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11 November 2011

50 Years of Watching Manchester United

Tag(s): Sport

  Today, with its special date, 11-11-11, for most will mean Remembrance Day, but we also commemorate that at the weekend. Today also has a special meaning for me because fifty years ago today was the first time that I went to Old Trafford to watch Manchester United play.

In 1938 Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich for a shameful meeting with Adolf Hitler. His pathetic piece of paper really foretold of untold casualties in the inevitable war that followed. Munich became a synonym for appeasement. But for football fans everywhere Munich was to gain additional notoriety. Twenty years later, on 6th February, 1958 Manchester United’s chartered BEA Elizabethan failed to take off and twenty-one people lost their lives including eight players.

Although I was growing up in the Manchester area at the time, I was seven and have little conscious memory of this tragic event. Incredibly, the surviving players and reserves fought through to reach a second successive FA Cup Final. That was the first I ever watched on television. By the following year I had become a firm football fan and around that time decided I was a Manchester United supporter. I have changed my views on religion and politics since then, but that was never to change.

In 1961 at the age of eleven I felt I was old enough to see my idols in the flesh. On 11th November, Remembrance Day, my father took me and a friend to watch Manchester United draw 2-2 with Leicester City. Manchester United was then a shadow of the pre-Munich Busby Babes who had nearly conquered Europe. The crowd was only 21,000 and it was an otherwise unmemorable match but for me it was the start of something wonderful. From then on I seldom missed a home match. Entry to the groundside for juniors was 1/6, a programme 4d and the train fare to Warwick Road 1/2d.Thus the whole day out was 3s (15p). Most of my pocket money went on this but as I gained confidence I also started to travel to some away games.

My father was marvellous and although he wasn’t really a football fan, his own sport had been Rugby Union, he often drove me to important Cup games. The most important of these was the FA Cup Final of 1963. He bought two tickets the night before on the black market and drove us down on the morning of the match. Manchester United had a poor season, only just avoiding relegation in the league but their Cup form was totally different. I had seen all the matches except the 6th round and saw a great win over a fine Leicester City side with Gordon Banks in goal. David Herd scored two and the new star, Denis Law got the third.

The next season I saw George Best make his debut and from then on the fabulous trio of Best, Law and Charlton inspired a truly great team to win the League in 1965 and 1967. In 1965 I ran on the pitch to celebrate, the first time I had been on the sacred Old Trafford turf. Ironically I was away in America in 1968 when Matt Busby finally achieved his ambition-to be the first English team to win the European Cup. Ten years after the first team had died in the attempt, a team that incredibly featured two survivors from Munich, Bobby Charlton and Billy Foulkes, had won the Cup.

After reaching that pinnacle the team went into decline and the extraordinary gifts of George Best were thrown away. Little success was won but I never lost my enthusiasm and even saw several of the matches they played in the old second division in 1974-5.


For fully half of my 50 years of watching, the manager has been another Scot, Alex Ferguson. In the 1990s the glory years returned driven by the strength of Ferguson, with the charismatic Eric Cantona on the pitch. Rumbelows sponsored the League Cup and their Buying Director, Bill Cosgrove, a keen Manchester United fan, asked Sony to sponsor a Man of the Match award. I agreed and Bill invited me to see some great performances against Liverpool (3-1), Arsenal (6-2), and Leeds (3-1 on aggregate). At one of these I presented the Man of the Match award to Mark Hughes. This was the second and last time I appeared on the Old Trafford pitch. After the match we were invited to the Boardroom where Sir Bobby Charlton offered me a cup of tea and Denis Law a whisky. In the Final we sat in the Royal Box with the politicians and other dignitaries. The most impressive of these for me was Sir Matt Busby.

I met more of my childhood heroes when Sony came up with a new way of entertaining our top dealers. We flew them to a resort in Thailand and secretly flew out top football stars; Peter Bonetti, Terry Butcher, Emlyn Hughes, Denis Law, Rodney Marsh, Alan Mullery, Terry Neil, Martin Peters and manager, Ron Atkinson. Playing in teams we competed in football knowledge. This formula was repeated back in England with other groups of dealers and at one of these I got to meet George Best. He was by now a sad drunk but still a great hero. I told him I had seen his first game but, of course, though true in my case, he had heard that from so many people that there must have been half a million in the stadium.

The night before a match in London Alex Ferguson usually stays with the team, but on one occasion, in January 1997 he and I had dinner together with Bobby Campbell, who had managed George Best at Fulham, and Max Morgan, whose agency managed some of Sony’s promotional work. This was just when Kevin Keegan had resigned suddenly from the managership of Newcastle United. Because we had tried to book him for our event in Thailand I knew what the media didn’t, that Kevin was in hiding playing golf in Florida, and I told this to Alex. He put this in a diary of the season he published, but I must have made a mixed impression on him as he referred to me as David Gibson, head of Sony, Europe. I could forgive him getting my name wrong as he had promoted me! The following season he invited me to one of the games at Old Trafford. I took my wife and children and afterwards we went to his inner sanctum for a drink with his more intimate friends. I have photographs of the occasion at my side as I write this.


After I left Sony I joined Pentland and the sporting links remained strong. One customer, Allsports, was a sponsor of Manchester United and they invited me to fly with the team to a European game in, of all places, Munich. Unfortunately I could not travel with the team but travelled out on the day of the match. The team was due to fly back straight after the match and so I travelled without baggage. We were superbly entertained by Sir Bobby Charlton, and then came the match against Bayern Munich. I had previously been outside the Olympic Stadium after the terrorists had ruined the 1972 Games. United played well, could have won and finally came away with a 2-2 draw. Then we found that there was a problem with the plane. The authorities would not let it land. We were forced to stay in the city of Munich after all. The following morning we all flew back to Manchester together, safely.

