Friday, February 19, 2010
As he sits in the middle of the team photograph taken to mark the opening of his new football stadium in Old Trafford in 1910, John Henry Davies looks the archetype of Edwardian success.
By Jim White
Published: 7:00AM GMT 19 Feb 2010
With his several chins, his handsome, waxed moustache and his box-fresh bowler hat, as he stares into the camera lens, the Manchester United chairman exudes an air of self-satisfied certainty. This is the picture of a man well aware that he has something substantial on his hands.
The brewing magnate had taken control of Newton Heath football club nine years previously, rescuing a near bankrupt institution that had only been kept alive by the players rattling collecting boxes in local pubs.
Not a football fan, Davies was nonetheless fiercely proud of the town that had made him rich and he saw in the team the perfect promotional tool for Mancunian self-esteem.
The first thing he did was change the club’s parochial name to reflect its wider geographical base: Manchester United, he reckoned was the perfect moniker to advance his vision.
He paid off debts and sorted out the place so quickly he was soon turning a handsome profit from the club. Then, with their Bank Street premises at any moment threatening to sink into the mud and grime, he decided to provide them with a new home.
Old Trafford was built without debt or mortgage, largely from Davies’s own pocket (or rather from his wife’s purse; she was heiress to the Tate and Lyle fortune).
With typical bravura, on completion Davies decreed the ground to be the best in England, and thus he casually assumed, the best in the world. Which was only right, he said. What was required was a home worthy for his team, a team of “Manchester men to make Manchester proud”.
A century on, if you stand in front of the boastful steel and glass frontage of the modern Old Trafford, you will find yourself shoulder to shoulder with tourists from Singapore, Cyprus, Sydney and beyond photographing its signage and statuary. In every snap they are confirming Davies’s concept: United is the entity that has put Manchester on the world map. Millions across the world know of Manchester not because of cotton or coal or Coronation Street but because of the city’s most prominent cultural asset: United.
Much to the chagrin of United’s noisy neighbours, the club are more generally known in Barcelona, Madrid and Milan simply as “Manchester”. These days people associate Cottonopolis with the exploits of Law, Best and Charlton; Giggs, Keane and Cantona and, latterly the new golden trinity of Old Trafford: Rooney, Rooney and Rooney. They may not be Manchester men, but theirs is indeed the team that made Manchester proud.
So much so that in 2005, the club’s worldwide renown, built up through the unbeatable combination of historical romance and recent success, even seeped into the consciousness of a family of businessmen based in Florida, that last redoubt of football agnosticism. Unmoved by the sporting claims of the club, indifferent to the silverware cluttering the trophy room, unaware of the tragic implications in the word Munich, what the Glazer family saw in United was expressed in more modern business terms: it was all about the power of the brand.
And what a brand it is, reckoned to be among the five most instantly recognisable in the sporting world, up there with Nike, adidas, the Olympic rings and the New York Yankees. Such recognition is immensely valuable.
For 20 years following the moment Alex Ferguson arrived at the club bringing with him untrammelled success, the United brand was ruthlessly exploited by those in control. It was United who were at the forefront of the formation of the Premier League, pioneered corporate hospitality, and first entered the new football merchandise business. For the new United football’s traditional boundaries of local affiliation held no restraint.
So it was that for many football followers, particularly fans of less financially muscular clubs, United became synonymous with all that was wrong with the game, the rapacious greed, the careless pursuit of wealth at all costs, the deliberate dislocation of football from its roots. When the words 'football’ and 'club’ were removed from the badge in 1998 it was final proof. No longer a football club, United had become something different: a corporation.
The Glazers’ interest in United was the ultimate recognition of the club’s transformation. An operation formed by a railway carriage maker to give its workers a healthy alternative to spending their leisure hours marinated in alcohol had become, 130 years later, an entertainment conglomerate, a company that provides media content, like Universal Studios.
