, July 23, 2021

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Manchester United fans can protest all they like, but PL protection ensures Glazers control their fate


  •   6 min reads
Manchester United protests
Fans turned out to Old Trafford on Sunday to protest the Glazer ownership. Tim Keeton/EPA.

The everyday fan has become increasingly accustomed to the idea that they bear a diminishing significance in the way soccer is run, not least of which in the Premier League.

England’s top flight has long been the model to follow in how to maximise profits, and those in power aren’t liable to step in and disrupt those who have helped usher in its most lucrative era.

Manchester United stand out as an even clearer example of a club run for profit following their prominent role in the ill-received European Super League. As was the case for each of the six ‘founder’ clubs originating from England, this served as the latest reminder that the plight of the fans and the concerns of those in charge are not in harmony.

That’s if such was ever the case for the Glazer family, who completed their purchase of United 16 years ago despite loud defiance from sections of their fan base at the time.

Protests reached a boiling point on Sunday when bubbling tensions led fans to lobby outside Old Trafford and the Lowry Hotel, where United’s players were preparing for their game against bitter rivals Liverpool. That fixture was at first delayed, then called off altogether after fans stormed the pitch at the Theatre of Dreams.

The break-in made headlines across the world, which United We Stand founder Andy Mitten regarded as a worthwhile outcome for fans who had gone too long feeling voiceless in their own club:

Those criticising the message will argue its delivery was too crude, but such is often the case when those in power chronically ignore the will of those that built the foundation for their ivory tower.

The issue for United’s fans—and those at other clubs who feel undermined—is that even after an event that garnered such widespread attention, nothing is liable to change.

How do you protest against an enemy sat some 7,000 miles away on a different continent? How do you force them to take notice? If the intended recipient doesn’t see your flares, read the banners nor heed your harsh words, did the protest happen at all?

Of course, that’s the kind of cynical view that seldom succeeds in eschewing change. But it’s in this reality that the Premier League has permitted club owners to operate and, unless a tangible threat to its eye-watering broadcast revenue arises, will continue to allow in future.

Sky Sports reporter Kaveh Solhekol recently dissected some of the financials behind the Glazers’ ownership of United, including a debt in the region of £500 million that hasn’t budged in more than 15 years:

The value of the Premier League’s broadcast rights rose eight percent to $12 billion (£9.2 billion) for the 2019-22 seasons, retaining its spot as soccer’s most lucrative domestic division. With a pie so vast, one can imagine why no owner would be in a hurry to sell their seat at the table and risk missing out on a slice, particularly as United return to greater prominence in England’s top flight.

That focus on the global significance of Manchester United the asset will override any feelings of fealty the Glazers may have towards Manchester United the football club, or its supporters. Suffering those few hundred fans or so that are willing to turn up in person will be considered a small price to pay if it means the rest of their legions worldwide are still happy to watch the team twice a week.

It’s in that regard that Sunday’s actions will have actually alarmed the owners, not for the protest itself, but what came after. The league fixture against Liverpool was postponed to a later date, the only bugbear being that any profits from that match won’t be stopped, merely delayed.

Even those who have enjoyed increasingly positive press in recent years were not safe from the judgement of fans who felt scorned in the wake of those breakaway plans.

Fenway Sports Group (FSG) had been hailed as heroes at Liverpool for helping the club back to the top of the European pile following their takeover in 2010. The Boston-based company was largely liked among supporters, who had looked past smaller grievances earlier in their ownership.

Forgiveness was harder to come by this time as FSG owner John W. Henry did as expected and issued a public apology for his part in the ESL cabal. But that wasn’t enough to convince The Athletic’s Simon Hughes of his innocence on this occasion:

The Premier League has since responded by introducing an owners’ charter, which commits those in power to “the core principles of the competition” that, in theory, will prevent future breakaway plans, per Sky Sports:

“The actions of a few clubs cannot be allowed to create such division and disruption.
“We are determined to establish the truth of what happened and hold those clubs accountable for their decisions and actions. We and The FA are pursuing these objectives quickly and appropriately, consulting with fans and Government.”

The fallout that followed the short-lived wasteland that was the European Super League did precipitate actual change at boardroom level. Executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward—the former J.P. Morgan banker who helped broker the unwanted Glazers’ takeover in 2005—was the sacrificial lamb after United announced he would leave the club at the end of 2021.

Former Red Devil Gary Neville, who has been a vocal critic of the ESL plans and those clubs who attempted to force them through, called for further changes to the United hierarchy and has since encouraged the Glazers to sell:

It’s been forecasted that a $5.5 billion (£4 billion) could be required if United were to ever change hands. Only a minute percentage of the population could assemble the means to even make an attempt at purchasing the club; who’s to say any of those would be any more agreeable than the current owners?

But even with so many voices from around the world echoing a similar sentiment, the Glazers paid for the right to run United as they like, as long as they fall within the proper guidelines.

If Europe had produced a comparable antithesis to the Bundesliga’s ‘50+1’ rule—a law preventing commercial entities from taking more than a 49-percent stake in any club—then it’s safe to say the Premier League is it.

Even with a new charter in place, the Glazers and those of a similar ilk will revel in the part they play in the English opera regardless of the team’s performance, comforted by dividends and steady annual reports. Investors from the United States—who are present on the boards of eight Premier League clubs—could have breathed a new brand of American inspiration into ‘The Beautiful Game’, but instead only the ugliest parts preside.

Talk of breakaway leagues and competitions exclusive to the elite will subside for the foreseeable future, but no club statement nor apology will satiate United’s supporters in their hope for revolution. A growing disconnect between the fans who helped form the foundations and those at the top means more actions like those on Sunday may be required before the message is truly heard.

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