Sports

A Flare for the Dramatic

Manchester United fans want revenge against the club’s American owners. Do they have any chance of getting it?

A Manchester United fan holds a flare in front of an anti-Glazer banner.
Fans protest Manchester United’s Glazer ownership outside the stadium prior to the Premier League match between Manchester United and Liverpool on May 2, 2021. Michael Regan/Getty Images

For a moment Thursday, it looked like the Manchester United supporters might do it again.

There were crowds and signs and flares, lots of flares, outside the club’s stadium, just as there were on May 2, when the fan protest of the club’s ownership and its aborted plans to join the European Super League was fiery enough to get the team’s match against Liverpool called off. That day, protesters broke into Old Trafford and stormed the pitch. They swiped corner flags, kicked balls around, and snapped pictures of themselves and their “Glazers Out” signs on the field. One young fan fell off the top of a net as someone kicked a ball into the goal.

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On Thursday, the day of the rescheduled match, additional barricades and police kept the fans out of the stadium, and so the plan appeared to be for the protesters to keep the players out too. Groups moved around the stadium, trying to block the teams’ buses. “I don’t support violence but it would be great to get the game called off. It’s the only way they’ll listen,” one fan told the Guardian.

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The scene was tense in the hours before kickoff. A Liverpool bus was trapped by protesters’ vehicles and then had its tires flattened before the way was cleared. The players weren’t on board, though, and the visitors had enough capacity in their remaining vehicles to get everyone to Old Trafford. Meanwhile, Manchester United players drove themselves to the stadium while their buses made decoy runs. Everyone important made it inside. Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-2.

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While the game may be finished, there’s little reason to think the fans are. The protests this month are the latest in a series that dates back to February 2005. Back then, months before the Glazer family accumulated their controlling stake, fans hung an effigy of Malcolm Glazer outside Old Trafford, outraged at the mere prospect of the Americans’ takeover plan succeeding. (Though patriarch Malcolm died in 2014, his sons still control the club, with Joel and Avram playing the most prominent roles in its management.) By May 2005, the family, which also owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, had accumulated enough shares to delist the club from the London Stock Exchange. The total cost for control was about $1.5 billion.

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The trouble with the fan base arises from the fact that nearly $1 billion of that money was borrowed against the assets of Manchester United itself in a leveraged buyout, saddling the club with debt payments. The fans, understandably, wish all that money was going to strengthen the on-field product. “Fans will effectively be paying for someone to borrow money to own their club,” a spokesperson for the Manchester United Supporters Trust said at the time.

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It does seem like it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen this way. The whole thing feels like an elaborate swindle concocted by an older brother who’s losing at Monopoly—like the explanation in the film adaptation of this story will be delivered by a celebrity in a bubble bath. The sheer volume of money involved seems to have warped ordinary logic.

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But the real trouble for Manchester United is that the warped logic has followed the Glazers into the Premier League. The family always intended to run Manchester United as a business, exploiting its lucrative global brand, listing the club on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012. To that end they have been successful; the family still receives the lion’s share of the millions in dividend payments that are sent out, reported the Manchester Evening News last year. But in the last decade it has fallen behind clubs less interested in profits. Though success was always close at hand while legendary manager Alex Ferguson was still in charge, United haven’t won the Premier League since his retirement in 2013. The repeat winners in that time—Chelsea and Manchester City—are backed by petrobillionaires from Russia and Abu Dhabi, owners who are looking for rewards that aren’t financial. Manchester United has spent big on players in that time, but never quite enough. How can you compete as a business when your goal is to make money and your competition doesn’t care about losing it?

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This, more than anything, explains the creation of the European Super League. The clubs that exist as gargantuan soccer titans—Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona—and the clubs that exist primarily as luxury brands in the portfolios of business people—Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool—have been finding it harder and harder to keep up with the clubs that exist as the playthings of sovereign wealth funds and oligarchs: Manchester City, Chelsea, Paris Saint-Germain. The Super League was ultimately meant to keep a greater share of the game’s proceeds in the hands of this self-appointed cabal, and eventually perhaps to serve as a mechanism to clamp down on player wages. Manchester City and Chelsea presumably signed up because the whole point of spending that much money on a soccer team is to be among the best of the best.

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Fans at Arsenal have little love for American owner Stan Kroenke. Liverpool supporters hardly trust the Fenway Sports Group, despite last season’s league title. But the backlash against the Super League has been stronger at Manchester United because of how it confirms what that club’s fans have known for years: to the people in charge, it’s all business.

Which hints at another, perhaps more effective way for supporters to express their discontent. That fan who said cancelling games is the only way the Glazers will listen isn’t entirely correct. The games, as Thursday showed, will get played, somehow or another. And so some fans are organizing a campaign to hit the Glazers where it hurts the most, by boycotting the club’s many global and regional partners.

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These partnerships have long been central to the Manchester United business plan—loaning a bit of the club’s prestige out to the likes of an Official Gaming Partner and an Official Electrical Styling Partner and an Official Global Lubricant Partner in exchange for an annual fee. An open letter issued by some fans after the May 2 protest told those sponsors their money “sustains a parasitical relationship” and promised that “Manchester United fans will boycott your products, seek to tarnish your brands and support your competitors until you terminate your commercial partnership with the Glazer family.” There’s evidence it’s already working. On May 10, the e-commerce company The Hut Group pulled out of a $282 million dollar deal to sponsor Manchester United’s training kits out of fear they would be boycotted by fans.

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Opportunities for continued direct action at Old Trafford will be limited in the near future. Manchester United have one home game remaining this season, against Fulham on May 18, and it’s unclear whether this will draw any protest. United legend turned crotchety pundit Roy Keane said Thursday that he expected the discontent would continue next season, especially once fans are allowed back in the stadium. In the meantime, as long as the Glazers insist on treating Manchester United as a business rather than a public trust, then the fans, it seems, will respond in kind.

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