Malcolm Glazer may have won one battle, but the fight goes on. Adam Brown – now a former Old Trafford season-ticket holder – explains how fans still hope to drive the American out

The “phoney war” waged around Manchester United for the past year or so became a real one when Malcolm Glazer swooped to buy a controlling interest in the club on May 12. He is expected to complete his £800 million buyout shortly, making the club his personal property – but one with a huge debt. Dismayed fans are refocusing campaigning efforts to make his tenure a short one.

Shareholders United estimate that Glazer has taken on more than £900m in debt to finance the deal, with around £500m owed to the banks. “If this debt is allowed to run for at least seven years,” they say, “then the accumulated repayment value could reach as high as £1.5 billion. The debt leveraged on United’s assets could be as much as £700m within six months of closing of the offer.” Servicing that kind of borrowing could require him to take £85m out of the club every year. The sale and lease-back of Old Trafford is a distinct possibility – dreaded words to any football fan – and, say SU, “even in that case, servicing the debt could still cost the club an estimated £55m per year, plus the annual OT lease payment”.

Given that the plc, widely regarded as the most aggressive of sports marketers and easily the most profitable football club anywhere, made around £20m a year, the figures are frightening. The club has gone from debt free to debt laden overnight and without even the spending spree of a Leeds United.

So what of the fans, faced with this catastrophe? One thing seems clear: they are pretty much on their own. In other club crises, we have seen fans of other teams (including IMUSA) rallying round. But there appears to be little sympathy either from fans of United’s rivals, who believe this will fatally weaken the club, nor from clubs further down the pyramid who reckon us Reds somehow deserve this. There are notable exceptions – AFC Wimbledon and Supporters Direct have offered unstinting support – but there is a pervading and wholly misplaced attitude of humour at events, despite the certain threat this deal poses for the Premiership’s collective television-rights deal.

Predicted chaos at United’s last game at Southampton and the FA Cup final did not materialise as fans vowed that while they were fighting to preserve the history and tradition of their own club they were not going to wreck the tradition of the game’s oldest competition. Instead United fans symbolically wore black. The moronic Lineker, Hansen, Lawrenson et al could only giggle at the chants of “USA!” from Arsenal fans and patronisingly assure us we’ll all calm down as soon as Rooney scores another goal. The Southampton game narrowly avoided having its live Sky feed cut, perhaps a more likely indicator of the kind of radical action that has been threatened.

Such acquiescence predicted by pundits was not on display two days before, either, as a public meeting packed with 700 fans vowed to fight the Glazer regime and “end his occupation” of Old Trafford. “He has bought the rights to the club’s name, but he will never buy the club because he can never buy us,” insisted one supporter. Perhaps appropriately, in an old Methodist hall in central Manchester, dissenters outlined their action plan in blood red ink. The most negative aspect of the takeover – the level of debt repayment – is also Glazer’s soft underbelly and one that fans are now targeting, with consumer pressure and boycotts top of the fans’ agenda.

The club’s official sponsors have already felt the heat – Vodafone and Nike shops were stormed in central Manchester some months ago – but now the real pressure will be to significantly dent their market. This already appears to be happening – MUTV had thousands of subscription cancellations in the first day and, perhaps most notably, Vodafone are said to be “considering their relationship” with United following reports of around 30,000 cancellations, while Nike have drawn very public attention to a get-out clause in their deal. Other targets for reducing Glazer’s revenue include boycotts of merchandise and matchday catering. With dedicated web pages, leaflets and a mass public rally on the May bank holiday promoting action, the extent to which fans can make this kind of protest stick is going to be critical to the outcome.

Of course the fans’ ultimate action is to boycott the club by not renewing season tickets or membership and many fans, including this writer, have decided that there is a line and we have crossed it. For us – certainly a minority at present – it is simply untenable to say that you are opposed to the Glazer regime and then decide to lend him £500 plus.

Many have decided that they will “do a Wimbledon” and form their own club, known as FC United. Although there are key differences with the Wimbledon case, discussions are currently underway to see if a new club can begin as early as the coming season. “At the very least,” said one of the organisers, “it is a way of keeping our community together,” whether or not they eventually return to a “liberated” Old Trafford.

The boycott issue above all is tearing fans apart, because it exposes the “support the team but hate the regime” stance. It has been a gut-wrenching decision. “I can’t give him my money but I love United more than anything. What am I supposed to do?” one fan said. Those that have renewed are vowing “to carry the fight inside” and there has been talk of disruption to games and other protests inside the ground.

The dichotomy for fans, and one that will force their hands, is that to get rid of Glazer they have to ensure that his business plan fails, something that will certainly harm team prospects. Choices are now so stark that relegation would be welcomed as a clincher by some and there will certainly be a healthy market for emotional counsellors in Manchester come early August. The key time on the boycott will come, however, toward the end of next season. This is when ticket-price increases, the sale of the club’s assets (ground and players) and, if initial assessments are correct, the influence of the banks on transfer policy will materialise.

While the takeover has exposed the difficulties in building a substantial supporter stake in clubs of this size, suggesting a need for outside regulation, the amassing of shares does provide new opportunities. While there are still legal routes being explored by SU, they have also established a “Phoenix Fund” for those who are forced to eventually sell to Glazer (shares will be worthless if he acquires more than 90 per cent). This could provide a fund of several million with which to buy back a controlling stake, if and when Glazer’s plan fails. Although the fight continues, that day seems some way off right now.

From WSC 221 July 2005. What was happening this month

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