Imagine someone stole your beloved vintage motorcar and took it out for a joy ride. Imagine that, by some miracle, the police recovered the vehicle and it didn’t have a scratch on it. Would you be relieved? Certainly. But would you be full of gratitude and warmth towards the joy riders? Thought not.
Manchester United have just won a 20th league title, the fifth under their present owners, the Glazer family. But to understand why many Manchester United fans like me are still hostile to the Glazers — despite all that silverware — think back to the emotions of the owner of that vintage motor.
Some history. Back in 2005 the Glazer family took control of the stock market listed Manchester United in a hostile takeover. The Americans were no sugar daddies coming in to invest their own money. Rather, they loaded the costs of the acquisition on to the club itself, plunging United into some £525m of debt. A group of supporters, myself included, felt that introducing such high levels of leverage to a football club was inherently dangerous. We argued that there was a risk of the debt pile bankrupting the club, and that the vast annual interest payments could inhibit United’s ability to compete on the field. And so we went into opposition to the new owners and their debt. We formed the Manchester United Supporters Trust, which went on to catch the wider public’s attention with the spectacular “green and gold” campaign.
Eight years on from the Glazers’ arrival and our worst fears have not materialised. The family have gotten away with their financial engineering. They managed to ride out of the global financial crisis in 2008 through various opaque refinancing techniques. The debt has come down and presently stands at some £360m. The club remains top of the league.
This great escape was, it is true, partly due to the Glazers’ commercial acumen. They persuaded commercial sponsors around the world to stump up a remarkable amount of cash. But the family have also been extremely lucky. Sir Alex Ferguson’s phenomenal ability to deliver on-field success has kept Champions League TV money rolling in. And last year’s record-breaking Premier League broadcast deal, after BT decided to join the race for rights, is another massive windfall. The Glazers might even be able to clear the club’s remaining debt if they use all these new revenues to pay off borrowing.
But it’s not good enough. A great club’s fate should not rest on the spin of a roulette wheel. If your stolen car comes back unscathed, you don’t leave it unlocked. Fans like me want to make sure no one can ever take our beloved club for a financial joy ride again. We will not be satisfied until Manchester United’s destiny is influenced and safeguarded by the most committed long-term owners of all: the fans themselves.