Glazers winning the battle for Manchester United's finances, if not hearts
But title success and the exploitation of global sponsorships has quietened fans’ protests
The architects of protest against the Glazer family have taken a new step to preserve the soul of Manchester United, applying yesterday to have Old Trafford listed as an “asset of community value”. This means that the club's owners will never be able to dispose of the stadium.
The application to Trafford Council, by the Manchester United Supporters' Trust (Must), is welcome, three years after the threat of a sale felt very real in the prospectus circulated to potential investors from whom the Glazers were seeking £500m to refinance the club. The document declared that the legal contract governing the bond "will not prohibit us from selling certain key properties" including the training ground and stadium. That was a time when the club appeared to be drowning in the debt created when the Americans borrowed £525m to buy United, loading it plus the interest on to the club. But it is a different story now. Rather than sell the training ground, the newly crowned Premier League champions have just persuaded Aon to part with £160m for the right to have their name attached to it and other assets, secretive and fortified though Carrington is. They have insisted that they will not seek to damage Old Trafford's name by seeking a sponsor for it.
It has been a bumpy ride for the Glazers but, with considerable brass neck, they have made it through the storms of protest which peaked when David Beckham draped a green and gold scarf around his neck after his Milan side lost 4-0 at Old Trafford and Eric Cantona was said to be "keeping an eye on developments," three years ago.
Must does have a voice – 18,000 season-ticket holders are among their 190,000 members. The Glazers are not loved. The pockets of animosity in Manchester meant that they could not celebrate the trophy success on Monday night with the fans, instead heading back to the United States. But there is a significant difference between that and outright insurrection. Winning has the habit of silencing a revolution and United have collected five titles and a Champions League in the seven years since the Glazers arrived. "There are still a small number of dissenters and they will always be there, and they have had long-held views which they are not going to change," chief executive David Gill told the Associated Press this week. "We respect those. But ultimately, someone has to own the club."
The protests certainly seemed unimpeachable in 2010. This was an owner who had lumbered the club with £550m in interest payments alone. United appeared to be sinking in debt. But having settled their extremely high interest "payment in kind" element of their borrowings – the sources used to do so still remain a mystery – the owners were able to press ahead with creating a commercial juggernaut. The raft of sponsorship deals secured from United's corporate base in their Mayfair offices has set them on course to break the €500m (£425m) annual revenue figure which Real Madrid became the first sports club to burst through, last year. Gill spoke in midweek about it being the "quality of the owners" that mattered and even since Monday's title win, the club have announced a new sponsorship agreement with gloops, Japan's leading social gaming company, and BIDV, Vietnam – the club's first financial services agreement in that country. United's total financial services agreements cover 256 million followers across 12 countries. Aon, Chevrolet and Nike take the headlines but these are the deals which mean the Glazers can afford to keep the Old Trafford name sacrosanct .
And then there has been the New York flotation. The club's shares were trading on the New York Stock Exchange above $17 (£11) yesterday after opening on the market at $14 in August. In part using the proceeds of their initial public offering (IPO), United have cut their debt in half in the past three years to £366.6m. Investors have warmed to the club thanks to the new sponsorship deals, an additional £40m flooding into the club's coffers through next season's new domestic TV deal and the new Financial Fair Play measures designed to curb costs in a notoriously spendthrift industry. The money has allowed Ferguson to take his breathtaking £24m gamble on Robin van Persie which has delivered. Such is the size of the obstacle that green and gold is competing with.
The managerial succession which will have to come eventually is the dark cloud and United are preparing. Gill said this week that Sir Alex Ferguson's successor will not be given the opportunity to change the make up of the squad. "The quality of the squad, the composition of that squad, means that any new manager coming in will inherit a great squad of players. And yes he may, whenever that is... clearly want to bring in one or two of his own people, new players. But he won't want to change the squad wholesale because he won't be our manager. We've got to be consistent with that and that's what we are planning on." But for now, Ferguson is going on and on.
One of the symbols of protest against everything the Glazers stand for are quietly maintaining their ascent through the football pyramid. FC United could be playing Stockport next season if they can break through the Evo-Stik Northern League play-offs into the Conference North and they've certainly got sticking power. But that goes for the Glazers, too. FC United are planning a new stadium at Moston. But United aren't going anywhere.
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