There will be a number of people reading this for whom the initial reaction at seeing The Glazers in the position that they occupy on this list will be one of surprise and, quite probably, anger. There have, after all, been few other football club owners in recent years – particularly in the Premier League – have inspired more vitriol or column inches than the family that acquired – it would be misleading to say ‘purchased’ – one of the world’s biggest clubs during the 2004/05 season. Yet in spite of all the money that they have taken out of the club over the years (and, we might point out, the fact that there is little order to this list below the top twenty), there sit Manchester United, atop the Premier League and comfortable in their Champions League group. Manchester United supporters – probably a majority, though such a statement is difficult to prove definitively either way – are incandescent at the money taken out of their club over the last few years or so, but the supporters of other Premier League clubs may occasionally breathe a sigh of relief at their ownership. Just stop to consider, for example, what the Premier League might look like had the Glazers not straddled the club with such an enormous debt and taken the amount of money out of it.
The Glazer Family, their take-over of Manchester United and the subsequent financial goings-on at Old Trafford should, perhaps, be viewed through the prism of being what happens when neo-liberalisms interaction with professional football reaches its logical conclusion. Put simply, the Glazers didn’t break any laws in their acquisition of Manchester United, and they have broken no laws in terms of their behaviour since then. What they did was opportunistic, for sure, and for those of us who consider all football clubs to be more than just another business it was also morally reprehensible. This of itself, however, doesn’t make them any better or worse than almost all other plutocrats. It’s not a matter of being nice and it’s not a matter of being nasty. It’s a matter of predatory, twenty-first century capitalist behaviour and Manchester United, as one of the very few genuinely profitable football clubs in England and one with a massive global fan base and a record of extraordinary success on the pitch over the previous ten years, was always prone to the sort of take-over which it fell victim to in 2004. To wish that it hadn’t happened and to wish that there had been another way for the club is not to excuse the moral aspect of their behaviour, though. We can acknowledge that capitalism of this nature exists in a moral vacuum which doesn’t have much room for the sentimentality of the football supporter other than to regard it as another income stream to be exploited without ever approving of it.
By the time that the Glazers took control of the club, Manchester United had already been the target of several near misses from a combination of plutocrats and tyre-kickers. Robert Maxwell in 1984, Michael Knighton in 1990 and Rupert Murdoch in 1998 had all expressed considerable interest in buying the club, with Murdochs bid only falling flat after an intervention by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission. The sense that the club would end up in private and completely unaccountable hands, however, lingered, and whilst the Glazer themselves watched on with the detached interest of the circling vultures. They had taken control of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers NFL team in 1995 and Avram Glazer, the son of the head of the family Malcolm, had a keen interest in getting involved in European club football. It took a little over two years for the family to slowly build its shareholding into something decisive.
Starting in February 2003, they bought shares slowly and painstakingly, but it would take a legal dispute elsewhere to grant them the opportunity to assume full control of the club, with shareholders JP McManus and John Magnier locked in a dispute with manager Alex Ferguson over over the ownership of stud rights to the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar the Glazers found themselves in a position in which they could build up their shareholding in the club. Within twelve months of starting to buy shares, they owned 16% of them, and in May 2005 they reached agreement with McManus and Magnier to increase their shareholding to a thoroughly decisive 57%. It all happened in a matter of days from here on. Four days after purchasing from McManus and Magnier, they increased their shareholding to 75%, which allowed them to de-list the company from the stock exchange. This duly followed five weeks later, and from there on the completion of this coup d’etat was a done deal. Little more than a month later, the Glazer Family owned every share in the club.
So far, so rapacious, we might think, but it was not necessarily the fact of the takeover that stuck in the craw with this story, but the financial sleight of hand that financed it. The Glazers method of buying the club was a leveraged buy out, whereby loans secured against the football club itself were used for the very purchase of the shares in the club that that they procured. Manchester United Football Club was paying for its own takeover. We haven’t seen this practice become widespread in English football because most clubs are not profitable enough for it to be able to make it work. The fact that this club had become such a financial juggernaut, however, meant that it could effectively pay for its own purchase and, moreover, since the club has been in their ownership plenty more money has leaked out of Old Trafford in consultancy fees and dividends. Again, nothing illegal has taken place. But something highly immoral has, repeatedly, and this certainly proved to be the straw that broke the camels back for those that broke away to form FC United of Manchester in 2004.
An element of myth has built up surrounding the formation of this club over the years. It is not quite true to say emphatically that FCUM was founded in protest at the Glazer takeover, rather that it was this takeover that proved to be the tipping point for a couple of thousand people for whom disillusionment had become a common currency in spite of the clubs continuing success on the pitch. There are as many different reasons behind why people started supporting this club as there are supporters. For some, the Premier League had become unaffordable. For others, the perpetual switching of kick-off times caused one too many disruptions. For more, the clubs acquiescence to the Murdoch deal and the two year long Glazer coup was plenty of proof that this was no longer their club or something that they could identify with.
