Monday, 3 May 2021

Manchester United fans should be careful what they wish for

I have a confession to make. Yesterday morning I was gutted. I am a Manchester City fan and I had a feeling in my bones that Liverpool would do City a favour, beat Manchester United and deliver City their seventh Championship. Under normal circumstances, I would have been glued to the TV but, rather annoyingly, it was my wife's sisters birthday and I was under a three line whip to spend the afternoon at Arrabica in Borough Market, having lunch with her rather than watching a key match. I dearly love my sister in law, but her birthday is at an awful time for us football fans. Every year it seems I'm deprived of watching key games as we make the trip out. This year was no exception. At around 4.45pm, I started to nervously sneak a look at my phone. This is highly frowned upon by my wife and her family, as it seems they expect 100% attention during such events. I was shocked to learn that the game hadn't started. If I am being honest, I was quite pleased. I thought there was a chance I might catch the second half. As we all now know, it wasn't to be.

When I finally got home and saw the footage, I was quite shocked. When I heard there was a protest, I imagined a sit in on the pitch. What the footage showed was something altogether less tasteful. Injured police. Drunks dancing and taking selfies in the stadium and on the pitch. I 100% understand the feeling of Man Utd fans against the Glazers. They have no real allegiance to United. They have never really bought into what fans perceive as "The United Way". They clearly bought the club as the a cash cow, with the fans being milked. Just to make the whole thing even more galling, their 'noisy neighbours' have owners cut from a different cloth, who pump money in and  watch the Trophies line up. Whilst United fans may have put up with running second fiddle for a while to such a monster, given the huge cash bucket, their arch enemies Liverpool, also owned by Americans have been relatively successful, having emerged as the main threat to City in recent years. Even Leicester have won the Premiership since United last had the pot in the cupboard. 

Perhaps it is ironic that United are having one of their better post Fergie seasons. They are likely to finish as runners up and may win the Europa League. Although this is not really what United fans expect, it is a decent season. However what has really inflamed the fans is the seeming leading role of the Glazers and United in the European Super League proposal. There is a suspicion that this no relegation competition would mean the Glazers could invest even less money in the team and rely on a guaranteed income for 23 years. United fans know full well that the owners of City and Chelsea would be 100% committed to winning it, had it happened, they know that there are different dynamics at their own club. Of course Man Utd will always want to win Trophies, but the United fans believe that the Glazers won't pay the hard cash to make it happen, when they make just as much money with a relatively mediocre performance. Over the last 50 years, one of the unique selling points of being a United fan was the ability to gloat about the relative failure of City and Liverpool. That has all but gone. Older United fans remember different times, but anyone over 45 will really have only known success.

The Glazers have never really been accepted by the United fans. Whilst Fergie was in charge, the trophies kept rolling in and a lid could just about be kept on the ill feeling. The near decade of decline and the ESL simply proved too much.

As I watched the footage, I was genuinely disturbed. I think that the scenes of fans fighting with the police, smashing cameras, swigging beer and posing for selfies has done the genuine fans no good at all. I think everyone who cares about football would sympathise with the protestors, but when they see those scene's, hear of police being slashed with bottles and hear that the teams pre match hotel was also the target of protests, it seems that it is getting out of hand and isn't aimed at the Glazers.

I would urge all Manchester United fans to think long and hard about what they really want. I've spoken to a couple recently who said that the club is a great business, lumbered with debts by greedy owners. The problem is that the Glazers will not write of a near half billion pounds of debt. If they are to withdraw they will want top dollar. A fans consortium is never going to raise the cash to buy them out. 

The protests will scare off many potential buyers. There are very few organisations that could afford Man Utd. If the multiple mega sponsors get spooked by the protests and the Glazers can't sell it, then the United fans could find themselves in a very difficult position. It isn't clear to me that a mega rich Sheik or another Abramovich type character will necessarily see Utd as a great proposition. You'd have to give half a billion to the Glazers to clear the debt, before you even start to meet their valuation. You aren't going to have a bunch of fans who will love you. The fans of City and Chelsea recognise that their owners have elevated the teams beyond their wildest dreams. If United won the everything every year, their fans would simply think they were back where they should be. There would be little love or thanks. If results didn't meet expectations, it may very quickly turn toxic. 

So who would be prepared to take United on? My bet would be on a very Glazer like organisation. One which would be prepared to tough out the protests, one who would be prepared to see through an ESL style proposal. One who would say to the United fans "If you don't like us, we'll play somewhere that the fans do like us". To English football fans, the concept of 'franchises' is abhorrent. To American owners, it is a way of life. There are plenty of vulture type organisations, more than happy to take on a project like United, seeing its huge potential. Many would see it as a short term opportunity. Buy it cheap, come in as saviours, sell it on ASAP when the smell of the Glazers regime has faded. All the time, United will be falling behind their rivals both in the Premiership and abroad. 

At the moments, United are still an extremely valuable brand in the eyes of the marketing men. That's why they generate so much cash from sponsors. That is based on being good, wholesome family entertainment. I can't see any way that yesterdays events haven't damaged that. Every Utd sponsor knows that across the globe, people turned on the telly to see an exciting game of football, but instead saw fat blokes fighting with the police, swigging lager and taking selfies. For me, it reminded me of the United fans smashing up the ground of Norwich City in 1977. Whilst the motivation was different and probably at its roots quite worthy, the images can only damage United. The reason United can attract the likes of Bruno Fernandez and Paul Pogba is the hundreds of millions they raise from their sponsors. Scare them off and things might start to be very different. Much as the Glazers may be hated, they've kept the cash rolling in. If it was to stop, the mercenaries would soon be off to fight elsewhere. 

Football is at a crossroads, I'd say that this would be a very bad time for any club to go into financial decline. The ESL fiasco has alienated many neutral fans from the big six. None would be too upset to see all of the big six given points deductions or even relegations. If the dirty half dozen found themselves in the Championship next year, only three could come back straight away. Would your money be on UTD, I'm not sure mine would. The likes of Fernandez and Pogba would be out of town before you could blink. 

The sad truth for United is that with the ESL, the Glazers let a genie out of the bottle. Sadly for them, the Genie wasn't interested in granting them their three wishes. I am not sure what Utd fans would realistically see as a good outcome from here. Who do they want to replace the owners? What have the protests done for the brand, which pays the wages? If I was them, I'd be very careful what they wish for. Having wanted the Glazers out for the best part of two decades, they might find that frying pan was more comfortable than the fire will be. In truth, I despair for football right now. It took a long time to recover from the hooliganism of the 70's and 80's. I suspect that a hell of a lot of Premier league executives had a very poor nights sleep last night. This time last year, I was wondering if Covid would kill off football. Now it seems something far worse might do the trick. Bare greed. The Glazers have created a monster. It might just eat them and take the club with them. I can't see an outcome from all of this that the Utd fans will find acceptable. Whilst I can enjoy the discomfort of Utd fans, the bigger picture is that this will be very bad for English football all around. I'm old enough to recall when English clubs were banned completely. Given that both European tournaments might end up being contested by English clubs, nothing would surprise me less than UEFA finding a pretext to ban us again

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