It was one of the stranger sights of the season, for sure. During the League Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Manchester City on Wednesday night, a large number of (what to the untrained eye may have appeared to have been) Norwich City supporters seemed to have infiltrated Old Trafford and were sitting in their seats, cheering on Alex Ferguson’s team. It was, of course, nothing of the sort. Those wearing green and gold scarves were showing their distaste at the Glazer family’s control of Manchester United and the club’s proposed bond issue. Green and gold – the colours of the original Newton Heath Football Club that changed its name to Manchester United – have been designated those of this protest. Some, however, are calling into question what the protest means and what it hopes to achieve, especially when the thousands wearing the scarves on Wednesday night were quite obviously and notably inside Old Trafford, having spent a large amount of money on tickets – money that will, ultimately, keep the Glazers at Old Trafford.
For a number of former Manchester United supporters, the club is lost and has been for some time. Whilst it is perhaps unfruitful to get involved in debates that run along the lines of, “Where were you lot in 2005, when all of this was going through?”, it is certainly worth asking the question of what this protest hopes to achieve. The first thing that the Glazers did when they took control of Manchester United was to delist it from the stock market. Having played its rules to take control of the club, they weren’t prepared to subject themselves to the scrutiny of being publically listed. As such, the club is now completely prone to the whims of the owners and, so long as they don’t break the law, there is nothing that anybody can do about it. Those that left to start FC United of Manchester were frequently decried as “splitters” or “Judases”. It seems unlikely that many FCUM supporters will take pleasure in having been right about the Glazers’ intentions, but this is only part of the story behind the breakaway club.
Whilst the Glazer take-over of Manchester United was the deciding factor for many, the formation of FCUM was also about a feeling of wider malaise with “big” football. A lack of affordable tickets, an increasing lack of atmosphere at matches, the constant manouvering of kick-off times to suit television companies and the more or less constant selling of the very soul of the game to whomever would put up the most money for the (often dubious) privilege were also factors that informed people to make the break and form a club that would make its own rules and make an ultimate decision that was obviously one of the most heart-wrenching that any football supporter could ever have to make. Most still feel an allegiance to Manchester United, but many will never return to Old Trafford. Over the intervening years, they have forged a unique identity which is likely to be cemented with the construction of their own ground.
There is nothing wrong with protesting at Old Trafford, and it is encouraging to see that the status quo of the current ownership model of football clubs in England is finally starting to be questioned. However, the question of what the green and gold campaign hopes to achieve remains. It seems highly unlikely that the actions of the supporters on Wednesday night will have any affect on those running the club, especially when those supporters are still paying the money that keeps the Glazers at Old Trafford. If the news over the last couple of weeks has taught us nothing else, it has taught us that they are at the club for money, and money alone. Those behind the protests argue that the green and gold protest is merely to bring supporters together under one banner, but if the protests are to step up, they will require less and less convenient action. It’s one thing to wear a green and gold scarf but act in every other way as you would at a match. It’s quite another to vocalise a protest at Old Trafford, risk being banned from the ground or having your season ticket confiscated or boycott the club altogether.
The suspicion remains that it may be too late to protest at Old Trafford. The cost is likely to be too high for supporters groups to be able to buy the club, and the amount of money required to lever the club away from the Glazers would deter the majority of potential buyers even if it wasn’t leaking money from every orifice. There is also no guarantee – far from it – that, no matter how bad the Glazers are (and let’s not forget that they are terrible for the club), new owners would be any less voracious than they. The argument that those protesting now should have been protesting in 2005 may have an element of one-up-man-ship about it, but it doesn’t, in all honesty, make it any less valid. Still, though, the message is getting through. One of the starkest messages to be seen on the television on Wednesday night was the advertisement hoardings around the ground for the availability of tickets for their upcoming match against Portsmouth. Manchester United, one of the best-supported football clubs in the world, can no longer guarantee a sell out at Old Trafford for a Premier League match.
Meanwhile, a short hop on the tram away from Old Trafford at Gigg Lane, the protest that started in 2005 continues apace and has taken a sentience of its own that transcends the Glazer family, bond issues or losing at home to Leeds United in the FA Cup. Should the people protesting at Old Trafford on Wednesday night wish to extend their protest further, there will be plenty of space for them at Gigg Lane for the next FCUM home match. Or, to put it another way, the protest has already started and they are invited. However, human nature and the rapt nature of the majority of football supporters means that this is unlikely to happen, and also that protests that involve more than wearing a scarf to matches are likely to see a reduction in the number of people taking part. This isn’t a criticism of Manchester United supporters. It’s a criticism of football supporters in a more general sense. Most of us put up with too much, and most of us have put up with it for too long. FC United supporters, though, are at making their voices heard and the fact that their club, which many said would never work, is still here after this amount of time, is the most potent sign of protest, not only against the Glazers, but also of so many other things that are wrong with English football.