They say that political loyalties can change but never football ones. So it was a strange experience to find myself at Old Trafford as a Cockney Red changing my colours to green and gold (“till the club is sold”) in protest against the Glazers’ control of Manchester United and the mountain of debt the club is under. Tens of thousands of supporters were wearing the old colours of Newton Heath, United’s forerunner club. The penny has dropped for all those singing: “United we love, Glazers out” along with the chants for the players on the pitch. And Manchester United fans are even joining forces with arch-rivals Liverpool to make club ownership an electoral issue in the north-west of England.
We have been here before at Old Trafford, when supporters groups and fanzines helped to thwart Rupert Murdoch’s attempt to take over the club in the wake of the glorious 1998-99 treble season. That battle was won, only for the Glazers to buy the club for £790 million in the summer of 2005. Basically, this was borrowed from the bank and then laden onto the club in order to complete the takeover. Manchester United is no longer a public limited company. It is a wholly-owned family business. And the supporters have been made to pay for this with higher prices for tickets and replica kits. Recently, the Glazers restructured the finances of the club, with investors stumping up £500 million in bonds in order to pay off high-interest debts. Meanwhile, they have extracted millions in “consultancy fees” from the club.
In hindsight, supporters should have challenged proposals to turn United into a PLC in the first place. This was back in 1991 under the Edwards family – when this whole sorry saga began. The ideal now would be mutual control of the club, with Manchester United owned and run by its supporters and investors. Something similar already happens in Spain with Barcelona. According to Barcelona’s statutes, the club exists for the pursuit of sporting excellence. It is run by a body elected for a term of five years whose annual reports have to be reviewed and approved by a general assembly of representatives of the membership, which numbers well over 100,000. The assembly is responsible for fixing entrance and subscription fees and has to approve various other matters, including television rights and mergers or takeovers.
The current debate among Manchester United fans is about how we can achieve something similar. There is talk of a group of “Red Knights” – wealthy United supporters – riding to the rescue and then selling back their holdings incrementally to the fans over time.
It was such new forms of mutualism that the late Tony Banks, Labour’s former sports ministers, argued offered fertile ground for expansion in football. He proposed that greater supporter ownership of clubs would provide a solution to a number of problems in the sport. This is an idea whose time has clearly come – for small clubs and big clubs alike.
Little known, even in the world of football, is the Football Association’s Rule 34. This stipulates that, in the event of a club folding, its assets should go to other local sporting institutions. Along with other provisos, such as imposing articles of association that debarred profiteering by club directors, this rule was drawn up more than 100 years ago to protect the integrity of the game. Perhaps it’s time to resurrect Rule 34 when clubs go to the wall, particularly with regard to those currently in administration.
These issues have been raised in raised in the House Commons by Tony Lloyd, the Labour MP for Manchester Central, with an Early Day Motion and a debate in Parliament that had representatives from all sides insisting that the Government must intervene. However, it is questionable whether this is realistic in light of the demands on the Government from sectors of the economy that have fared far worse than the Premier League in the global recession.
Nevertheless, the enforcement of Rule 34 should be considered, as the FA already has the power to carry out the role of the regulator, but appears unwilling to act. This is unsurprising, given that no one has ever failed the FA’s “fit and proper person” test when it comes who is able to own a football club. However, pressure on the FA to intervene when a club is in trouble would surely assist fans. Pro-supporter legislation in the next Parliament would also help.
In 1997, the incoming Labour Government set up the Football Task Force as a direct response to widespread public concern over the health of the “people’s game”. It was honouring a pre-election pledge. It’s time for Labour to go for something similar again. This would undoubtedly go down well with fans at Old Trafford, Anfield and Fratton Park. Otherwise, the business side of the people’s game will still be able to go laughing all the way to the bank – suggesting that, at least as far as Manchester United is concerned, it will be “till debt do us part” for the fans and the Glazers.
Published in Tribune, 5 March 2010