Jason Nissé: Don't weep for Man Utd. They had it coming

It's not just because he's an Arsenal fan that our Business Editor has no sympathy with his Manchester rivals. Besides, history shows that Malcolm Glazer's coup might not be all bad news
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Last weekend Shareholders United - a group which says it represents Manchester United fans opposed to Malcolm Glazer's bid - tried to organise a boycott of United's match against West Bromwich Albion. Except that no one turned up. Or rather everyone turned up. The match at Old Trafford was a 67,000-seat sell-out.

Last weekend Shareholders United - a group which says it represents Manchester United fans opposed to Malcolm Glazer's bid - tried to organise a boycott of United's match against West Bromwich Albion. Except that no one turned up. Or rather everyone turned up. The match at Old Trafford was a 67,000-seat sell-out.

On Thursday evening, after Glazer bought the 28.7 per cent held by JP McManus and John Magnier, the Irish racehorse owners, that gave him control of the club, fans burned his effigy outside the ground, and some even set fire to their season ticket renewal forms. Nick Towle, the chairman of Shareholders United, angrily told reporters: "I won't be renewing my season ticket and I don't think other United fans will be either. It's not my football club anymore."

Well, I have a prediction for Nick Towle. At the first home game of next season, there will be 67,000 fans filling Old Trafford to capacity. The renewals that he and his friends are burning will be taken up by others on the long waiting list for United season tickets. And the replica shirts will be flying off the shelves in the United Superstore.

Mr Towle, I have news for you: it never was your club. The purchase of United by an American billionaire is the logical progression of a process that started more than 40 years ago when a Mancunian catering butcher called Louis Edwards gave United the money to rebuild the team after the 1958 Munich air disaster had killed many of the Busby Babes. Edwards, who made his money from contracts to supply schools in the days before Jamie Oliver put the mockers on turkey twizzlers, ruled United with an iron grip. But after his death, in 1980, his son Martin showed less interest in owning Britain's biggest football club. Having rejected a £10m bid from Robert Maxwell in 1985, Martin Edwards was all for accepting a £20m offer from Michael Knighton, a colourful entrepreneur, in 1990. Alas for Knighton, his backers pulled out, thereby failing to secure one of the bargains of the century.

Edwards, though, was determined to turn his United holding into money, and so in 1991 it became only the third British club to float on the Stock Exchange. The first was Tottenham Hotspur, which only a few months before had run into so much financial trouble it had to be bailed out by Maxwell; the other was Millwall.

The float turned United from a club into a business. Marketing, merchandising, sponsorship, corporate hospitality, TV deals, tours of Asia to drum up new fans, regular presentations to the City and an appreciating share price followed. Suddenly football was hot. Soon United was worth £200m. Then £400m. Then close on a £1bn. Britain's avaricious football club owners suddenly saw their chance to make money out of investments that, up until now, had given them only grief. Aston Villa, Newcastle United, Chelsea, Charlton, Leeds United, Southampton, Bolton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Birmingham City, Celtic, Heart of Midlothian, Nottingham Forest, Sheffield United, Swansea City and Preston North End were among the flood of clubs that crowded around the City like players around the referee after he's given a penalty.

Here I have to declare an interest. I support Arsenal, one of the handful of clubs (Liverpool and Rangers spring to mind) which could have gone to the stock market but, for whatever reason, didn't. Therefore I can smugly say than anyone who dances with the devil, sells his soul. Once United floated on the stock market, it was at the mercy of money men who have no loyalty but to the bottom line. In the UK we never went down the sporting club route, popular in Spain and Portugal, where the fans do own the club. Our clubs tend to pass from one wealthy businessman to another. United, as we well remember, was ready to sell out to Rupert Murdoch in 1999, but the competition authorities blocked it because of Murdoch's dominant interest in BSkyB, which televises the Premier League. In effect it has been on sale since it floated in 1991 - probably since Louis Edwards died in 1980. Malcolm Glazer just happens to be the first buyer to be able to complete the deal.

Not that it has been easy. United's board has acted like fans rather than representatives of shareholders. They have claimed that Glazer is borrowing too much - and so any takeover would threaten United's long-term stability. The prospect of Manchester United going the way of Leeds United - deep into debt and then into administration - wouldn't be welcomed even by Manchester City fans. But ultimately this is Glazer's worry. So long as the cash is on the table and shareholders cannot do better elsewhere, the law of the stock market applies. JP McManus and John Magnier would have held out for more if they thought more was available. Harry Dobson, the mining tycoon, and John De Mol, the Big Brother founder, both sold their stakes to Glazer.

Nick Towle and his friends say they feel betrayed. But are they not deluding themselves? Just because they buy the tickets, wear the shirts and watch the reserves playing on MUTV, that does not make United "their club", any more than shopping at Tesco makes it your supermarket. These fans would argue that they give their loyalty, indeed their unconditional love, to their clubs.

My relationship with Arsenal goes back longer than my relationship with anything or anyone else, apart from my immediate family. If you tell someone you are leaving your spouse, they might disapprove. If you say you are deserting your club for another, they will take you to task. And because we fans give our unconditional love to our clubs, we expect the same back. We think our heroes should show loyalty, and stay with the club come hell or high water.

Yet players like Rio Ferdinand may have only a few years at the top of their game, and why shouldn't they try and get the best money they can, even if it is an astonishing £120,000 a week? At work, we want our bosses to pay us as much as we are worth. Only our negotiations are not carried out on the back pages of the tabloids. If someone offers us a better job, we might accept. It is the same for footballers, however proprietorial we may feel about them.

The directors and shareholders in football clubs tend to get the worst of the fans' ire. If things go badly, fans call for the chairman to be sacked. If the club down the road buys a star player, fans demand the board gets out its chequebook to buy a better one.

For every Sir John Hall, Martin Edwards or Ken Bates who have made money out of football clubs, for every Roman Abramovich or Jack Walker who have bought success, there are 50 or 100 chairmen who have ploughed a large part of their life savings into their local clubs for little reward. If Malcolm Glazer wants to spend £790m buying Manchester United, fans should not attack him, they should welcome him. Or maybe even pity him.

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