Are fans better off with the Manchester United devil they know?
Background image: Steve Crane, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
A large group, numbering in the hundreds, protested outside Old Trafford ahead of the anticipated Sunday teatime kickoff between Manchester United and Liverpool. A much smaller group breached the ground and, while some brought the protest inside, many cavorted about on the pitch and in the stands like it was a holiday.
In the aftermath, United legends Roy Keane and Gary Neville commented for Sky Sports, acknowledging the anger supporters had long held for the club’s American owners. They claimed the club’s involvement in the failed European Super League was the straw that broke the camel’s back and that it may be [well past] time for the Glazers to sell. The Yanks have long treated United as a cash cow, milking it for every dollar, euro, ruble, rand, yuan, yen, shekel, riyal, and pound sterling they could while completely ignoring supporters.
All this is true. The Glazers effectively leveraged the club’s equity to purchase it rather than investing their own cash and, although they have made United even more profitable than it had been before their investment, seemingly every member of the family received massive salaries for which they did little if anything while reinvestment in the side was held to the bare minimum necessary to keep disgruntled supporters from rising up much sooner.
If we’re being honest, though, United fans vociferously rejected the Glazer takeover before it was finalised and continued to do so even as the squad won trophy after trophy for the decade that Sir Alex Ferguson remained in charge following the Americans’ arrival. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the modern sport business model where money is king and trophies panacea.
When Fergie retired and the side struggled, a single FA Cup, League Cup, Community Shield and Europa League crown amounted to insufficient medication to pacify supporters. While four pieces of silver [including a European title] in six full seasons is more than your average club can dream, United faithful consider themselves anything but average. The club’s coffers were massive and filled to overflowing. The Glazers could afford to hire any manager and sign any player and still make money. Why weren’t they doing more?
Anger grew. Three managers, if you count Ryan Giggs, came and went before Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was installed. Even a club legend like the Baby-Faced Assassin couldn’t cajole outraged Glazer haters. The #GlazersOut movement made some noise during Jose Mourinho’s tenure but nothing came of it.
Then the club proudly announced itself as part of the new European Super League, with Joel Glazer going so far as to present himself as the new league’s chief executive. In response, United Executive VP Ed Woodward made perhaps the most astute, timely, insightful and appropriate move of his stewardship, announcing he would resign at season’s end because he was unable to support the club’s involvement in the breakaway competition. While the statement impressed few United supporters, it goes to show that you never know who your friends are.
Of course United were hardly alone in this bold power move. Five other Premier League clubs joined them.
Then, when the entirety of English football including the other 14 Premier League teams, the 72 Football League clubs, various non-league executives, the English and foreign press and the vast majority of fans materialised to oppose them, they blinked. One doubts the Glazers were big fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but they knew in that moment exactly how Thanos felt when enemies by the thousands poured through Dr Strange’s sparkly circles. On your left, Cap.
As quickly as the ESL sprung into existence it was snuffed out. Joel Glazer apologised for not respecting football’s commitment to promotion and relegation but not for trying to make even more money from the United brand. Still, Glazer and his five Premier League cohorts collectively laid down their arms and withdrew from the rebellion.
Photo: Hentl Smith, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Ten days ago, a smaller group of United supporters blockaded the AON Traning Complex with a few of their number infiltrating the ground. They encountered Solskjaer and midfielder Nemanja Matic who engaged with and apparently satisfied them that the squad sided with the fans.
That didn’t prevent the larger protest, effectively set for the Liverpool match to draw maximum exposure. Clearly, United fans want to be rid of the Glazers but have they considered the consequences?
They want ownership that will represent their interests. They also want to return to their former place at the top of English football and as perennial contenders in the Champions league. Unfortunately, they can’t have both.
Think about it. Does Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi ownership care a whit for the fans or is City a vehicle for them to promote their national interests? Arsenal’s American owner bought out all outstanding shares in the club by force, including those owned by the Supporters Trust. Tottenham’s English owner spent lavishly on a new stadium but stingily on players to replace the world class talent from whose sales he elicited maximum profit. Chelsea’s Russian oligarch appeared in tune with the fans, spending heavily to win, then locked away his checkbook when politics made him a pariah and his stadium plans were rejected. Liverpool’s Americans listen to their fans if you call pushing the envelope as far as possible then backing off a step or two when the Kop object to expansive Anfield renovations that will destroy the surrounding homes.
Manchester United is England’s biggest club and, by some measurements, the world’s. Forbes rates it the fourth largest club, its value exceeding $4 billion. If the Glazers sell, who is going to buy?
It won’t be a Delia Smith or a Matthew Benham. It will be someone with the deepest pockets and a bottomless desire to make a profit.
In 2019, before he attempted to purchase Newcastle, the Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman was rumoured to be interested in buying United. Will he care about fans anymore than he does the citizens he rules with an iron hand? Unlikely. MBS jails Saudi millionaires and billionaires who refuse to support his policies and seizes their holdings. He kills foreign journalists who threaten to expose his human rights violations against the poorer populace. If he gets his hands on United, he will do as he pleases and that includes supporting the next attempt to form a European Super League.
In short, there is no multi-billionaire on the planet who will place fan interest over their own. That’s the reality of both human nature and modern football.
United may find a sugar daddy who spends freely to win trophies but, under Solskjaer, the Glazers are restoring the foundation that SAF built and guarded. It took some doing but, in terms of the product on the pitch, ownership has aligned itself with supporters who want to win titles.
While the Norwegian failed to win a cup semifinal in his initial four attempts at Old Trafford, he goes into the second leg in Rome up 6-2 in his fifth go. Liverpool fans will tell you that Jurgen Klopp blew four finals as Liverpool boss then delivered a Champions League crown and Premier League title. Force the Glazers out and United will be starting over after finally making significant progress.
Admittedly, it’s a bitter pill to swallow but United fans may be better off with the devil they know.