Credit where it’s due, the timing of the Glazer family is impeccable. Just mere hours after Manchester United and Cristiano Ronaldo had separately announced their mutual uncoupling, United’s owners had decided to stick one more finger in the eye of their former employee, overshadowing his announcement by telling everyone they were selling up, in a magnificently petty piece of precise timing not entirely out of character for our reviled owners.
United fans, who have been extremely divided for over a decade now, will be united, pun intended, in their delight at the news that the Glazers are leaving. The Manchester United Supporters trust summed it up perfectly in their letter describing the malign ownership as 17 years “characterized by debt and decline – on the field and off it.” The insidious use of United as a private honey pot saddled with enormous debt is inexcusable. While on the field supremacy cycles in and out, the Glazer family turned Manchester United into a commercial heritage project that had become a punchline to every football joke.
Nevertheless, the rightful optimism should be tempered by one simple question: What comes next?
Chelsea’s £2 billion sale to Todd Boehly’s consortium will undoubtedly have given the Glazer’s excited thoughts of cashing in, but this is not a sale conducted by government pressure and a war in Europe. The Glazers can and will happily conduct an auction that very few people can realistically enter, which leaves a paucity of palatable options as far as fans are concerned.
If we are to assume the club will sell for more than twice than Chelsea, and by all market measures they should, there rises a disturbing prospect of even worse characters than the Glazers taking over the club.
Who can possibly afford to throw £5-6 billion upfront, then spend another billion on much needed stadium renovations and a considerable upgrade to the club’s training and development facilities, which have gone from being the best in class to a remnant of relative antiquity, untouched and uncared for the last seventeen years? Which one of the Gulf States that hasn’t yet bought a football club? A commercial front for another unsavory state seeking to launder their image and cover for a horrific human rights record? Maybe some mad billionaire who would be willing to spend tens of billions so he can post memes and avoid people telling jokes about him, could throw their hat into the ring. None of these could be or should be stomached by any right-minded fan.
Let us be clear, United does not need to be owned by any individual. As with all football clubs, they are a community concern, created by local communities to offer a gathering point for diverse groups of people to get together and enjoy themselves, once or twice a week. United generate abundant amounts of commercial income to stand on their own without a billionaire pumping money for their own ego, thinly veiled with the cover of benevolence.
It is possible that boyhood United fan Jim Ratcliffe, with his family and birth ties to Greater Manchester, could be accepted by the fans but it doesn’t take much digging to find plenty of dirt on him. His enthusiastic support for the now obviously disastrous Brexit project is only matched by his love of avoiding paying a fair share of taxes, with his residency in Monaco a tool to shave billions off his tax bill. Moreover, his commercial record doesn’t bare for pleasant reading either, with his advent advocacy of fracking, paying little mind to the effects on local communities and the environmental cost, which chimes with his track record of poor industrial relations and environmental pollution from his chemical behemoth, INEOS.
The options available are a case of picking the least bad option. Most of us are tired of this electing people to govern our country and choosing an employer, it is not something we should be submitting to in our football.
While these issues will undoubtedly temper the enthusiasm of some United fans, who are actively engaged in the ethical issues in modern football, it does leave us with the tantalizing prospect of the path being open for collective action and reform. United fans have exerted tremendous and sustained pressure over the last eighteen months, which arguably factored into Glazer’s decision to sell and demonstrates the results of co-ordinated fan action. The way is open for United to blaze a new trail of fan-led stewardship for football clubs in England if everyone is prepared to do the work.