The only reason to criticise United fans – other than those supporters who went overboard and partook in any violence – is that direct action like this is a decade-and-a-half too late. It is trite to draw too many parallels with the invasion of the Capitol building in Washington by Donald Trump supporters in January, but there is one thing both incursions have in common: The demonstrators had already lost.
The Glazer takeover of United in 2005 was one of the most significant defeats in the battle for the game’s soul. The new owners coming into the English game since the millennium have had a variety of motives. Roman Abramovich was not concerned with profit when he bought Chelsea. Abu Dhabi never intended to milk Manchester City of cash. The overall impact of these owners on the sport has arguably been negative, but for the clubs involved their investment brought lots of positives.
There has been no upside to the Glazers’ involvement in United. The reasons for the Florida-based family’s interest in United was revealed as soon as they loaded the debt they incurred in the transaction onto the club. Naked greed was their only rationale.
There was an outcry against the Glazers. Fans wore the colours of Newton Heath, the club’s first incarnation, and adopted the motto ‘green and gold until it’s sold’. A group of diehards styled themselves as the ‘Manchester Education Committee’ and adopted a paramilitary image by wearing balaclavas and issuing dark threats. It was embarrassing. Others saw the writing on the wall and founded FC United of Manchester.
The anger fizzled out as United won titles and a Champions League. The only constructive legacy of that time is the non-league breakaway team.
American investors in particular could smell the money around the undervalued Premier League in the 2000s. Tom Hicks and George Gillett used similar tactics to the Glazers at Liverpool by making the club responsible for the owners’ debt. Spirit of Shankly, the supporters’ union, harassed Hicks and Gillett, who lost control of Anfield after a vicious internal struggle. The fans deserved praise for their continued resistance to the pair, but the real reason Gillett and Hicks were prised out of the club was they ran out of money. The credit crunch of 2008 left them unable to service their debts but they knew football was a cash cow. They demanded £650million to sell Liverpool, a mind-boggling valuation 13 years ago. When questioned about the price, one of the Hicks family explained that, within a decade, television would be stumping up £200m per season to top clubs. That was a hilarious notion at the time. It turned out to be not far from the truth.
In that context, it was ironic last week to see Richard Scudamore, who led the Premier League for 19 years, say that the ‘big six’ clubs who signed up for The Super League should face “consequences”. Back when the controversy raged about leveraged buy-outs, Scudamore shrugged off the idea of any sort of regulation to stop owners buying clubs and placing the debt on them. When questioned at an informal lunch about how to keep carpet-baggers out of the Premier League, he averred that the market would sort itself out. It didn’t.
The Glazers are still draining money from United and plotting ways of increasing their take.
Like the majority of supporters, the then chief executive of the Premier League had his head in the ground in respect to the existential threat the game was facing. The consequences of inaction at all levels of the sport are being felt today, so no wonder the downtrodden are storming the palace.
This was the right game to disrupt. The domestic and international television audiences for the clash of north-west titans are the prime drivers of their owners’ sense of entitlement. This is English football’s biggest game of the season. Forcing its postponement will send a shockwave across the globe.
The default stance of those in power is to ignore the overall meaning of protests and focus on any small acts of violence and vandalism. The traditional image of football fans is one of nihilistic troublemakers who are portrayed as boozed up and brutal. Ignore the deflection. The majority of those involved at Old Trafford have real concerns about culture, community and identity. They want to protect an institution that should be part of the national heritage, not something that is a mere vehicle for profiteers.
This should be the catalyst for a new phase of fan activism. The lesson of the Glazer takeover is that supporters allowed themselves to be silenced too easily. Owners like United’s – and Liverpool’s – came to believe that the opinions of those who fill their stadiums and bank accounts do not matter.
The message of Old Trafford is that the people do have a voice. Football would be foolish to ignore it.