Fans fight back at being told: sit down, keep quiet and pay up

Could this be the week when supporters' patience with self-serving club owners finally snapped? Robin Scott-Elliot gauges the mood of unrest
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The Independent Football

At lunchtime today, in a pub in Stretford, a group of Manchester United fans will meet to consider, as another committed Red once put it, what is to be done. Afterwards they will make the short journey to Old Trafford and watch United take on Burnley to end a week that has left them feeling more alienated than ever from their club.

It began on Monday with news of the Glazers' attempt to raise £500m through a bond scheme. Over the following days details of the bid emerged; Carrington, the training ground, could be sold, even Old Trafford itself. All that on top of the huge levels of debt piled on what had once been one of the world's richest clubs. "There was a feeling of despair when I read that document," says Mark Longden, chair of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association. "It has been creeping in for a number of years, but the bond issue has hit home with a lot of people. They are completely disillusioned."

And it is not only at United. Down the East Lancs Road, it's been another week of turmoil. "Blow Me, Fuckface," was how Tom Hicks Jnr chose to address one Liverpool supporter; in effect a blunt summation of how many fans feel they are being treated by the men who own their clubs.

From Portsmouth to Newcastle, there is a growing sense of discontent among those who fill the grounds, and are filling them as never before. Attendances across the English game are at their highest level for half a century and they need to be if clubs are to continue to operate effectively in an increasingly bitter financial climate. "We depend on our match-day supporters," stated the Glazers' brochure. But among those match-day supporters there is little sense that the Glazers, Hicks, Ashleys and their ilk care about them.

"It is still fundamentally the people who troop through the turnstiles that generate most revenue for the clubs," says Neil Mitchell, chairman of the Newcastle United Supporters Trust "But there does seem to be a mood among fans... a disenfranchised generation out there who don't feel that football is theirs any more."

"We are tired of being told to sit down, shut up," says Michael Brunskill of the Football Supporters' Federation (FSF). Among some that has left a weary resignation, among others it has sparked a desire to instigate change. Portsmouth fans this week created a supporters' trust with a view to earning a seat on the board, while Newcastle's trust harbours the ambition of running their club. Their dream is something along the lines of the Barcelona model, where members vote in a chairman. "The aim is to run the club, in the short term to get fan representation," says Mitchell. "It can work if... there are always lots of ifs – but even if half of those who have pledged help, or businesses that have said they will get involved, do, we will have one hell of a war chest.

"It could work anywhere, partly because belts are being tightened. It could certainly help a club like Portsmouth. All models have limitations but on the figures we've seen there is no reason it could not work."

Supporters' trusts have a modest record of success and have been confined largely to the lower end of the Football League. Exeter City are the shining example, having achieved two promotions since their trust took control, but Stockport after three relatively successful years went into administration last year, while Notts County's made the fateful decision to hand its majority stake to Qadbak.

Newcastle's trust have 12,000 signed up to their "Yes We Can" campaign, ShareLiverpoolfc has attracted 10,000 members and the Manchester United Supporters Trust is now 36,500 strong. The numbers are impressive but their hopes of forcing regime change remain, in reality, thin. "The outlook for football is bleak," states Longden.

Rising ticket prices, a feature of the Glazer regime in particular, is perhaps the pivotal factor in the disgruntlement. The FSF, among others, has concerns over younger fans being priced out of the game. As Kevin Parker, secretary of Manchester City's fan club, puts it "there is a danger of a generation being lost to football unless the clubs do something."

Being a City fan is currently an unusually uplifting experience. "It's nice to sit back and watch United and Liverpool fans not being very happy," says Parker, although while the mood of gloom is conspicuously absent over the blue half of Manchester there is an appreciation of unrest elsewhere. "I know other fans feel they are not particularly well treated by the clubs or the Premier League."

The Glazers have left it too late to attempt to copy the charm offensive City's new regime undertook – they even invited groups of supporters to tasting sessions to decide what food should be sold at Eastlands. The Glazers have simply left a bad taste at Old Trafford.

But it is not so much revolution that is in the Manchester air as despair. Not all the fans will leave O'Briens in Stretford this afternoon and head for the game. "I was priced out a few years ago," says Longden, "an ordinary bloke on 20-odd grand a year. Even if the supporters' trust raised £700m they couldn't buy a stake in the club. There's a feeling we can do nothing about it. We are in an impossible situation."

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