At the end of the season these same two teams battled through to the Final. I arranged for our son, who was working for the Speedo distributor in Barcelona, to get a ticket. I was forced to watch it with some Pentland people on a 14” TV in a hotel in Halifax. The last two minutes of that match must be among the greatest in sport. United without their inspirational captain, Roy Keane, had been pedestrian. Ferguson, in that enigmatic way, had picked a strange team. But inspired substitutions came off and first Sheringham and then Solskjaer put the ball in the Germans’ net. They returned to Munich empty handed.

Sir Alex Ferguson’s record has been astonishing. With him at the helm Manchester United have won 12 Premier League Titles taking their total to 19 and overtaking their great rivals, Liverpool; 2 European Cups; 5 FA Cups; 4 League Cups; 10 Charity/ Community Shields; 1 Cup Winners’ Cup; 1 European Super Cup; 1 Intercontinental Cup; 1 World Club Cup; a total of 37 major trophies.

During this time the game has totally changed with the rise of Premier League TV revenue.  The following table shows the dramatic rise of income.

  • 1992-1997: BSkyB, 60 games per season, £191m
  • 1997-2001: BSkyB, 60 games per season, £670m
  • 2001-2004: BSkyB, 110 games per season, £1.2bn
  • 2004-2007: BSkyB, 138 games per season, £1.024bn
  • 2007-2010: BSkyB and Setanta, 138 games per season £1.706bn
  • 2010-2013: BSkyB/Setanta (replaced by ESPN) 138 games per season, £1.782bn

Manchester United is the largest club by revenue in the English Premier League and one of the largest in the world. Estimates put world wide support for the club at some 333 million people, nearly 5% of the total population of the world. The club has deals with mobile, online and TV partners in 75 countries. Such riches attracted the Glazer family to first buy the club with debt, then transfer the debt to the club and then draw income from the club. (See my blog The Green and the Gold 20 March 2010)

I am a member of the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) whose active leadership follow the Glazers’ affair closely and are committed to an alternative ownership structure for the club for the benefit of the fans. In their most recent report they r eveal “that the Glazers secretly charged United £16.1m in "management fees" and they've personally bought more than $10m of the bonds too, so now our club is also personally paying them interest on their debt that they have dumped on our club. …It's clear that these details were intentionally hidden from supporters and were only revealed when the club adopted new accounting rules in preparation for the possible flotation in Singapore. …The accounts also revealed that Kevin Glazer, who is a non-executive member of the club’s board of directors, and his immediate family own $10.6m worth of the club’s bonds. Those bonds pay an interest rate of 8.375 per cent – meaning our club is now not only paying interest on their debt but actually now paying interest to Glazer family members on part of their debt that they landed on our club.”

MUST argues that the FA and government should have had regulations in place to stop the Glazer takeover or the foresight to block the takeover going through and protect supporters from this type of exploitation.   MUST calculates that the total cost of the Glazers’ ownership of the club since their takeover has come to £532m. Owing to pressure led by MUST the Government Coalition Agreement includes the commitment to encourage reform of football governance rules to support the "cooperative ownership of football clubs by supporters".  

At least the Glazers have stuck by Ferguson. Many owners sack club managers the first season they fail to win a trophy, a ludicrous state of affairs. Football is not like business in that most clubs fail to win a trophy in any one season. But Ferguson’s unique record of winning a trophy or two most seasons has meant that many other managers at rival clubs have lost their jobs. Neighbouring Manchester City has got through 18 managers including caretakers during the Ferguson era. Here is the list if you don’t believe me.  

  • Jimmy Frizzell (1986 - May 87)
  • Mel Machin (May 87 - Nov 89)
  • Tony Book (Nov 89 - Dec 89)
  • Howard Kendall (Dec 89 - Nov 90)
  • Peter Reid (Nov 90 - Aug 93)
  • Tony Book (Aug 93)
  • Brian Horton (Aug 93 - May 95)
  • Alan Ball (Jun 95 - Aug 96)
  • Asa Hartford (Aug 96 - Oct 96)
  • Steve Coppell (Oct 96 - Nov 96)
  • Phil Neal (Nov 96 - Dec 96)
  • Frank Clark (Dec 96 - Feb 98)
  • Joe Royle (Feb 98 - May 01)
  • Kevin Keegan (May 01 - Mar 05)
  • Stuart Pearce (Mar 05 - May 07)
  • Sven-Goran Eriksson (Jul 07 - Jun 08)
  • Mark Hughes (Jun 08 - Dec 09)
  • Roberto Mancini (Dec 09 – present)

But the latest, Snr Mancini, with the billions of the Abu Dhabi United Group i.e. the Abu Dhabi Royal Family, behind him has spent £100s of millions on top players and is now rivalling their rivals for the first time in over 40 years. The Abu Dhabi Royal Family, appear to see this as an exercise in PR. Whatever it is they may well win the League this year. But that’s a new challenge for Fergie who has seen off the challenges of Liverpool, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal and Chelsea in the past. And that will keep him going for a few more years yet.

So how will I celebrate this anniversary? Well, there is no club football this weekend, it’s an international break and anyway I’m committed to going to the Lord Mayor’s Show. But I have a ticket for United’s next home game against Newcastle United and that should be a cracker.

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