts to take on or pay off, this is beyond a movement of ordinary fans. The trust, though, is in contact with the "red knights", a group of wealthy United supporters developing a bid to put to the Glazers. That, Drasdo says, is likely to involve 40 or so people taking a small stake each, and giving opportunities to the trust and fans generally to build up a shareholding.
Andy Green, an investment professional and United supporter who wrote a challenging open letter to Gill last week under his blogging name Andersred, says: "There is a very serious process going on in the City, with investors looking at a structure in which fans can develop as significant a stake as possible. Key will be persuading the Glazers to sell."
Keith Harris, the merchant banker and United supporter working with the red knights group, called this week for supporters to hit the Glazers where the prospectus showed they would be truly damaged, by withholding the money that services all that interest and fees. Drasdo says the prospect of replacing the Glazers with ownership more suited to United's character is hugely important to fans.
"Supporters do have very significant power because the Glazers' financial plans rely on fans continuing to pay their money in a variety of ways," he says. "I think when a very credible bid comes forward, fans will then feel most motivated to wield that power. We already know there is a huge drop in demand for executive facilities, and we believe many people will not renew those subscriptions next season."
The Glazers' representative has declined to comment on any alternative bid, and continued to say the family are long-term investors at United. Yet anger at the debts their takeover has imposed on the club, the other north American "leveraged buyout" at Liverpool, and Portsmouth's financial collapse has popularised the idea of supporter-owned football clubs beyond the passions of a small group of active fans. Supporters from the City of London to the Stretford End are asking why great sporting institutions like Manchester United should be owned by speculators from Florida with no previous connection to it, rather than the crowds of adherents who have supported it for life.
Some fans did turn away from Old Trafford immediately after the Glazer takeover in 2005, and today FC United of Manchester, the supporter-owned club that has since enjoyed three promotions to the UniBond League Premier Division, are holding a rally "Beyond the Debt" at their Gigg Lane ground, to promote supporter ownership.
"Those of us who formed FC United did so because we recognised there was a need to provide a positive, supporter and community-focused alternative," says Andy Walsh, the anti-Glazer campaigner turned general manager of the club. Today's rally will be attended by the Liverpool supporters group Spirit of Shankly, Portsmouth fans and Dave Boyle, the chief executive of Supporters Direct, the organisation that promotes democratic fan involvement in clubs.
Boyle and Walsh were in Brussels this week lobbying the European Parliament for an idea whose time, they believe, has come – together with Uefa, which enshrines in its document "Vision Europe" the idea that clubs should be clubs, owned by the fans. "In an ideal world," it says, "all clubs would be controlled and run by their members – eg supporters – according to democratic principles."
At Gigg Lane today and in green and gold at Wembley tomorrow, supporters will be united in campaigning for football to reassess its tortured relationship with money and rediscover its true colours.