While many Manchester United fans were greatly exercised by Alex Ferguson's battle over Rock of Gibraltar, Adam Brown argues that the stallion belonged in a sideshow and that the real contest is only just beginning

Doom-laden predictions of the end of a footballing epoch are treated with some disdain at Old Trafford, but recent events off the pitch have generated far greater concern. Two Irish racehorse tycoons and an American sports businessman have entered the stage left vacant by BSkyB’s failed bid in 1998-99. But what of the reaction of fans and shareholders?

John Magnier and JP McManus now own 29 almost per cent of the club, but it is widely thought that the “Coolmore horse pimps”, as one fan put it, are not interested in a full takeover. They have, after all, managed to double their money and win their battle with Alex Ferguson over Rock Of Gibraltar. For fans, though, the horse – and even backing Fergie – should not be the issue, something few have realised. The way Coolmore used United, threatening the ownership, control and future of the club, is what matters.

Increasingly prominent is Malcolm Glazer, an American trailer-park tycoon and owner of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Glazer owns 17 per cent of United and, in spite of recent denials, is a more likely candidate for takeover. If he bought Coolmore’s shares he would have a 45 per cent stake and, whether he wanted to or not, would be legally bound to offer to buy the whole club. He has a ruthless reputation, recent ar­ticles have detailed how Glazer squeezed money out of trailer tenants and even sued his own family. His UK figurehead is former Football League chairman Keith Harris, which does little to inspire confidence among fans. Most of the rest of the club is held by financial institutions, though 17 per cent is owned by around 38,000 small shareholders. In the face of this speculation, United are blessed with a ready-made opposition: the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA), in existence since 1995; and Shareholders United (SU), forged in the 1998-99 takeover wars. The former has scored a number of important victories in recent years, relying on mass membership and “street” tactics associated with single-issue politics. The latter is building a collective shareholding, has celebrity patrons and is treated as a shareholding group by the plc. It operates predominantly around annual general meetings, in meetings with the board and scrutinising potential investors. IMUSA’s is a more informal, campaigning role.

SU say that membership has soared to 10,000 individuals and 50,000 affiliated through supporter branches, representing about two per cent of the com­pany. Glazer needs over 90 per cent of shareholders to agree for him to take the club private. One of the main objectives of SU, fully supported by IMUSA, is to get a “ten per cent + one share” holding in the plc to stop a full buy-out. However, Glazer could still get a controlling interest, or he could sit tight with Coolmore and dramatically change board policies.

With the club valued at £650 million, it would require a significant upturn in United’s recent record profits of £40m for any speculator to make a decent return. Jules Spencer, Chair of IMUSA, says: “What fans fear is the question: ‘What on earth would new owners do to make even more money out of the world’s most profitable football club?’” The options are not good: increasing ticket prices, as Glazer did at Tampa; or getting more from television rights. This latter route spells danger for both United fans and for English football because it either means a break-up of the collective Premier League TV deal; or an exploitation of global media rights making United even more economically dominant. How long before kick-off times and locations are scheduled to meet, if Glazer gets his way, American audiences?

SU’s Sean Bones said: “We are about to undertake large-scale marketing to build our holding and we are asking fans where they want the future earnings of the club to go – to a rich individual’s pockets, or reinvested for the benefit of United and its fans? With ticket prices likely to rocket if Glazer buys the club, it would be a wise investment for fans to join SU now.”

The spectre of the foiled Sky takeover hangs heavily over all of this. On one hand supporters are emboldened by their defeat of Rupert Murdoch’s empire and have an organisational legacy to fall back upon. IMUSA and SU operated effectively as sister organisations during that battle and should not be discounted by anyone casting avaricious eyes toward M16. As Spencer argues: “No one should underestimate the extent to which United fans have been politicised in recent years. The idea that we would welcome some sugar daddy, like Chelsea fans did, is ridiculous.”

In 1998 IMUSA and SU harassed, cajoled, pestered and lobbied large sections of the British government, civil servants, football authorities and, most successfully, the Office of Fair Trading and Monopolies Commission. Trade Minister Stephen Byers and numerous journalists noted how effective their cam­paign had been, putting the PR on which Sky and United spent £3m in the shade.

This time things are very different, with no governmental route. The fight is either to get enough shareholders to block a takeover – SU’s policy, but a gar­­gantuan struggle in a company this size – or to promise a state of permanent disruption against whoever tries to use the club for their own ends. “We’ve got a three-pronged attack,” says Spencer. “One, to make it clear to Glazer or anyone else that they are not welcome. We know we rattled Coolmore and will do the same to anyone else. We are also speaking to political lobbies, pushing the agenda for a ‘fit and proper person’ test. Three, our role is to educate other United fans and to build a culture around the notion that the club is not for sale.”

Indeed, the tactic which has had most effect so far has been to make life seem so unattractive to potential investors that they back off. This has been the line taken by the third party in the fans’ armoury, its “guerrilla wing” in the shape of the Manchester Education Committee (MEC). A loose collection of some of United’s more hard-line support, MEC burst on to the scene bringing Hereford races – when Coolmore’s Moonbeam was running – to a standstill. The MEC takes up the slack in the campaign that IMUSA and SU are more reluctant to engage with. Coolmore’s detective agents, Kroll, were picketed, the Coolmore server was targeted, staff and families were bombarded with hostile emails and there were even funded plans to doorstep Magnier in his Barbados home. The MEC are the most irreverent of the three, publicly criticising Ferguson’s call for Reds to leave the Cheltenham Festival free from protest.

Regardless of the horse issue, once Mangier and McManus started turning the screws at the club, all hell broke loose. In part the MEC therefore also reflect the sheer level of passionate vitriol which has poured from the stands toward Coolmore and Glazer.

The Sky campaign was a high-level protest in which PR mattered and some of the antics of the MEC would have been counter-productive. This time it is a bare knuckle fight. Facing difficult financial odds, guerrilla actions are one of the few avenues beyond IMUSA and SU that fans feel are open. With a pre-season tour of the States lined up for United this summer, Glazer needs to take heed. As the MEC have already declared: “Mr Glazer should be aware that ex-pat members of the MEC have already mobilised. He should also note that a sizeable contingent of the MEC will, if necessary, travel on MUFC’s summer tour of the US.”

From WSC 207 May 2004. What was happening this month

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