FOOTBALL fans everywhere have been up in arms about the plans of a handful of top clubs to form a European Super League. So, why, sports pundits have asked, have only the fans of Manchester United been angry enough to prevent their own team from playing in protest? The answer is only marginally about football: it is about money, morality, and manipulative power.
The fans of United’s local rivals, Manchester City, have been far less cross. Why? Because the Gulf oil sheik who owns it has been putting money into the club to buy players and improve facilities. In contrast, the American businessmen who own United — the Glazer family — have taken about £837 million out of their club, milking it dry to the extent that United, which had money in the bank when they bought it, is now £455 million in debt.
The Premier League this week mounted its high horse, proposing new rules to prevent top clubs from stepping outside the footballing pyramid which allows small clubs to rise through the divisions to compete with the big teams. What the sport’s bureaucrats have neglected to mention is the part that they played in creating a system in which top football is driven chiefly by greed, not games.
Two decades ago, to buy United, the Glazer family were allowed to borrow most of the money to do the deal. They then transferred these family debts on to the club, forcing it to pay nearly £1 billion in interest payments over the intervening years. In effect, they acquired the club almost for free, and then used money taken from supporters to pay for it. The Glazers also paid themselves millions in dividends.
But when fans protested at the injustice of this, the besuited bosses at the Premier League accused them of a lack of financial sophistication; such “leveraged buy-outs” were common practice in the City, and all part of the business modernisation of football.
Today, the emperor is exposed as wearing no clothes. Over the past decade, United’s interest payments have been greater than every other Premier League club put together. The Glazers have increased the club’s revenue — through sponsorship deals which place the United logo on tractors in Japan, pillows in China, and noodles in Malaysia — but, for every £1 spent on buying new players, 80p goes in interest to the banks, at rates as high as 16.25 per cent. And United’s spending on its shabby ground at Old Trafford is only half that of teams such as Liverpool, and even Brighton.
All this explains why United’s fans are more incensed than other team’s supporters. The failed Super League has merely underscored the greed of their club’s big owners.
The Manchester United Supporters Trust, which has been totally ignored by the Glazers for the past 20 years, has now made a plea for the club to appoint independent directors and create a share scheme that could lead eventually to the Glazers’ being bought out by fans. There is fat chance of their agreeing to that — unless the Glazer family’s hand is forced by the “fan-led review” that the Government has now promised, and which is to be led by the former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch. Don’t hold your breath.