Football: The magnate and the magnetism

Murdoch Utd: There can be no turning back if supporters want the world's best players and real glory
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PERHAPS THE Manchester United faithful should be grateful it is only Rupert Murdoch who has his covetous fingers in their treasured Old Trafford pie. It could have been Elliot Carver, though he would probably have used a nuclear device to extort his prize rather than a legitimate pounds 625m takeover bid.

Fortunately, Carver is only a manifestation of a script writer's imagination, a statistic media megalomaniac seeking global domination by any means in Tomorrow Never Dies although in the view of many of the aggrieved, he and the Aussie interloper might well be one and the same. In one particularly sinister scene actor Jonathan Pryce's character instructs his henchmen, equipped with oriental surgical implements, to proceed with the hideous destruction of our hero, Her Majesty's Secret Agent 007. "When you remove Mr Bond's heart," he says with a cruel smile, "there should be just enough time for him to watch it stop beating."

The question on the minds of those who streamed into Old Trafford for the midweek 4-1 eclipse of Charlton was whether Murdoch was about to inflict a similar piece of surgery on a club they regard as family and whose renown and prestige stretches from Altrincham to Australasia.

Certainly, for some dissenting voices, the issue was unambiguous. "The message is simple. The message is clear. Don't sell my MU," read a banner which quickly attracted the TV lenses. "I'm a business student, so I understand what is going on here financially," explained the bearer, Lynn Smith from Hereford. "But I don't think Murdoch should be involved here. I don't trust him and I fear for British football."

But even as she spoke, another supporter intervened. "Look, he doesn't buy something like this to be second best," he retaliated. "If we get Ronaldo, or Batistuta or Kluivert you won't be complaining. This is the best thing that could have happened to us. If you're an Arsenal or Liverpool fan you'll be sick to death."

Arsenal, it transpired, were already in the throes of their own deal with Carlton Television, but Murdoch's intervention is the one that will establish a trend, or otherwise. It will raise United to the pinnacle of achievement - or reduce it to just another arm of a media empire. Thus far, manager Alex Ferguson, who has been amusingly linked with the Spurs vacancy, has voiced his approval of BSkyB, but his reaction when the deal is finally approved and the full repercussions for his football operation becomes clear, will prove intriguing.

Ferguson faces the same dilemma as United followers, caught between emotion and logic as they attempt to distinguish between the demonology surrounding Murdoch and the reality of contemporary commercial existence. Yet for every voice of outrage against the sell-out by chairman Martin Edwards and his board and the prospect of Machiavellian United, another was prepared to accept the inevitable.

Just around the corner from Old Trafford, outside the Lou Macari cafe, where many United fans congregate before a match, there is invariably a hubbub of pre-match expectation. On this night it was a veritable tumult. Those with a keen nose for business were already offering T-shirts with the slogan, MUFC - Murdoch Unwanted Fat Cat - although they weren't exactly being snapped up like knocked-off Georgio Armani.

Linger too long here, and you would invariably be set upon by anyone with a view to expound. Like Tony, who evidently shares Oswald Moseley's view of the past, that "memory is a parade of dead men" . When the question of history and heritage of the club were broached, he looked incredulous. "History?" he roared. "That's already been made. We're going forward. Everybody hates Man United, and now they'll hate us even more. Liverpool will be gutted."

Wherever you looked there were two distinct groups: the thoroughly exasperated and the hugely expectant. The former were distributing pictures of Old Beelzebub himself. He has been portrayed in many guises, but never before as that of Murdoch adorned with horns, on the front page of the Mirror, which, of course, has its own political and commercial agenda for opposing the tycoon. "Stop the Red Devil" was the obvious theme, but inside the ground few obeyed the message to hold up the paper and "show how much you care".

But then this past week has not so much concerned Red Devils as red herrings. There's a condition called global amnesia suffered by an elderly man whose picture has appeared in the newspapers. All he could recall was that John Major was once Prime Minister. A few thousand United followers apparently have a similar malaise, their minds possessing only a sepia-tinted, idyllic recollection of a game with 70,000 standing supporters, a heaving mass of humanity in the days when poor facilities and dangerous conditions were tolerated, all lorded over by an avuncular, benign benefactor.

"Stand up if you hate Edwards", and worse, was the occasional chant during breaks in play. But it lacked conviction. Stand up if you really remember that scenario above with any pleasure might have been more pertinent. The only other evidence of protest was a male streaker, though fortunately he did not appear to be standing up for anything. "Are you Edwards in disguise?" they howled.

Nobody can suggest that the Edwards family, Martin and his father Louis before him, have not had an affinity with the club. They have been integral to it since 1958. Whether that goes as far as passion is another matter. After all, Martin Edwards has been attempting to sell the club for years. But, anyway, whose law decrees, other than that of militant supporters and David Mellor's tusk force - that group which crashes around, makes a lot of noise and moves very slowly, but with little effect - that passion is a pre-requisite of ownership, anymore than background or principles?

Yes, Mark Booth, chief executive of BSkyB, is a smooth-talking American, who probably doesn't know his Butt from his Beckham. And Murdoch, as the United fanzine Red Issue comments, may well be "a hate figure" to many supporters, but since when were football club chairmen paid-up members of the Socialist Workers' Party?

For as long as most of us can recall, professional football has concerned the ethics of the bordello, the sexiest teams receiving the rich men's attention while others have had to sell their assets, namely players, on a regular basis to survive. It all changed irrevocably after Hillsborough, Bradford and Heysel, by the Premier League's deal with BSkyB and when United and others floated in the early Nineties. As another supporter reflected: "I'm surprised someone like Murdoch took so long to move in." The onset of digital TV, and a decision of the Office of Fair Trading on whether clubs can negotiate their own television deals, which is expected next year, determined that he has chosen an appropriate moment to strike. With the launch on Thursday of MUTV, he already has the Manchester United TV show up and running.

Murdoch's power over the Premier League will be limited, rightly so, but not his influence over television, and there will be close vigilance of his plans by the football authorities and politicians. What other clubs' followers will make of their Sky subscriptions benefiting the owners of Manchester United is quite another matter.

Yet, there can be no turning back, if the supporters desire the benefit of superb, safe stadiums (with United's to rise to a capacity of 67,000) and the opportunity to acquire the world's most gifted players and for their team to make a sustained, successful challenge in Europe. When you take a sugar daddy, it's the money that you're selling your soul for, not his integrity and charitable motives.

In the game itself, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and David Beckham - watched by the Posh one - played with a gusto to delight the 55,147, but it was a night when, for many, pragmatism was the winner. As the visitor's manager Alan Curbishley said: "You've got where you are by raising money through the City and if someone comes along and gobbles you up, that's the way it goes. I think it will enhance the club, and benefit the players."

No doubt, the opposition will marshal its forces. Perhaps with club director Greg Dyke, who apparently opposed the take-over, as their champion. After all, he saved TV-AM from bankruptcy. This time, however, it's unlikely that Murdoch will go running scared from Roland Rat.