Football: Fans united in their outrage

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IT RAINED, inevitably, in Manchester yesterday, but the steady onslaught of fine, penetrating drizzle did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the lines of Manchester United fans, who congregated from mid-afternoon by the players' entrance in search of autographs or breezy salutations.

Nor did it do anything to quieten their indignation at the acquisition of the club by the Murdoch entertainment empire. The fan whom The Times yesterday contrived to find who was in favour of BSkyB's takeover was nowhere to be seen. The outcry was universal.

"Murdoch Unwanted Fat Cat", said the T-shirt sported by one fan, the initials of its protest etched in parody of the MUFC logo. "He's not interested in football - just money," proclaimed its owner. "And he hasn't got where he is by throwing it around," he added, scornful at the suggestion that the cash might enable the club to sign the calibre of players who will not leave the Italian league for wages below pounds 45,000 a week - double the United ceiling under its pre-Murdoch regime.

His views were echoed by everyone I spoke to in the line. It was not unrepresentative. A phone-in vote in the local paper showed that 96 per cent of readers thought the deal should not be allowed to go ahead.

Not that they expect their views to cut much ice with the Office of Fair Trading or the Monopolies Commission - or the Murdoch newspapers which seek to influence them. "The furore that greeted news of the bid," the opinion column on the business pages of Mr Murdoch's Times sneered yesterday, "seemed to indicate that what was at stake was the future of a local institution, kind to children and animals."

But there was more to the fans' upset than affronted local pride. Manchester United has not, of course, been a local institution for years. The train from London to Manchester had been full of Charlton fans, boisterous and boozy, determined to drink the buffet dry (which they managed before Stoke). Yet despite their high profile the Athletic supporters were outnumbered by United fans, many of whom were born and bred in London but who travel up for every home game.

It is estimated that 18 per cent of all English football fans are supporters of Manchester United. The local paper yesterday claimed that the club has 100 million followers around the world. The idea is not fanciful. The official supporters' club has 200 branches in 24 countries. There are 17,000 unofficial United web sites. Even characters in the Australian teen soap Heartbreak High are regularly seen wearing United shirts. (Perhaps Rupert owns that, too).

At Old Trafford the owner of the "Fat Cat" T-shirt was from Wiltshire. Others in the line were from Essex, Somerset and the Irish Republic. And yet there is a resistance among the fans against further transformation.

Manchester United may have begun as a club formed by a railway company for its workers. It may have progressed early this century to become a bastion of working-class Manchester culture. It may have become a greater institution after the Munich air disaster, and the years of Busby, Best, Charlton and Law led to the club being taken to the hearts of the nation's housewives. It may have become the first English side to win the European Cup and then, under Alex Ferguson, have dominated English football in the 1990s.

But the resistance to going global is stubborn. Murdoch, the fans say, is not just after securing a vote at the table when it comes to setting up the European super league. They talked sinisterly of 3am kick-offs to suit 50m far-east pay-per-view customers and of franchising United spin-off teams in Japan and elsewhere. "It could go either way," said one fan from Somerset. "He might buy in the big names or he might do what he did in baseball and sell the big names we have, sack the manager and move the ground, as he has done with his clubs in the States."

The personal vehemence against Murdoch took me by surprise (I had hitherto presumed it was confined to journalists). But there was at Old Trafford yesterday not simply the feeling that, as one fan from Essex put it: "I don't think one man should be allowed to control so much - newspapers, TV, films and now a football club." There was also a fairly sophisticated acquaintance with Murdoch's track-record of kow-towing to the Chinese and Malaysians. Mention was made of Chris Patten's memoirs and the sacking of Andrew Neil.

Notwithstanding the traditional rivalry with Liverpool, there were recollections of Hillsborough. "Murdoch's Sun lied then about fans urinating on the dead," one Mancunian fan said. "Now he's come to do the same to the living," his mate added.

And then, at the end, there was a view of a different tone. "Personally I'd rather it stayed independent," said a besuited fan who turned out to be a management consultant, "but from a business point of view it makes sense, though there is the risk Murdoch will asset-strip it."

"We live in a globalising economy," said another suit, noting that the Murdoch acquisition had been reported in his morning newspaper alongside the news that Marks and Spencer is to buy more non-British goods and that Sunderland workers were in fear of a profits slump by the Japanese motor giant, Nissan. "When Manchester United became a plc it ceased to be a football club and became just another business. Once that had happened, what has happened this week became inevitable."