Be careful what you wish for. I’ve heard that a few times recently amid brief euphoria, since the Glazers announced they’d be prepared to sell after 17 years of dividends and division. It made me think: what would the perfect ownership model of Manchester United look like? And then made me wonder whether those idealistic dreams will ever happen.
United went public in 1991 and we fans had our chance. And missed it. The club was valued at £38 million but times were different and fans couldn’t come close to buying enough shares to prevent the issue being underwritten. Hindsight, eh?
Is there such a thing as a fan-owned utopia? I’m not convinced there is. I used to admire FC Barcelona’s ownership model from afar, then I saw the reality. “Fan” presidents get voted in on promises they can’t keep, then leave a mess for the next president. Fans are compliant and ask few questions when the team is winning, then hit the streets when it’s not. And that’s just in the real world. Online most clubs are a toxic, divided mess.
But fans can play a part, a major part. Watching the takeover of Newcastle United last year, I was struck by one comment: “They’re happy for absolutely any state or despot to own their club if it means one League Cup.” There’s some truth to that; their soul was for sale out of desperation. It shouldn’t be like that, but it is.
There will be Manchester United fans who’ve been critical of the sportswashing and stateinfluenced ownership at Newcastle, city or PSG, yet who would accept exactly the same if it meant having a trophy-winning football team again. Football makes hypocrites of us all, yet we shouldn’t underestimate fan influence.
United fans care far more about the long-term future of the club than anyone. United fans are in it for life. Our support is virtually unconditional and Old Trafford is full every week, yet it shouldn’t be unconditional. Whoever takes over must have a far better relationship with fans than the Glazers. Fans must have a meaningful stake in the club, but United’s fanbase is vast. Within that, you have some who wouldn’t be happy if the team won the treble. Even the match-going fanbase is divided and disparate. It’s certainly not United like it was when people had to show their actual faces in 2005.
We have to be realistic. Nobody is going to pay $5 billion and then let someone else make key decisions. The idealism of 50+1 is just that. English football suffers from the weak governance which allowed the Glazer takeover to happen in the first place — a legal heist if there ever was one. Vultures can and do prey. There will be a lot to unpick if, as expected, there is substantial interest in buying Manchester United.
The suitors need to be studied. They have to sell their ideas to the fanbase, not just grab and take over in the hostile manner of the Glazers where supporter feeling was ignored and brushed aside. Even then, it can quickly go wrong — look at Chelsea. European champions only last year, they’re eighth after sacking what worked for them and replacing it with what worked for Brighton. And look what happened closer to home with poor recruitment.
Suitors will make headlines. Just because a former player is a front shouldn’t make a deal more palatable either. Ferguson backed the Glazers, remember. But those in charge of clubs can do a competent job and be respected by those who pay their wages. In April, I saw a crowd around the president of Eintracht Frankfurt outside a stadium. It was explained to me that he was well respected by most fans— but then he’s directly elected by the membership.
In recently researching an article on Eric Cantona signing 30 years ago I came across notes from United’s first AGM in 1992. Chairman Martin Edwards was asked if he mixed with fans to gauge opinions and said that he didn’t as he considered it too dangerous.
It’s in the interests of whoever buys United to have a positive relationship with fans, who should be consulted and properly communicated with. It’s not a million years since Ferguson et al would be regulars at a pub in Stretford to talk to fans. It wasn’t made public, it wasn’t commercial, it worked.
The Glazers have set a low bar on ownership, and whoever follows must do much better. But while football must come first, it should go beyond promising to spend a lot of money on a load of bigname footballers. There’s a responsibility which comes with being a custodian of Manchester United, one which has been diminished for too long.
Enjoy this issue, Andy Editor
FEATURES 11 Eric
16 Be Careful What You Wish For 22 UWS Interview Part Two: John Murtough 24 MUFC Women: The Fan Culture
26 From Marseille to San Sebastian: Real Sociedad Away 34 Tactics: Our man goes historical and looks at 2008
38 This May Be the Last Time: Luke Chadwick
40 We’ll Meet for the First Time: Real Betis
REGULARS 04-07 manUvia 08-10 Guttersnipe 13 Jim White 29 Keith Dewhurst 42 GAWI