Football: First Night Andy Walsh: The man taking on Man U and Murdoch

Fan power will descend on Parliament on Tuesday to ensure Sky has a limit.
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The Independent Online
Andy Walsh apologised for being late. He had, he explained, been delayed by a chance meeting with a supporter of BSkyB's proposed takeover of Manchester United. Sir Bobby Charlton, one-time director of creative on-field operations at Old Trafford and now plain director, just happened to be walking out of the car park at Kendall's department store off Deansgate at the same time as the chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association.

"I gave him a copy of our campaign bulletin," Walsh said, "and told him that supporters were concerned about the bid. He said that fans weren't concerned and that there was nothing we could do to prevent the deal - that we weren't going to stop it the way we were going about it."

The way Walsh and his fellow campaigners have been going about their quest to stop BSkyB falling in on their beloved Manchester United has put the phenomenon of the football fans' protest into a whole new ball game.

Last Monday their cause was debated in the House of Lords, when Alf Morris, Lord Morris of Manchester, urged the Government to refer the pounds 623m takeover bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. On Thursday it was the subject of an early-day motion in the House of Commons, with 46 MPs imploring the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, to make the referral. And on Tuesday the protesters themselves will descend on Parliament, to lobby for more support in advance of Mr Mandelson's decision, due on 2 November after he receives a report from the Office of Fair Trading.

"Football fans have been to Parliament before to talk to MPs," Walsh said, "but there's been nothing done on this scale, with such a huge campaign outside Parliament. We could quite easily have just tried to organise a few demonstrations and left it at that but we decided it was necessary for us to be a little bit better organised than just having a rant at the ground."

The campaign to stop the Murdoch empire enveloping Old Trafford is certainly better organised than that. It is run jointly by the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association and by Shareholders United Against Murdoch, a group formed in the immediate aftermath of the takeover announcement seven weeks ago. They have a city centre office in Manchester, courtesy of the architects Sagar-Stevenson. They have computers, printers, copiers and telephones either donated or supplied at cost price by businessmen who, like Dominic Sagar and Neil Stevenson, happen to be passionate United supporters. They have the services of one of the biggest commercial law firms in the country (whose identity cannot be disclosed under the terms of the pro bono scheme which provides free advice for what are deemed to be worthy causes). They even have a web-site, which can be found at protest@stopmurdoch.com.

Public protest has clearly come a long way in Manchester in the 179 years since the Peterloo Massacre. But, as Walsh underlined on Thursday morning in the campaign office, less than half a mile from the scene of Peterloo: "We're fighting a multi-million pound organisation. We needed to get heavyweight support on our side, from the world of politics as well as business and from the local community.

"We had just pounds 400 when we booked the meeting to launch the campaign at the Bridgewater Hall. Roger Taylor came forward and paid the pounds 6,000 cost of hiring the hall and gave us pounds 4,000 on top. We've had other donations but the money has been drained now. We need more. Just to mail-shot the shareholders cost pounds 9,000 - pounds 7,500 in postage alone. It took 60 of us two nights working until 2am, folding letters, stuffing envelopes and putting labels on them. It was an incredible task.

"BSkyB and Manchester United had five or six months to plan for this bid. We had a matter of days and, when you step back and look at it, I think what we've done in the last few weeks is nothing short of breathtaking really - when you think of the people we've spoken to and the effect we've had.

"Our first target was to stall the decision by the Office of Fair Trading and we got a delay of three weeks. Our second target has been to get the OFT to refer the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission and in excess of 35 submissions have been made to them, which I understand is an unprecedented number. They've come not just from supporters' groups but from bodies like the FA, the PFA and other broadcasters. We've worked very hard to make sure that happened.

"We believe now that there's compelling evidence for the Trade and Industry Secretary to refer this to the MMC. His links with Murdoch have been publicised quite widely but we're not concerned about that. We're concerned with the future of our club. We've hopefully demonstrated to people how passionately we believe in the future of football as a whole that it's necessary for Manchester United to remain as an independent football club."

Walsh, a former officer on the executive committee of the Banking and Finance Union, feels so passionately he has taken unpaid leave of absence from his job with a computing software house to fight against the vision of Manchester United as not so much a football club as "a futuristic business of the 21st century", to quote Mark Booth, BSkyB's American managing director.

Playing Red Devils' advocate, it seemed only politic to point out that some supporters could only dream of nightmare scenarios such as that which confronted Walsh and his fellow campaigners on Thursday: of their club, 6-2 winners in the Champions' League the previous night, being taken over for pounds 623m. True Blues in Manchester, for instance, were greeted by the headline "Royle's Gloom" in the Evening News, and news of an injury "crisis" in the wake of a 2-1 defeat at that renowned spot on the European football map known as Sincil Bank. And followers of Carlisle United are facing the prospect of their club achieving the chairman's declared ambition of getting into the top division in six years - into the top division of the non-league pyramid that is.

"Michael Knighton, in fact, has shown himself to be a visionary in terms of what is possible for Manchester United," Walsh said of the one-time Old Trafford ball-juggler. "The problem with the current board of directors is that they've shown a distinct lack of vision. United have got the money at the moment to do everything BSkyB could do for them. The difference would be that we would retain the money as a football club. If we get swallowed up by BSkyB we will be a subsidiary of BSkyB and a much smaller subsidiary of News Corporation. They will use the profits generated by United to prop up other parts of their business empire.

"It would not be pounds 623m coming into Manchester United. It would be going out of Manchester United and, more worryingly, out of the game. It would be going to shareholders, to City institutions, to Martin Edwards. It would not be invested in the club. I think that more thinking members of other football clubs do see the dangers that could befall the game if BSkyB take over Manchester United and other broadcasters come in to do the same at other clubs. This vertical integration between sport and broadcast organisations is very worrying."

Peter Mandelson, apparently, does not share such concern. He might, though, consider the fears of the football follower who, in the wake of Andy Cole's transfer to Manchester United, warned of the dangers of "the people's game being driven too much by money". They were the words of Tony Blair, friend of football and friend of Rupert Murdoch.

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