Football failed Manchester United when the Glazers took over. It cannot happen again

Club's owners effectively announced they are willing to sell the club they have saddled with debt since 2005 takeover

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There would be no complaints from Manchester United fans if the Glazer family disappeared into the sunset and left the club they took control of in a controversial 2005 takeover. Only bitterness that they loaded so much debt onto the club after a highly leveraged buy out, split the match going fanbase and continued to take millions in dividends regardless of performances on the field. That the takeover was even allowed to happen showed the lack of regulation in England’s Premier League, the most popular domestic football competition in the world.

On Tuesday, shortly after an announcement that Cristiano Ronaldo would be leaving the club with immediate effect, United issued a 346 word statement under the heading “Manchester United announces process to explore strategic alternatives to enhance the club's growth”. Translated, that effectively means United are for sale. The club requires significant investment, most notably to their Old Trafford stadium, the training ground and the Glazers will “consider all strategic alternatives, including new investment into the club, a sale.”

United were ahead of the game in terms of stadium redevelopments and infrastructure before the Glazers came along but became also-rans with them at the helm. They didn’t communicate with fans between 2005 and the aftermath of an ill-fated decision to join a possible European Super League in 2021. The Glazers, like Barcelona and Real Madrid, pinned their hopes on extra revenues from such a league, but fan protests ended that.

Protest has marked the Glazers’ entire ownership of United. Their takeover was legal, some might say inspired, from a commercial perspective, but football clubs are more than numbers on a balance sheet. Manchester United, as one of the three biggest clubs in the world, may invoke global interest but at heart it’s a community football club with long serving staff and fans who’ve attended games for decades.

This decision has been coming a while, with the Glazers exploring a potential investment or sale since the summer. It has nothing to do with Ronaldo’s controversial interview with Piers Morgan last week.

Advisors have been appointed, potential suitors will be sounded out or make their approaches. United will be optimistic about attracting more interest than Ronaldo did when he made it clear he wanted to leave over the summer. Ronaldo would have cost millions, the club billions.

The Glazers stand to make a vast profit. They saw the interest which Chelsea, a far smaller club, attracted when it was put up for sale after the British government imposed sanctions on Roman Abramovich over his alleged links to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

One of those interested in Chelsea was Jim Ratcliffe, a childhood United fan from a working class area of Manchester who went on to become Britain’s richest man. Ratcliffe has spoken to the Glazers and was under the firm impression that they didn’t want to sell United. They do now.

British businessman Jim Ratcliffe. AFP

Fans may be pleased to see the back of the Glazers, but they should remain sceptical since their views are frequently ignored and immediate change is unlikely. There is not a long queue of benevolent billionaires looking to take over a football club with a high price and in need of huge investment, let alone someone who won’t load more debt on the club, as the Glazers did. The competition is noticeably far tougher than it was when the Glazers took control. Long gone are the days when United could go to, say, Tottenham Hotspur and pick off their best players. Now, Spurs have a better stadium and training ground than United.

Clubs including Newcastle United, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain have shown that they have the deepest pockets and, as Ratcliffe recently pointed out, there’s a clear correlation between wealth and success. Financial Fair Play should be enforced far more stringently than it is, but the British government can play a part. It’s almost a year since a fan-led review was concluded with calls for independent regulation, yet the government has yet to implement it.

United has spent a lot of money on players since Alex Ferguson departed in 2013. They just didn’t spend it well, for the most part. Liverpool, who also have American owners, were far smarter on a smaller budget and Jurgen Klopp’s team finally won a league title and a Champions League.

United spent heavily again this summer to support new manager Erik ten Hag. The spending increased United’s debt, but any prospective owner would look at long-term growth in broadcast revenues, solid merchandise and commercial revenues, which grew in part because the Glazers realised and monetised the global support potential which previous United’s boards had failed to do.

Manchester United is a global name and owning the club would obviously have great appeal both for status and, as the Glazers have ruthlessly proved, commercial value. The team founded by railway workers amid the billowing chimneys of industrial north west England in 1878 became Manchester’s most famous export, one which long attracted vultures. It will again, but football needs to go beyond trite "football is nothing without the fans" slogans. Clubs should be safeguarded and fan interests should be at the heart of any sale. The British government failed last time with Manchester United and so did football’s authorities. This cannot happen again.

Updated: November 23, 2022, 10:34 AM
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