The Champions League match between Manchester United and Milan had been punctuated by what are now starting to become familiar images. The green and gold gold scarves and the “Love United Hate Glazer” flags are starting to feel like part of the furniture at Old Trafford, but the question that was on many people’s lips could probably best be summarised by a four letter acronym: WWDD? Beckham’s appearance on the pitch had been greeted with, in rapid succession, cheers, boos and laughter and, while he didn’t disgrace himelf on the pitch, his presence on the pitch was in itself a sign of the times – a practical demonstration of the gulf in quality between Manchester United and Milan. Some people have talked of the end of the Premier League’s hegemony in the Champions League his season, but the difference between Manchester United and Milan on Wednesday night was clear. Milan, to put it simply, had players that were too old or too average.
At full-time, Beckham left the pitch and a green and gold scarf was thrown towards him. Perhaps predictably (and to the delight of a large proportion of the crowd), he put it around his neck. If they were hoping that he would come out in public as an opponent of the Glazers or, as some had hoped, as an investor in the Red Knights consortium, it was to be a disappointing evening. Beckham’s post-match interview studiously avoided rocking the boat too much and he was never going to put himself in a position that placed him anywhere other than firmly in the middle ground. Yeah, he said, he was a fan of the club, and of course it was a shame to see it tearing itself apart, but it was not the moment that some in the anti-Glazer group had hoped. David Beckham, who has spent much of the last decade and a half cultivating a public persona that could easily be interpreted as “all things to all people”, wouldn’t nail his colours to any mast unless those colours were neutral. David Beckham, personality-wise, has always been the football equivalent of magnoils.
The other telling image of the evening was Avram Glazer, laughing as the chants against he and his family got louder and louder. Maybe it was an act of bravado. Maybe it was an open act of contempt aimed at those that are so vocally attacking him and his family at the moment. The effect was strangely chilling. The Glazers, the message read loud and clear, aren’t going anywhere. And this is the problem for the green and gold protests. The Glazers may have a moral responsibility to leave the club, but they had no moral reasons for buying the club in the first place. The issue of whether they should leave the club or not is already a redundant one. We already know that they should. There is nothing illegal about what they are doing at Old Trafford, either. Perhaps there should be some sort of laws against cultural vandalism, but that is a different matter. It’s the fundamental weakness in the green and gold process. The Glazers won’t go anywhere unless they want to, and they don’t have to either. There are no shareholders to please other than themselves, and, if they want to strip the cupboard bare on the way out, then no-one can stop them from doing that, either.
The symbolic phase of the anti-Glazer protests, then, has done its job. There can be few people left that don’t understand at all why Manchester United supporters are protesting against the Glazer family’s of the club, and it seems pretty clear that there are very few Manchester United supporters that are prepared, for now, to take the next step and boycott Old Trafford before the end of this season. A boycott would be more effective. The Glazers aren’t at the club for the love of Manchester United. They’re there for the money. There is more of a chance of flushing them out through hitting them in the pocket, but this doesn’t appear to be happening to any significant extent yet. It is, therefore, not unreasonable to say that the wearing of green and gold scarves is little more than a fashion. The real test for Manchester United supporters will come at the end of this season, when season tickets for next season go on sale. That will be the tipping point for any protest against the club. People can arguably be forgiven for not giving up season tickets that they have already paid for, but if they buy them for next season they will be propping up the Glazer family in their continuing presence at Old Trafford, and this uncomfortable truth will cause a large number of people a degree of anguish over the course of the close season. It has never been suggested that such a decision was going to be an easy one to make.
In many respects, David Beckham mirrors the support that cheered him on Wednesday night. Wearing a scarf is easy. Saying that you are not going to renew your season ticket is easy. Actually making that decision when push comes to shove is considerably less so and, while Beckham can walk away from Old Trafford and back to Milan, confident that he has been successful in his goal of being all things to all men, for the ordinary supporters of Manchester United, it’s not quite as straightforward. They are stuck with Manchester United for life, whether they want to be or not. The question now is this: will they have the resolve to take the action that may just have a chance of removing the Glazer family by hitting them where it hurts and not renewing their season tickets in the summer. One hundred and thirty thousand members of the Manchester United Supporters Trust and Old Trafford awash with green and gold is one thing, but these on their own will not get rid of them.