Three years after the Americans' takeover, Manchester United's season might appear to vindicate the Glazers. But Ashley Shaw remains suspicious, despite their dramatic European Cup win
As the dust settles on Manchester United’s “Golden Double”, there is a feeling that, unlike the victories of 1999 and 1968, Moscow 2008 will come to be seen as the start of a great era rather than the end of one. Both those previous European Cup-winning teams were predominantly British, but this time around the players are largely from overseas or have racked up sufficient experience to make the transition from domestic domination to European success that much easier. Unusually, this United team have suffered only one major catastrophe in Europe (the under-strength humiliation at Milan last year) and there’s cause to believe that there won’t be another nine-year wait.
The subsequent euphoria, marred only by a bizarre decision by the Greater Manchester Police to prevent the traditional victory parade, is in stark contrast to the atmosphere of May 2005, when the Glazer takeover led to protests outside Old Trafford. At that time most pundits predicted that Chelsea’s roubles would dominate the Premier League for decades. A Cup final defeat on penalties to Arsenal and Liverpool’s ludicrous victory in Istanbul made for a grim summer. Alex Ferguson’s reputation was similarly at an all-time low. His support for the anti-Glazer supporters’ alliance of IMUSA and MUST before the takeover contrasted sharply with his glad-handing of the Americans at a training camp in Portugal later that summer. Ferguson can now be credited for the about-turn in the club’s fortunes. Just hours after victory he batted away suggestions of retirement and has since said that he intends to stick around for as much as three years. His successor will find him an impossible act to follow.
Loath as I am to defend a family that has introduced the phrases “leveraged buyout” and “compulsory cup scheme” to English football, the Glazers’ hands-off approach has nevertheless helped steer the club back to the top. The principal talents – Ferguson, Ronaldo, Rio and Rooney – have all been retained on improved deals since the takeover and success has followed.
Then again, it could be said that the Glazers have achieved success on the cheap. Since the takeover, net spending on transfers averages out at just £8.8 million per season, while ticket prices continue to rise at a rate well above inflation. There may also be bitter-sweet news for the Glazers as bonuses and transfer add-ons kick in, reducing the financial windfall resulting from the double triumph. Significant tests will come in the next few weeks as Real Madrid try to tempt United with a bid for Ronaldo and, further into the future, when a successor to Ferguson needs to be identified.
When they first arrived, the Floridians were characterised as trailer-park cheapskates, secretive gridiron owners who had “accidentally” bought the club on a whim without a clear strategy of how they would compete with Roman Abramovich. Paradoxically, the £764m debt used to finance the purchase may also have played a part, forcing the club into overdrive at all levels. Under the old plc, United were bloated with cash and mediocrity had crept in. Now the added pressure, like the search for a last-minute winner, appears to have forced the best out of everyone.
Still, the rumours surrounding the club refuse to go away. The manner in which the debt is continually shifted from one set of accounts to another remains suspicious and the release of the latest accounts the day after the Champions League semi-final smacked of a hyperactive PR unit. Claims that the cost of the takeover is being part-funded by a 30 per cent ticket price hike at the Glazers’ other “franchise” in Tampa Bay are also in the wind. Supporters group MUST suggest that “the only rationale for these increases… is that Bucs fans are now paying for the [United] takeover”. Moreover, rumours continue to circulate about the difficulties the Glazers have had in refinancing the debts in the light of the credit crunch, with several reports claiming that recent attempts have failed.
It was widely reported that Avi and Joel Glazer were forced to wait until the JJB Stadium was emptied before they could get their picture taken with the team and the Premier League trophy. The brothers were also spotted briefly in Red Square on the Monday before the final, but in the aftermath of victory there have been no joyous pictures of them backing in the team’s success – a situation that would be inconceivable with owners elsewhere.
The experience of rabbi Arnold Saunders, a lifelong United fan who bears a resemblance to Malcolm Glazer, may also be instructive. Talking to the Manchester Evening News about how he is often mistaken for United’s owner he explained: “Most of the time the comments are good hearted... [but] on one or two occasions I have experienced some very ugly behaviour, ranging from very strong language to having a can of beer poured over me. I’m used to it now, but sometimes I wish Mr Glazer would let me borrow one of his security guards.” As the rabbi can testify, most fans still feel that success has been achieved despite the Glazers’ ownership rather than as a result of it.
From WSC 257 July 2008