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27 November 2021

60 Years of Watching Manchester United

Tag(s): Sport. Business, Current Affairs
This month I celebrated 60 years of watching Manchester United. I am not going to go through all that has happened in those sixty years as I covered most of it in my blog ten years ago, Fifty Years of Watching Manchester United. [i] This milestone has come at a difficult time for the club after a run of seven premiership matches in which Manchester United only took four points out of 21, including defeats by rivals Liverpool and Manchester City where the team were completely outclassed, and finally a devastating away defeat to Watford, a relatively weak club, by four goals to one. Actually, it is some years since I watched Manchester United live as I was finding the cost of both rail fares and tickets and occasionally hotel rooms was making it unaffordable, but as the most popular club in the country most of their matches are shown live on television. That defeat by Watford was not shown live on British television, but I was in Madrid with our children last weekend and watched it there with our son Andrew who was brought up to be a United fan. We found our position somewhat invidious because naturally as fans we want to see the club do well but since it was so clear to us that the management and coaching was simply not working, we actually wanted United to lose to trigger the necessary removal of the manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

In some ways Ole was a popular choice as manager because of his long involvement with the club, first as a player then as a coach. As a player he is indeed one of the legends as he scored the last-minute winner against Bayern Munich in the 1999 European Champions League final. But that does not make him an effective and successful manager at the highest level. His rivals Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool and Thomas Tuchel at Chelsea all have high-level success with major European clubs behind them. Ole did not and unfortunately it showed. He did manage to get the team to compete in various semi-finals and in one European final but was always found wanting.

The recent form is almost impossible to understand as on paper the club appears to be stacked with international superstars and that was reinforced this summer with the signing of Jadon Sancho from Borussia Dortmund, who over the past two years has been rated one of the best players in the Bundesliga; the World Cup winner Rafael Varane from Real Madrid to reinforce the defence; and then one of the best players in the world, Cristiano Ronaldo returning to the club where he first made his name. But the game is not played on paper, it is played on grass, and it is not a game of individuals but of teams that have to work together, and this United team has just not been doing that.

For the first game after Solskjaer’s departure his deputy Michael Carrick, another former hero of their playing squad, was put in charge but he has no experience of management at the top level. This week it has been announced that an interim manager will be appointed, Ralf Rangnick who has an excellent track record of inspiring other managers like Klopp, but also of taking teams from a relatively low position to challenge the best, notably with Leipzig. He has a very aggressive style of play usually based on 4-2-2-2 and expects his players to press very quickly to regain possession of any lost ball and not to waste time playing soft balls around the back four. The challenge I see here is that Cristiano Ronaldo is not noted for either pressing or helping back in his defence and I can see some sparks flying on the training ground when those two come together.[ii]

But all this really comes down to a different question and that is not so much how the football on the pitch is being played but how the club is being managed as a business entity. The fact is that Manchester United is one of the most valuable football clubs in the world; has the highest level of popular support around the world[iii] and generates one of the highest levels of turnover and usually cash in the world. The Glazer family took over the club in 2005. In May 2005 Malcolm Glazer had acquired 75% of the Club’s shares, allowing him to delist the company from the stock exchange, and within a month, the Glazers took 98% ownership of the club forcing a squeeze-out of the remaining 2%. My shareholding was in that 2%. The final purchase price of the club totalled almost £800 million.
Most of the capital used by the Glazers to purchase Manchester United came in the form of loans, the majority of which were secured against the club’s assets, incurring interest payments of over £60 million per annum. The remainder came in the form of payment in kind loans which were later sold to hedge funds. In January 2010 the club carried out a successful £500 million bond issue and then in August 2012 as part of further refinancing the Glazers sold a number of shares in Manchester United in an initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange. Over the years the Glazers have gradually taken hundreds of millions of pounds out of the club for their own benefit. In recent years they have paid themselves £20 million per annum in dividends, unique among Premier League Clubs. They even did this over the past two years when the Club lost money owing to the pandemic.

