Old Trafford, the Theatre of Dreams, has seen many iconic moments of footballing history. And yet, fans flooding onto the perfectly manicured pitch in protest against the clubs owners, the Glazer family, and the now defunct English Super League shocked many in the footballing world.
Hours before the largest fixture in English, and arguably European football, Manchester United vs Liverpool, fans congregated outside Manchester United’s home stadium. Spurred on by the fallout from the European Super League, United fans met to protest the ownership and governance of the club by the Glazer family, whose takeover 16 years ago was highly controversial at the time and has remained so ever since. Fans arrived wearing green and gold, the colours of United’s ancestral club, Newton Heath, and carried banners expressing their desire to see the introduction of the 50+1 model of governance in place in Germany, which sees fans hold a majority of shares and votes. Protests quickly progressed, however, from a largely peaceful demonstration outside Old Trafford and the team’s Salford hotel, the Lowry, to a storming of the stadium and, at times, violent confrontations with the police. Sunday’s fixture was eventually cancelled, and rearranged for 13th May.
The Glazer family took over Manchester United in June 2005, but in doing so unloaded over half a billion pounds of debt on the club. Over the next sixteen years, the Glazers drained over £1 billion from the club and have garnered criticism from fans for failing to invest their earnings back into United. Manchester United Public Limited Company (PLC), formerly fittingly registered at Manchester’s Sir Matt Busby Way, but now registered in the notorious tax haven, the Cayman Islands, pays the six children of the late former owner, American businessman Malcolm Glazer, a yearly dividend, amounting to nearly £100 million since it was introduced in 2015. Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, as revenues declined and the club made a loss of over £20 million, this dividend continued to be paid. Their business model at the takeover in 2005 also included disbanding the now-revived Manchester United Women’s Team, claiming it lacked profitability.
This financial model, of extracting revenue from the club, as opposed to investing and reinvesting, has drawn fans’ ire over the years. Speaking as Sunday’s fixture looked to be falling apart, former Liverpool player and Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness claimed that fans’ discontent was linked to the trophy drought of the post-Ferguson era and that the Glazers had become a “focus of their anger”, which was “slightly misdirected”. However, Souness is mistaken in that fans have been voicing their dissatisfaction with the ownership since the takeover and for the 16 years since. FC Manchester United was formed soon after the “Malcolm Glazer’s hostile takeover” of the club in 2005. It describes itself as a “not-for-profit community football club…owned and democratically run” and as “committed to delivering affordable football to as many people as possible”.
Attempts to express frustration within the club have been embodied by green and gold scarves, which have become synonymous with anger towards the owners. These scarves have been visible at Old Trafford since shortly after 2005, as part of a campaign coordinated by the Manchester United Supporters Trust, which represents and organises fans. Most notably, David Beckham donned a green and gold scarf, when returning to Old Trafford as an AC Milan player. In an image that has now become somewhat iconic, Beckham tapped into fan’s anger to make a powerful visual statement against the Glazers. The slogan ‘Love United, Hate Glazers’, along with the colours green and gold, have become symbolic in the footballing world: they are emblematic of a desire to return to the original principles and values that football was founded upon.
The dramatic protests ahead of the Liverpool fixture were merely the culmination of several years of deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the United ownership and governance of the club. Contrary to what Souness claims, staunch opposition to the Glazers has been constant since the trophy-laden era of Sir Alex Ferguson’s management, which concluded in 2013, through to the bumbling difficulties of the succeeding managers. Discontent with the Glazers and anger towards the governance of the club is not a new phenomenon.
In tandem with financial mismanagement and the proposals for the now failed European Super League, there has been enduring criticism that the Glazers and the ownership of the club have not engaged with fans. In a letter to fans in the aftermath of the fall of the ESL, Joel Glazer told fans that events had highlighted “the great passion which football generates, and the deep loyalty our fans have for this great club”. The issue for the past sixteen years, however, has been that the Glazers have treated fans and their “passion” flippantly and failed to meaningfully engage with them. Glazer promised that, in spite of the “raw” wounds, he was “personally committed to rebuilding trust with our fans”.
These words were clearly interpreted as empty and insincere, though, as several protests, including a storming of the United Carrington training ground complex and Sunday’s dramatic events, have continued to spotlight fan anger and discontent. Following the protests outside and inside of Old Trafford, Joel Glazer issued a second open letter attempting to engage with the Manchester United Trust (MUST) and their demands for a restructuring of the club. Glazer acknowledged “the need for change, with deeper consultation” with fans and claimed to “recognise the importance of fan and football interests being embedded in key decision-making processes at every level of the club”.
But, based in sunny Florida, the Glazers and their world could not be further removed from the realities of the situation in Manchester. Unlike many more ‘modern’ club owners, the Glazers are very rarely seen at Old Trafford supporting the team and, as such, are interpreted as alien to Manchester, Mancunians and Manchester United fans. We must remember that football and football clubs are often more than mere sporting teams, but are widely perceived as cultural and community institutions, having huge importance to the local area and region. Manchester United’s success has transformed a somewhat rainy post-industrial northern city into a global tourist attraction, a world-renowned hub of football and competitive sport. Within and outside of Manchester itself, football is one of the things most associated with the city. This is a legacy that many Mancs are incredibly proud of, but one that the Glazers have undeniably ignored and failed to engage with in the sixteen years since they took over one of Manchester’s most important institutions.
But we should also remember that Manchester United fans’ protests and demands go beyond Glazer, the controversial now-outgoing Executive Chairman, Ed Woodward, and the ownership of the club. They are aimed at fundamental change in the very fabric of modern football and the manner in which football clubs operate at every level. The 50+1 demands do not simply entail the Glazers cooperating with fans, but them transferring the majority of decision-making power to supporters, empowering the people whose love of the game drives the football world. This would represent immense change in English football, far beyond just Manchester United, and would go some way to reversing the relentless commercialisation and gentrification of the game that has taken place over recent years. Embedding fans in every level of the game and in every level of clubs would significantly reshape the power dynamics of English football. Recently, for example, Chelsea FC have moved to do so in the past few weeks with the announcement that there will be a supporter presence at every board meeting. 50+1 would re-empower fans to an extent not seen since the inception of organised football in the second half of the 19th century. This would reinvigorate football clubs and their importance as centres of community and culture.
The protests at Old Trafford, which halted the footballing world’s biggest and most historic fixture, are a sign that beyond just Manchester, English football needs to re-evaluate itself. Discontent with the Glazers is nothing new, but the perception that things are at breaking point and cannot continue in this manner any longer has grown over the past few years and months. Whether the Glazers will finally yield to fan opinion and engage with Manchester and the club’s significance remains to be seen, but what is certain is that Manchester United, and indeed English football, are at a cross-roads. With fans demanding radical, fundamental change, the storming of Old Trafford is a sign that fans cannot and will not be ignored; the club’s ownership can no longer look away.
Image credit: Little Savage / CC BY-SA 4.0