Britain's most hated couple to wed

The fans, as Manchester United showed when merchandising became king, are peripheral

Hunter Davies
Sunday 06 September 1998 23:02

IT'S MICHAEL Knighton I feel sorry for. Ten years ago, he set up a deal to get Manchester United for pounds 20m. It appeared to be in the bag. Martin Edwards had agreed. Mr Knighton even did a celebration kick- around at Old Trafford, scoring a goal in to an empty net, one of the images I will treasure in my mental archive of memorable moments in football, along with Vinnie grabbing Gazza's balls and that look of childish petulance on Beckham's face when he got sent off.

Then it all collapsed. Can't remember why . Probably because Mr Knighton did not have quite enough money and was going to throw in a few washers and his collection of football stickers.

But it's Mr Murdoch I'm puzzled by. What is he on?

At his age, why is he still determined on world domination? Is he scared to be alone with himself, escaping from something, lacking something, and not a just a wife. He's proved he can do it, hammered the opposition, so why keep doing the same old thing, all over again. Has he not thought of stamps or fretwork?

He is already the Most Hated Man in Britain, except of course in those sections of the media which he happens to own. Now he is buying the Most Hated Club in Britain. It's a brilliant double.

Well done Rupert. If you are going to be disliked, might as well do it properly.

And I wonder about Man United. The progression is logical, once they went helter-skelter in to marketing. It was about five years ago that they first reached the point when they were making more money from merchandising and stuff than through the turnstiles. It immediately turned the whole notion of a football club on its heads - making the people paying to watch the team , ie the supporters, less important than the people willing to pay for the name of the club, ie the sponsors.

I did a TV programme about it, J'Accuse, ridiculing this madness, this Alice in Wonderland situation, and got a load of hate mail from Man United fans.

This is now the result. Once making money from the name becomes the dominant activity, you might as well sell the whole product, and make the ultimate killing. Football clubs are now stock exchange listed, so greed for money wins. Is there any other reason why the Manchester United directors are selling out?

They do not need to. The club is an enormous success. It makes millions. And the team itself is currently excellent. There I said it. So no hate mail, please. They have the best collection of players in the UK. There is no one Man United could not buy, could not attract, if they really wanted to. So why sell out? How can the club be made better by this deal? It makes no sense except money sense.

The reasons for Mr Murdoch's interest make total sense - and are also based on greed.

He wants Man United to give him access, power and leverage in the TV global battles ahead. Sky executives go on all the time about their success being based on multi channels, offering choice, all of which is bollocks. The reason Sky has become such a success today is football. It's football wot's done it. The rest is window dressing.

I blame myself. I subscribe to Sky in London and in Lakeland, where I am at present, purely to watch the football. Which it does brilliantly.

I said it, there, so no hate mail from Sky. I have never, ever switched on any other Sky channel, except Sport. Or even watched any other sports, except football. I must be potty, Paying double, watching so little. Yet I am sure there are millions like me. It is football I worry about. We can do nothing about the new people arriving in football. For over a century, our clubs were run by local butchers and bakers, usually with family connections, who were in it for the local glory, not the money. Martin Edwards himself is part of that dying breed - a wholesale butcher at one time, whose shares originally came through his dad.

The next stage is for football to be run by investment groups or multi- national organisations, which see a top football club as part of their portfolio. And this is where the worry lies.

If football is a business, bought for purely business reasons, then by the same token, it will be sold for business reasons. When the shares drop, the accountants will say get out. When re- organisations or take- overs arrive, someone will say, "football is not our core business, let's get shot of it". When Murdoch dies, his empire is bound to be split up, sold off in job lots.

This might not necessarily be bad or good for football. Just the end of football, as we have known it...

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