For the Glazers, there was no emotional implications here, no Davies-like desire to put their mark on the world. In their mind, seeking to take control of United was solely about seizing the asset; it was getting their hands on a production line spewing cash. Their takeover was the final statement that the club’s wider cultural meaning had been subsumed into its bottom line.
Yet, to stand on the bridge over the railway behind the Stretford End, as the crowd make their way to the ground on match days is to get a sense of an institution much closer to Davies’s vision than that of the Glazers. Despite the sneery insistence of rivals that the United crowd is made up of those solely from beyond the city boundary, Mancunians are not uniquely immune to the finest players in history besporting themselves on their doorstep. Yes, there are millions across the globe who claim allegiance to the club who would be incapable of pinpointing the city on the map, but the accents gathering to watch home games are overwhelmingly north-western, overwhelmingly working class. Somehow, despite flotations and leveraged buyouts, despite payment in kind notes and bond issues, despite the insistent spread of corporatisation evident in every concession stand dotted round the ground, there is something in the club that still reaches out to them. And the arrival of the Glazers has made many of them think deeply about what exactly that something is.
Once, in the Fifties, the manager Matt Busby, as strong a definer of the meaning of United as anyone associated with its tale, took his United players to the gates of a factory next door to the ground after training. It was clocking off time and he instructed them to watch the Lowry-like stick figures trudging home. He wanted to remind them of what he saw as their duty. They had an obligation, he said, to play a brand of football that lifted the spirits of the people who paid their wages.
The Glazers take a different view. For them the fans clacking through the turnstiles (or rather swiping their credit-card-style season tickets through state-of-the-art admissions systems) are mere customers. The family made it clear what they felt about them in the small print of the recent bond issue, designed to alleviate temporarily the debt they had incurred taking over the club. Ticket prices, it was noted, could rise inexorably: the customers would always fork out whatever it took to see their heroes. That was the nature of football support.
Such an attitude will come as no surprise to the couple of thousand diehard fans who broke away from the club in 2005 to form a co-operative venture of their own called FC United of Manchester. Battered by commerce, wearied by the endless diminution of the club’s cultural status, the final straw for the refuseniks was the manner in which the Glazers leveraged their buy-out by saddling the club with the mortgage to facilitate it. Not for sale, they cried as they refused to renew their season tickets.
“What is it you love about United? It’s not the board, or the moneymaking or the whole media Man U thing, that’s not the soul of the club,” says Andy Walsh, one of the founders of FC United. “What you defended was your experience of going to United with your friends and family. It was the sense of belonging, of being part of the Manchester United movement. And we discovered we could take that with us.” Others viewed the departing few as traitors. “I’ve never seen Manchester United as mine,” says Stephen Armstrong, a lifetime fan from Moston. “I belong to United, but I don’t own it. I see my relationship as that of a dog to its owner: I give it my loyalty and it keeps me warm in return.”
But recent revelations about the crippling levels of debt put on the club by the Glazers, debt that will be paid off by the fealty of such fans, has led to a new search among the supporters to define the true meaning of the club. What is it they follow? How can they continue to put their trust, their money, their identity into a concept now so tarnished? The Love United Hate Glazer movement has found visual articulation through fans sporting the original colours of Newton Heath. Green and yellow scarves are now in the majority in the stadium.
Suddenly fans are finding fresh enthusiasm for what it is they most cherish about United: the sense of shared identity between them, their fellow supporters and the players on the pitch. Suddenly the previously moribund atmosphere at Davies’s ground has perked up. Suddenly there is a sense of excitement in the air.
Unusually in football, this discourse has taken place against the background of success. Those green and yellow scarves are flying in celebration of a Ferguson team again reaching fruition at the business end of the season.
Yet their very popularity is evidence that for many of those inside Davies’s venerable old ground, their club is about more than trophies, that it has a meaning beyond mere commerce, that it has a soul. A hundred years on, John Henry Davies would be proud.
Provided, obviously, he was still earning a tidy dividend from his investment.