‘They’re desperate to avoid another protest’: What now for Manchester United and the Glazers?

The Red Devils welcome Liverpool this evening in the rearranged fixture which, Miguel Delaney explains, has started to leave the American owners genuinely concerned about the future of their reign

Thursday 13 May 2021 12:53
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Fans are seen protesting Manchester United’s Glazer ownership outside Old Trafford
Fans are seen protesting Manchester United’s Glazer ownership outside Old Trafford

The Glazers are genuinely concerned about what will happen at Old Trafford on Thursday night. Several sources say that the Manchester United owners are “desperate” to “avoid another protest”.

Anyone that doubts the effectiveness of the last demonstrations need only consider the tangible changes they have caused. They go way beyond the initial postponement of this very match against Liverpool, which was only the start.

The Glazers, having barely said a word in public for over 15 years, made a second statement in the space of two weeks. People close to discussions meanwhile insist key sponsors brought the protests up with club officials. The private view has also changed. During the protests of 2005 and 2010, the Glazers’ attitude was that “it will go away”. Now, it’s very much "what can be done to make it all go away".

Figures around the club are even talking of a big summer signing, with £150million-plus Harry Kane among those mooted, as a quick way to kill most dissent. That would mark maybe the biggest change of all, since some sources say that the talk among the Big Six’s American owners was that this would be a very suppressed summer market for them. Such realities were among the driving forces of the Super League, that has re-awakened so much rancour among the United fanbase.

“They really don’t want another protest,” one figure from the top of English football says. “They think it will happen, though, and know that targeting Liverpool games, now and in the future, is a big thing.”

The end of the season can’t come soon enough for the Glazers. Whether the end of the Glazers’ ownership will come any time soon is the pertinent question. It suddenly isn’t fanciful or idealistic, which is another drastic change in this situation.

It is also an issue that goes way beyond United. The biggest club in England merely amplify one of the biggest issues in football.

While everyone naturally finds pictures of injured police officers distasteful, there has been a wider dismissal of otherwise peaceful protests as “hooliganism” or spoiled fans lashing out.

It is none of those things, nor is it about “net spend”, transfers or trophies. It goes much deeper, and thereby concerns the whole game. It is about the use and role of the social institutions that football affords us.

Given some of the debate, and the comments of pundits like Graeme Souness, it is worth laying out exactly why this is so problematic.

The 2005 takeover remains one of the most inexplicably reckless moments of sporting regulation in modern history. A secure - let alone highly profitable - community asset was just allowed to be bought up by owners whose sole concern was their own financial growth, with that asset itself used as collateral. It is simply staggering there was no protection against this.

It is even worse that there remains no protection. It was only last year that Burnley were purchased with a similar leveraged buy-out, another club left to the pot luck of the intentions of the owners.

It is why the Glazer takeover was the absolute touchstone moment for the type of hypercapitalism that football has been abandoned to, and that has started to erode the very fabric of the game, while directly creating the crisis of the Super League.

This is what happens when you just let anyone in, based solely on their financial plan. In the case of United, it has meant the main “purpose” of the club is no longer just to play football as a representation of the community. It is to make money for one family business, which is why one source likened the Glazer family’s move to a great heist.

“It’s not just that,” adds Andy Walsh, who was an activist with the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association at the time of the initial takeover. “It has been endorsed by the regulators and legislators.”

There are any number of figures and facts you can repeat to reflect why this ownership is bad for United. There’s the £200m the Glazers have personally received from the club since the takeover, or the £1.5bn the ownership has cost United in interest and debt. All of this while so little has been spent on the infrastructure of the club.

One of the key issues at hand, Walsh believes, is that the Glazers are in some respects absentee owners.

In response to the claim of “absenteeism”, it should be pointed out Joel and Avram Glazer are closely involved in club leadership, with the former spending eight hours a day on the club as a full-time job. They would also say debts are sustainable and consistent with the ‘virtuous circle’ model which has facilitated investment in the team, kept prices low, and ensured the club is in a much better financial position than in 205.

What the Super League crisis really articulated, though, was the danger of just leaving clubs to owners without any other input in key decision-making.

It is the greatest warning yet that English football requires drastic regulation, and why the United protests are so important for everyone else. They maintain momentum, and the spirit of reform when it is usually so easy for all this to dissipate.

The next time might be too late.

All of this after all comes amid greater dynamics above the game. Almost inspired by the Glazers, figures with similar philosophies are eyeing clubs, but also the very fabric of football. The last few years have seen a number of special purpose acquisition funds set up in the USA and Europe specifically looking at “sports opportunities”.

“There are macro-economic and political forces at play here that are largely being obscured,” Walsh, who now works with the Football Supporters Association, says. “It is important supporters educate themselves about what is being done to our game. We’ve got an economy now where what you might characterise as a ‘rentier class’ have assets and just rent them to the rest of us. That’s been a deliberate policy of government for most of my lifetime. That’s what is happening in football. The world billionaire class have seen a 20 per cent increase in wealth over the pandemic. Many are now looking at sport for opportunities to invest that money. Then you’ve got nation states seeing the world turning against oil, so looking for ways to maintain their economic influence and soft power.”