Other clubs in the Premier League are also owned by foreign billionaires from the United States, Russia and the Middle East but in general these owners put money into the club rather than take it out. Manchester United is capable of generating more cash than either Manchester City, Liverpool or Chelsea or any other English clubs but it is no longer winning the competitions now dominated by those other three. It is now 12 points behind Chelsea in the current Premier League table and is most unlikely to challenge for the league title. Changing manager in the middle of the season is always difficult because as the fixture list is so crowded there is little time to change things substantially on the training ground.

Since 2005 the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) has been working on a way of returning ownership to supporters and I am a member of that trust. Various efforts have been made but have fallen through. But after the debacle of the European Super League (ESL) where the Glazers also played a prominent role supported by their bankers JP Morgan, it was largely through the efforts of MUST and other similar organisations that the six English clubs and three Italian clubs in the proposed ESL withdrew, leaving only three Spanish clubs. [iv]

Since then, the Glazers have perhaps for the first time recognised that they have got things wrong and that they have to be more careful in their treatment of fans. They have agreed in principle to allow supporters to buy shares in the club and while it is unlikely that in the near future it could lead to the fans acquiring control of the club since the scale of investment that would be needed is almost certainly beyond even the combination of 200,000 supporters. However, it could lead to control aspects of the club where fans perhaps have to be consulted on issues like changing the name of the stadium.

This is timely as the fan-led review of football initiated by Minister of Culture, Media and Sport the Rt Hon Oliver Dowden CBE MP earlier in the year and published this week is making recommendations very much along these lines.[v] Tracey Crouch, former sports minister, who led the review, is calling for a new independent regulator as this is necessary for the long-term financial stability of the men’s professional game and it is understood that the government is likely to adopt at least this recommendation. But Ms Crouch also proposes many other recommendations, 47 in all which are summed up in 10 major points:
  • The government to create new independent regulator (IREF)
  • IREF should oversee financial regulation in football
  • IREF should establish new owners’ and directors’ tests
  • A new corporate governance code should be set up
  • Equality, diversity and inclusion plans should be mandatory for all clubs
  • Supporters should be consulted on all key off-field decisions through a ‘shadow board’
  • Key items of club heritage should be protected by a ‘golden share’ for fans
  • There should be more support from the Premier League to the pyramid through a solidarity transfer levy, paid by Premier League Clubs on buying players from overseas or other top-flight clubs
  • Women’s football to be treated equally and given its own review
  • Stakeholders should work to increase protection and welfare of players leaving the game
The Premier League’s owners’ and directors’ test has come under scrutiny recently following the Saudi Arabian-backed takeover of Newcastle United. Amnesty International has urged the league to change the test to address human rights issues, with a Saudi state accused of human rights abuses.

The Premier League said it has “legally-binding” assurances the Saudi state has no direct control of Newcastle, despite the Public Investment Fund, which has an 80% stake, being chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Western intelligence agencies believe the Crown Prince approved the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, which he denies.

The review did not state whether human rights issues will be considered in the new proposed tests but did say owners and directors must be of “good character” to pass.

I sincerely hope that the government accept at least the majority of these recommendations, not just a straightforward one for a regulator. We have seen in so many areas whether it be water, rail travel, media, finance, banking, et cetera that regulators without real teeth are pretty ineffective. And if only such regulations had been enacted years ago, we might never have seen the Glazers in English football.


[i] Fifty Years of Watching Manchester United 11th November, 2011 https://davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=171
[ii] [ii] In my blog The End of Fergie Time 11th May, 2013 https://davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=275
I forecast that it would be impossible to replace Sir Alex Ferguson. Rangnick will be the seventh person to manage the club since Sir Alex’s retirement.
[iii] Research from global market research agency Kantar shows that the club has a worldwide following of fans and supporters of 1.1 billion
[iv] See my blog The European Super League 24th April, 2021 https://davidcpearson.co.uk/blog.cfm?blogID=718
[v]  The Review heard evidence and opinion from over 130 fan-based organisations like MUST and other bodies with over 100 hours of testimony.




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