James Lawton: Red Knights could take us back to a valiant age when owners cared about football

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The Independent Football

Let's hear it for the Red Knights of Manchester United. Let's hear it, at least, for their reassertion of something that was the lifeblood of English football, a passion and a caring not for creating cash cows, objects for various kinds of plunder, but something vital to the amusement and invigoration of a community.

No one is saying, or could ever say, that the ownership of English football has ever been expressed in much like a perfect form.

For so long the treatment of the players was nothing less than iniquitous. The behaviour of the old cabals of butchers and candlestick makers was often dominated by a combination of arrogance, ignorance and a desire for privilege, so much so that for many their contribution to the game was best summed up by the great talent and character Len Shackleton, who left a blank page of his autobiography under the chapter heading, "What the average director knows about football".

However, unlike the current owners of Manchester United and Liverpool and those who have presided, unchecked by the Premier League, over the ongoing disaster of Portsmouth, the old gangs of burghers and local business figures did acknowledge certain obligations.

One was not to imperil the future of their clubs by loading them with impossible debt. The other was to respond, not always with the required nerve and judgement, to the presence and loyalty of the fans and the key role they occupied.

If there is any worry at all about the motivation of the Red Knights, who claim they are moving into position to make the Glazer family an offer they will not be able to refuse, it is a theoretical one for most of the United fans at this point, if not the manager and creator of all the club's current strength, Sir Alex Ferguson.

However much Ferguson, who built up the club on the slender, now almost unbelievable, basis of a failed takeover bid worth just £13m 21 years ago, agonises privately over the potentially dire consequences of the Glazer policy of unbridled borrowing, he is the first to admit that the Americans have given him little or no grief in the matter of independent decision-making – although how long this can continue under the current financial structure has to be severely questioned.

But then why would the family who have hocked the club to its eyebrows, and in recent years galvanised their critics with heavy personal borrowing and receipt of management and administrative fees totalling a combined £20m from the accounts, interfere with the freedom of the man who has so brilliantly prevented their game plan from falling apart?

It might be a different matter if the Red Knights do emerge in shining armour. Victory, as they say, has a thousand fathers and defeat is an orphan. Yet this, Ferguson is probably right to reckon, is more likely to be the concern of a successor like Jose Mourinho or Martin O'Neill. In the meantime, no one can argue with the principle of the Red Knights that men of wealth who have a record of support, even devotion to the meaning of Manchester United, mythic right and proper persons indeed, should repossess the destiny of a great football club.

James Gibson, a local businessman, once did it without fanfare when he bailed out the club while it was on the brink of liquidation between the wars, signed Sir Matt Busby and provided the means to install his Busby Babes policy. If the Red Knights can indeed buy back the club and ensure its future they have every right to think of themselves as members of a fine, altruistic tradition.

All else would surely pale, at least for the foreseeable future, against such a massive infusion of financial integrity.

This certainly seemed to be rather further forward than the back of Ferguson's mind yesterday when he trod on the whole thrust of the United protest movement with some perhaps surprisingly careful footsteps.

He lashed out with routine venom at the call of one of the Red Knights' frontmen, former Football League chairman Keith Harris, for a boycott that would hit the Glazers in the pocket in a way not touched by the emotionally brilliant green-and-gold campaign, which reminds supporters of the club's Newton Heath origins – and has been so effectively launched this spring.

Elsewhere, though, he was much more guarded, even philosophical, and no doubt some will say that this is a reflection of the fact that opposition to the Glazers has become so much fiercer since the revelations that family members have been dipping into the cash flow.

"No," he said, "I've no problems with them [the Red Knights]. I don't mind people protesting. I went on an apprentices' strike [when working at the Govan shipyards] so protesting is not a problem for me. What would be an issue for me is if it went against the team's performance. But I don't think it will. I think we saw this on Sunday [at Wembley], the fans were fantastic against City in the semi-final at Old Trafford, the place will be rocking on Wednesday [against Milan], so I have no issue with it at all.

"When we became a plc, we were always going to be bought, I always felt that. If you're on the Stock Exchange you can be bought. That someone else is stalking the club is not a surprise. It's nothing to do with me. The fans are behind the players. It's straightforward."

Morally, of course, it is indeed as direct as a speeding arrow.

What the Red Knights are proposing do, in essence, is buy back a substantial part of English football. Vitally, they are doing it from a position of long-held affection for the club. They are not casually acquiring an asset or a fad – at least we have some reason to believe this – they are not disposing of some of the proceeds of oil or other mineral rights in foreign lands, they are not likely to run foul of human rights groups, they are not announcing any new or bogus allegiance.

They are doing what hasn't been done for so long, and least of all by the Premier League. They are attempting to claim back some of the best of the nation's football heritage. The Red Knights, on balance, are surely wearing the White Hats.

Team spirit need not be a casualty of feuding crossfire

At a time when the Independent's columnist Andy Cole made the astonishing admission that he has spent years 15 years smarting, to say at the least of it, over Teddy Sheringham's failure to display proper etiquette during a substitution, there is surely a new value to be placed on those footballers who are able to bury some inevitable animosities and get on with the job for which they are paid.

Cole and Sheringham managed this magnificently in the colours of Manchester United and Fabio Capello is still plainly dogged in his belief that we may just be able to say the same of Wayne Bridge and John Terry at the end of the World Cup.

No one can suggest that Bridge does not carry a far heavier burden of resentment than Cole, but in the end the principle is surely the same. The dwindling of boos directed at Terry during England's game with Egypt reminded us of an old truth: nothing is more guaranteed to earn remission than an outstanding performance on the field. It also underlined the soundness of Capello's approach to the Terry affair. As a captain he was plainly untenable; as a player, absolutely crucial to England's chances, no question.

Haskell row shows up the RFU

One overwhelming point emerges from the dispute between England and the French club Stade Français who pay the wages of James Haskell, one of the national team's few remaining authentic superstars.

It is that if presented by a choice between living in the real world and some worn out concept of their own self-importance, the RFU will unfailingly opt for another visit to la-la land.

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