Supporters protest against Manchester United's owners

The story of the United protests is really about whether everyday supporters can have any effect against these wider forces. It is also why Arsenal supporters should be looking on with interest. The real question is whether the Glazers’ “concern” can be converted into change.

Virtually everyone says they are worried by the situation. They realise this has been an escalation in protest by fans, who also have some powerful figures behind them. There was irritation at how Avram Glazer was doorstepped by Sky News. They know there isn’t the security of Sir Alex Ferguson, who brought a series of guarantees. The Glazers are paying particular attention to sponsors, having already seen one £200m deal with The Hut Group collapse amid growing supporter boycotts.

“That’s the only way to really make them uncomfortable,” one figure involved at the top of the football industry says. “You could see it with the Super League. Sponsors are where it happens. It affects the bottom line, so it’s the only way to make these stories move.”

Whether it makes the Glazers move on from United is an even more difficult question. The Independent canvassed a number of industry figures on that, and the view was very mixed. On one side, a number believe that the Glazers are now prepared to “cash in”, that they’ll sell for the right offer.

Connected to that is the current value of the club, and the potential value. Many sources had long seen the Glazers’ “end game” as a Super League, or a drastic change in broadcast rights - such as streaming, or clubs selling individual deals - that would have allowed them to increase the value of the club by up to two or three times the revenue at the stroke of a pen.

Those avenues are now closed off, with the threat of the Super League crucially going with the Super League itself, meaning clubs like United just don’t have the same leverage in discussions over broadcasting rights. There is also the question of who could afford the club, that is valued at £3bn by Forbes. It is really only nation states - which would bring a host of problems of its own - or someone like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

The Glazers are analysing the lie of the land to see what next, although the fall-out within the game’s power structures could be instructive. Uefa are in discussions with Centricus Asset Management over a £5bn finance package to overhaul the top of the game - illustrating the influence of these acquisition funds - while Fifa still plans a highly lucrative Club World Cup.

Even before you get to that, the money is still rolling in. That is why sources believe concern about the sponsors only goes so far - and not to any kind of exit. It isn’t so much worry about the financial plan collapsing but what has always concerned the Glazers - the pennies, and minimal differences to the bottom line.

As an illustration, one reason United are said to be so slow on transfers is because every minute detail has to go through the hierarchy and get signed off.

The Glazer family are thought to be concerned after recent protests

“All this stuff about lobbying sponsors, it's good but it's difficult to sustain," Walsh says. "We did all that in 2005 and the Glazers sat tight. They’ll sit tight now, because the money still just comes to them.”

This is why, on the other side, many insist there’s “no chance” they’ll sell.

“It’s like the Kroenkes with Arsenal,” one source says. “It’s an unbelievable asset. Even with minimal investment, it’s perfectly positioned to do well in the sport. Why wouldn’t you sit on that for a long time?”

The club’s own stance is that they are engaged, committed long-term owners who are attuned to “the United way”.

This brings the question of whether the shifts in approach are genuine changes, or just superficial and belated attempts to suppress protest.

“Instead of a letter promising further communication, why didn’t Joel Glazer hold an immediate zoom call with those fans forum members,” Walsh asks. “They’re already appointed by the club.”

United would insist that the letter marks an acceleration of improved engagement between the club and the Fans Forum, and engagement with the government-initiated fan-led review. They would point out how season tickets have been frozen for 10 years, and that they are set to subsidise the club trip to Gdansk for the Europa League final. Joel Glazer is similarly set to attend a meeting with the Fans Forum and discuss all points raised in the letter, from investment in Old Trafford to the fan share ownership mechanism.

There is some skepticism at that from supporters. If they are A shares, the argument goes, they only involve one vote and don’t actually give supporters any influence, but do serve the owners at a time when the club’s share price has fallen. The situation might play to them in a different way.

If the Glazers can’t be forced out, though, there is the possibility they can be finessed out. The game’s biggest clubs - including United - restructured football through a series of gradual changes, and it is possible supporters can do the same in the opposite direction. This is why the fan-led review can be so important.

If even initial reforms see clubs ringfenced as social institutions - like “listed buildings”, to quote a few figures involved - it can mean core issues like the colour of the shirt, the badge and what competitions you play in require supporter approval.

If that is the case, it immediately mitigates the power of the most free-market owners to do as they please. That can start to have a gradual effect, that paves the way for greater shifts over the next 30 years.

Simple checks can start to lead to far-reaching changes. A roadmap can be set out and maybe the ultimate goal, fan ownership of the club?

The Independent has been told that sporting authorities are set to review papers that would allow for the creation of investment funds to enable supporters to purchase clubs should owners wish to sell or if there is a crisis. A consortium could come in and borrow money from a body like that, and then repay it over the years of ownership.

For now, all that is idealism, but with a touch more realism than a few weeks ago. That is what the protests have started. The story is a long way from ending. Everyone is watching on for what happens next on Thursday - most of all the Glazers.

The club would appeal for a “period of calm” to allow the next steps to develop. Many fans, not for the first time, want the opposite.

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