Manchester Disunited

Trouble and takeover at the world’s richest football club
by Mihir Bose
Aurum Press, £18.99
Reviewed by Adam Brown
From WSC 244 June 2007 

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The spate of foreign businessmen buying English clubs has received little serious attention from the nation’s hacks who seem to regard the process in the same way that a child looks at a glittery bauble on a Christmas tree. Bose, now the BBC’s sports editor, should be congratulated for providing this incredibly detailed account of the failed BSkyB bid to buy Manchester United in 1999 and the successful Glazer family takeover in 2005.

It is a shame that the majority of the book covers old ground with 180-odd pages devoted to the BSkyB takeover, most of which appeared in his previous book Manchester Unlimited. It is his account of the Glazer takeover that provides the real attraction. The machinations of high-finance deals, of last minute wiring of millions across the Atlantic, of shifting strategies against the fans’ opposition and a reluctant board is an engaging and at times gripping tale.

He has unearthed some facts certain key actors might wish had remained unknown. Chief executive David Gill, for instance, initially encouraged Glazer to invest as a counter measure to the Irish race horse owner John Magnier’s increasing influence. Shareholders United leader Nick Towle, meanwhile, admits that SU carried on asking fans to join the organisation even when, after the takeover, they knew the cause was lost.

The extensive campaign against Glazer stretched from developing a collective shareholding by SU (which never got above two per cent), through street protests, political lobbying and enormous media coverage, to at times violent direct action. The “Not For Sale coalition” could claim a constituency in excess of 40,000, belying Bose’s portrayal of them as a small minority. Yet this mass opposition utterly failed and the implications of that for fans everywhere is not really explored.

The book’s subtitle refers to United as “the world’s richest football club”. However, this is a highly debatable claim with £660 million worth of debt, an operating loss of £135m in their first year and no clear plan as to how they can pay this off. Recent 14 per cent ticket price increases are a sign of the financial balancing act the club is now engaged in.

However, although Bose has described the ebbs and flows of takeover battles in great detail, the wider questions about the governance and ownership of English football are left relatively untouched. If the Taylor Report ushered in the Premier League and the plc, and television’s dominance brought a flurry of media companies buying stakes in clubs (stalled by the defeat of BSkyB’s 1999 takeover), then the victory of the Glazers – far more than Abramovich’s purchase of Chelsea – has ushered in the age of foreign ownership to England’s top flight.

The takeover was a watershed: for the thousands who rejected the Glazer regime and left to form FC United; for prospects of top-flight supporter ownership and the need now for regulatory control; for the majority of fans who remained; but perhaps most importantly for English football, whose future at the top level now rests on the whims of international bankers and tycoons. While Bose’s epic tale is a must-read for anyone who has an interest in how global capital is now structuring English football, the answers to these other questions lie elsewhere.

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