For some, this transition was easy. For others, it was agonising. What they created, however, was something quite unique unique in English football – club that stood together in protest, with bloody mindedness and – frequently – good humour. There are many who still follow what has become known as ‘Big United.’ And while there is a unity amongst the clubs support that might even be perceived as an orthodoxy, there are no rules other than to enjoy the football, celebrate their club and run it by their rules, democratically and with principles. Indeed, it is possible to argue that they have had such a positive effect upon the game in this country that their existence in itself comes close to negating much of the negativity that the Glazers have engendered in English football since their cash-devouring arrival in 2003.
It was only ever a minority of Manchester United supporters, however, who completely severed their ties. Other protests, however, garnered greater support. The Manchester United Supporters Trust saw its membership swell to 120,000 people, whilst brilliant writers such as Andy Green took the cogent argument against the family to a new level, combining impassioned rhetoric with the dry and dismal numbers of what was happening to the club. In a purely visible sense, though, it was the Green & Gold campaign that grabbed the headlines. The protest was a simple one. Green and gold – the clubs colours during its formative years as Newton Heath – until the club gets sold. When coupled with the ‘Love United Hate Glazer’ motif that had become part of the shared culture of the clubs support, it was an instantly memorable protest. Mostly visible through coloured scarves at Old Trafford, though, the protest largely failed. Certainly, it raised consciousness of the financial predicament in which the club had found itself to higher levels, but the ultimate hard facts of the Glazer takeover remained unchanged.
They didn’t have to sell, and wearing a differently coloured scarf inside Old Trafford wasn’t going to hit the Glazers in the only place that they could understand pain – the pocket. Few doubted the morality or motives of those involved and it was suggested that waiting lists for season tickets did diminish away to next to nothing, but Old Trafford stayed at or near capacity throughout this period, as it does today. If those that had worn the green and gold scarves had stayed away from Old Trafford, perhaps they might have noticed. But they didn’t stay away, and the Glazers continued to count their money. With a similarly conspicuous lack of success came the Red Knights, a group of very wealthy supporters who sought to buy the club in 2010. Their bid to buy the club for £1bn failed because the Glazers valued it far higher than this. Again, the problem with seeking to dislodge the Glazers from Old Trafford was that the family has built up a fiefdom in its ownership and that the terms to persuade them to sell the club have to be on their terms and their terms alone.
There remain few at Old Trafford that will give the Glazers credit for a great deal of anything positive. The clubs commercial operations have been put into overdrive, whilst Alex Ferguson states that he has the money to buy players if he wants to. Indeed may even be that Ferguson is the single most important character in this entire story. It has been the success on the pitch that Ferguson has continued to bring the club which has taken the edge off the worst of the protests, but even the most successful manager in the clubs history has become a divisive figure to some extent. His comments during the summer that ‘real fans’ wouldn’t protest against the owners seemed odd coming from a former trade union shop steward, but it certainly clarified where he stands on the matter. The big question for the next five or ten years of Manchester Uniteds future may be that who succeeds a man who has brought unprecedented success to the club over the previous twenty-six years. If the Glazers get this decision right, further protest may well be stifled. If they get it wrong, though, the notion of discontent rising again seems far from inconceivable.
We can get caught up with the technicalities of PIK loans, last summers New York-based IPO offer and the other myriad aspects of this most modern of football finance stories, but to concentrate on the specifics of the Glazer family’s time in charge at Manchester United is to see the trees rather than the wood. The sale and management of this club has acted as a barometer in the most extreme of senses – hardly surprising, since Manchester United has over the last twenty years become such a full sensory overload of a club. To say that the Glazers’ behaviour over the last decade has been morally bankrupt is a given, but in this form of neoliberalism the overriding principle is clearly defined – to make more money. And that really is it. The club needs to continue to be successful because winning trophies is feed for a goose that continues to lay golden eggs for its owners on a daily basis, and whilst the Glazers are easy to criticise in many respects, they certainly aren’t stupid. For all of this, however, to give an impression of we can vindicate the family would be fundamentally fallacious. We can’t, but to seek to frame their behaviour in terms of a moral code (or, in this case, a lack thereof) shouldn’t be mistaken for this.
If the protests of supporters had relatively little effect – the FC United protest notwithstanding, of course – and those who owned the shares in the club seemed to have little interest in who they were selling to other than whether they got their money, where does the buck stop with regard to the Glazers and this being allowed to happen? The answer, of course, lays with the Premier League and the Football Association, who could have regulated against leveraged buy-outs prior to the Glazers playing the system in the way that they did. If this family was a symptom rather than the cause of the madness of the Premier League, then the cause was the lack of regulation that allowed them to happen to Manchester United. As we would later see in a broader financial sense with the banking crisis of 2008, when unrestrained neo-liberalism sinks its teeth into something that isn’t properly regulated, the results can be disastrous. Manchester United have avoided calamity because the club remains so profitable and, broadly speaking, successful. Supporters of the club may, however, long wonder what the last few might have been like had so much money not been taken out of the club over the last few years or so. It’s not a pattern that looks like changing any time soon.
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