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Glazer's death a reminder of United's recent history

Andy Mitten
May 31, 2014
United future secure despite death of Malcolm Glazer

In July 2010, Manchester United were the opponents for the MLS All-Stars in Houston.

Javier Hernandez made his debut that night in front of a crowd of 70,728 but, before he did, an announcement was made in the press box that the MLS commissioner Don Garber would be fielding questions at half-time.

I joined about 30 other journalists and asked Garber for his view of the Glazer family who own United, specifically his opinion of the protests against them in Manchester.

The early part of 2010 frequently saw green and gold scarves at Old Trafford © Getty Images
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Earlier that year, Old Trafford had been awash with green and gold protest scarves - a nod to the colours worn in the club's early days when it was known as Newton Heath - following the announcement of the Glazers' intention to refinance a debt of £716 million.

Garber's reply - that Glazers are great owners doing a great job - was picked up by many newspapers around the world. As I walked away, I was approached by several American journalists who were equally dismissive of the supporter disquiet in northern England. The cultural difference was significant. They couldn't understand why United fans were unhappy when the team was still so successful.

In America, news of Malcolm Glazer's death was greeted with sadness and warm tributes were paid to the 85-year-old.

United also issued a simple, respectful, statement, yet he was a deeply unpopular figure among the club's match-going support.

To dissenting eyes, the Glazers are hawks who borrowed money to buy the club, then burdened it with huge debts: $1 billion (£596m) in interest and associated financial costs has been paid out since the takeover. Trophies won since 2005 have done little to pacify.

Unlike many football clubs, United didn't need a saviour, nor to be taken over in a highly leveraged buy out. United were already hugely successful, but the Glazers were smart enough to see and exploit a business opportunity, Furthermore, legislation allowed them to do so. Football is high on sentiment and emotion, but this was purely a business transaction carried out by people with no apparent previous affinity for the club.

Glazer's death will have minimal effect on the club. He was not involved in day-to-day business, leaving it primarily to three of his six children. He never visited Manchester and even when his family do so now, they use bodyguards. They wouldn't feel comfortable announcing that they are in the city and usually stay in London.

They do no interviews about United and claim to have have no interest in selling the 90 percent of the club they own (the other 10 percent is listed on the New York Stock Exchange).

Back in 2004, I interviewed the club's chief executive David Gill, who said "we genuinely don't know" when asked if he thought United would be subjected to a takeover bid.

Malcolm Glazer died at the age of 85 earlier this week © Getty Images
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Of Glazer and his family, he said: "We've had a very good dialogue. We don't see them as a threat. Malcolm and his sons clearly understand sport. His sons in particular have studied the soccer business and understand the economics and how it is regulated.

"Ultimately we don't know their intentions. We've asked them, but they are not going to tell us until they know themselves."

When the takeover did come, fans were outraged. Outsiders were going to borrow on a 127-year-old institution and get fans who'd helped make it what it was to service those loans. Legally.

Despite growing objections from supporters, which included protest marches and vitriolic songs, the family completed the takeover in May 2005.

United's hardcore fanbase was deeply split by the fallout. It was the tipping point of dissatisfaction about commercialism in football and led to the formation of FC United of Manchester. Nine years on, the breakaway club will move to their own 5000 capacity stadium, paid for in large parts by their 2000 regular match goers and 4000 members.

Their mere formation caused deep divisions in the ranks of United supporters. Some, people who had travelled to games together for years, have barely spoken since May 2005.

Many who went to FC United felt that the best way to see the Glazer business model fail was to starve it of money. They were proud of not giving a penny to United's new owners and still are. They were also frustrated that others didn't follow.

A counter argument existed, that you support your team through thick and thin, that the normal fans had never had any control of the club and that previous owners had never been popular either.

Yet the vast majority of people who call themselves Manchester United fans simply don't care too deeply who owns the club. As long as the team wins, everything else is secondary. They aren't affected by rises in ticket prices because they don't go to games.

The contracted players stayed out of the fight too. They either didn't care, didn't understand or didn't want to lose their job. Only in hindsight did some realise how big an issue it was.

A few weeks after the takeover, I sat down again with Gill, this time in Tokyo. Unlike in later years when he wouldn't discuss the ownership issue in interviews, he did in July 2005.

"I won't shy away from the fact that I was part of the board that came out publicly and said that we found the [Glazer] plan aggressive and the level of debt that was there," said Gill. "But it is what it is and we have to look forward positively to the future."

That future saw ticket prices - a main bone of contention for fans - increase significantly in the first five years under the Glazers before being frozen for the last four.

Joel and Avram Glazer (middle) are executive co-chairmen at Old Trafford © Getty Images
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United's popularity meant that Old Trafford continued to sell out its 76,000 capacity and the club avoided the near meltdown experienced by Liverpool under their American owners, Tom Hicks and George Gillet.

United's trophy cabinet continued to fill too and the team reached three European Cup finals in four years under Sir Alex Ferguson, who was always publicly supportive of the Glazers until he stepped down as manager a year ago.

Ferguson and Gill departed at the same time, with the latter replaced by Ed Woodward, who'd worked as a banker on the 2005 takeover. Last summer, I asked him about the Glazers, citing the continued distrust among supporters.

"I can understand that," said Woodward. "Time will perhaps make them look better owners than some think, especially when they are compared to other owners. There's a big debate to be had - should the club have ever been publicly listed? Should cash have been left on the balance sheet? Should takeovers be allowed to happen in that way? Should the Premier League have allowed it? Should leverage be able to be used in that manner?"

Not that we ever got to find out what Malcolm Glazer's view was. Like the rest of his family, he never did speak about United.

Manchester-born Andy Mitten founded United We Stand in 1989, aged 15. He has written 11 books since his career began in 1995 and visited almost 100 countries while working for numerous magazines and newspapers worldwide. Follow him on Twitter @AndyMitten

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