Manchester United protests show football fans' voices must now be heard

Sunday's postponement shows that reform and independent regulation is needed in the game – and supporters have to play a central role

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Passionate Manchester United fans protested before their game against Liverpool on Sunday because they’ve had enough.

Emotions were high, but this was not a spur of the moment thing, but born of 16 years of frustration since the Glazer family took over their club in controversial circumstances after a highly leveraged buy-out in 2005, a takeover which saddled the club with debt.

More than £1.5 billion ($2.08bn) has been spent servicing that debt since, a vast figure for a club which was previously debt-free, which had rebuilt Old Trafford with self-generated profits from its huge fan base. Not any more.

Protest has ebbed and flowed since and the Glazers, who’ve never communicated with fans, have ridden it out.

But why the new protests which led to the postponement of the Premier League game between United and their great rivals Liverpool?

The announcement that United had agreed to join the proposed European Super League two weeks ago opened a can of worms. It was made with no consultation with fans, players or even the manager. Club staff, who work hard to make Manchester United a success on so many levels, were left in the dark too.

Fans of all the English clubs who were entered into the competition by out of touch owners were furious and protested at proposals which included no relegation.

Isn’t the risk of both success and failure part of what makes sport so exciting? The idea of a few self selected clubs fixing it that they should be permanent members Super League also grated. Little is permanent in football and fortunes rise and fall, as they have done throughout its history.

There were so many flaws in the plan. Why Tottenham Hotspur, who have won no European Cups, over Benfica, who have been in six finals? Why no teams from the EU’s two biggest economies, France and Germany?

The plans were rightly kicked into touch after widespread condemnation and owners apologised to fans, but the apology which followed from Joel Glazer was not accepted by United fans.

He spoke of rebuilding trust with fans, but there has never been any trust to start with since there has been no communication. To fans, it showed that the bottom line is everything to the Glazers and that everything they do is about maximising profit.

Flares and chants as Manchester United fans protest owners

Flares and chants as Manchester United fans protest owners

Maybe that made them successful in business and they have increased United’s commercial revenue and shared in the burgeoning broadcast revenue, but there’s a deep mistrust from United fans, the very people whose money services those debts and pays those dividends.

At other clubs, the owners put money in for the prestige and pride, at United they take it out. United’s net debt increased to £429.1m last year, £455m this, while the co-chairman Avram Glazer put shares worth more than £70m up for sale recently.

Most United fans have no issue with the team or the manager. They’ve been doing a good job this season in difficult circumstances, but the same positive feeling does not stretch to the owners.

The match-going fans feel exploited and voiceless, dismissed as legacy fans because they actually go to games and have invested a life of emotion into their football clubs.

Football is not something they watch on a screen, it’s a way of life and yet they see decisions made on their behalf and they’re expected to shrug their shoulders on get on with it. Don’t like it that kick-off times have been shifted for television? Tough, there’s always someone else to take your place. Don’t like the takeover? Ditto.

Fans are patronised and told that football is nothing without them, so why don’t they have a genuine power and influence beyond protests?

United fans have tried other routes only to be met by shrugs of the shoulder or to be told that while the Government are sympathetic, there’s little they can do to stop aggressive takeovers of their football clubs. On Sunday, because of the protests – their voices were heard with headlines around the world.

Reform is essential in English football, where people who are evidently not fit and proper pass Fit and Proper Person’s criteria and take over cherished football clubs with over 100 years of history like Bury and then oversee their demise.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson talked of introducing legislation but actions will speak louder than words. Football needs independent regulation where fans have a voice as part of that process.