Yesterday’s postponement of the game between Manchester United and Liverpool may have just seen the ninety minutes of football cancelled but the effects of events in and around Old Trafford were the culmination of more than 16 years ‘revolt’ against their American owners.
As fans stormed (to use the Sky News phrase) the Old Trafford pitch it was not so much a protest against the ill fated European Super League but a message that football fans have had enough of the way the game is run and it is time to stand up and save the game before it leaves us for ever?
Football has gradually (and then rather rapidly) slipped away from the game that many of us grew up with over the last 30 years of the Premier League era and for many of us it is now non-recognisable from the game that we all fell in love with. Yesterday afternoon I was writing an article to commemorate our 40th anniversary promotion at Preston and in it John Toshack talked about top flight players earning £1,000 per week. You now have players earning three or four hundred times that amount. The value of money has changed over the years but this isn’t just the impact of inflation, this is the impact of greed.
When Manchester United were purchased by the Glazers in 2005 they ceased to become a football club, they became a “brand”. It was a phrase that I have heard Swansea City referred to from our time in the Premier League and it sickens me. These teams are clubs, community clubs, clubs where fans have an affiliation that spans generations. Clubs where we feel an identity and belonging. These clubs are not big corporate brands who make football based decisions purely to increase commercial revenue. But that is what football has become and that was what Manchester United fans were standing against.
We can argue long and hard as to the rights and wrongs of the way that they protested and, of course, we wish those injured on the day a speedy and total recovery, but the announcement just a few short weeks ago about the European Super League has tipped them over the edge and yesterday is likely to just be the start. You can see scenes at Old Trafford being repeated everywhere (although the amusement of reading an Arsenal fan saying not to do it Thursday as it is a big match so save it for “just West Brom” was not lost in a sea of irony)
Manchester United were a debt-free organisation when they were on the stock market prior to the Glazers buying the club. The fans believe the Glazers should have used their own money.
That debt currently stands at £455.5m, according to the club’s latest accounts, which were released on 4 March, 2021. It is estimated that in general finance costs, interest and dividends, the Glazer takeover has cost United in excess of £1bn.
The Glazers introduced a commercial plan which was different to any other club. Other than the major deals with Adidas, Chevrolet and others, they sell on a regional basis across the globe, so they have telecoms partners in USA and Canada, another in Africa, another in China. They recognised United were popular and maximised the popularity.
It can however be argued, with some justification, that the Glazers are responsible for a significant proportion of United’s rise in income and what they take out is only a percentage of it.
Former England captain Alan Shearer was clear in his view that protests are acceptable, the way it was approached yesterday less so. “I understand the fans’ frustration and their anger,” Shearer told Match of the Day 2.
“Totally acceptable because of what has gone on in the last 10 days or two weeks with the European Super League.
“Football was nearly taken away from us as we known and as we have known it forever. I’m all for protesting but not like that, you can’t protest like that.
“We’ve seen other fans protesting at other football clubs because they’re not happy but when you get fans breaking into stadiums, hurting police officers, smashing glass to get into hospitality, that’s not the way to do it, it’s not acceptable.”
A Manchester United club statement added “Our fans are passionate about Manchester United, and we completely acknowledge the right to free expression and peaceful protest.
“However, we regret the disruption to the team and actions which put other fans, staff, and the police in danger. We thank the police for their support and will assist them in any subsequent investigations.”
The news pictures will make headlines not just around Europe but around all corners of the world as well. The day that the fans pushed back against the authorities and maybe we can hope the day that made a step towards football clubs coming back to the people who made them what they are in the first place.
What is not in dispute though is that the fans you saw yesterday – no matter what their individual actions were – had a passion for their club that was similar to the one we had in 2001 when we battled against Tony Petty. We may not have had the level of media coverage gained at Old Trafford yesterday but it was enough to make a difference. And for wanting to do that they should be commended.
The last 12 months have seen a lot of changes in the world and some things have definitely changed for the better. This could well be another one of those – a decision taken by greed may make football a different game in the process. And if it does then it will only be better for us as fans.
Finally we leave you with the words of MUST (Manchester United Supporters Trust) who issued a statement last evening that read “What we witnessed at Old Trafford today is the culmination of sixteen years since the Glazer family’s acquisition of the club. Over that period, the owners have taken £1bn out of the club and we have witnessed decay and decline both on the field and off it.
“Whilst the invasion of the stadium isn’t something we expected, and it is rumoured a gate was opened for fans, but even if that is not the case we believe the vast majority of Manchester United staff are sympathetic with the views of the fans.
“On the back of the indefensible ESL proposals, and an “apology” from the Glazers which we do not accept, we need to give fans a meaningful share in the ownership of United and a meaningful voice in how it is run.
“The Government now need to act. That has to mean a process which results in fans having the opportunity to buy shares in their club and more to the point no single private shareholder holding a majority ownership of our football clubs which allows them to abuse that ownership.
“The Government need to reflect the views of ordinary people who see that now is the time to reclaim the people’s game.”
Amen to that.