Late on Wednesday evening the news broke that Manchester United owner Malcolm Glazer had died in his mid-eighties. Having been largely incapacitated by a stroke in 2006, Glazer had effectively passed the day-to-day running of the business to his sons, Joel and Avram and, remarkably, never set foot inside Old Trafford. This is not surprising given his ill health and the strength of feeling against the family since their leveraged takeover, when the purchase of United was effectively financed by the club’s own money, £525m of debt being foisted onto a previously highly profitable ‘in the black’ business. Since 2005, huge interest bills, legal fees and refinancing costs have sucked hundreds of millions of pounds out of the club’s coffers and net spending on player acquisitions rapidly declined after an early splurge to well below the levels of the outlays not only of immediate competitors but also several historically mid-table clubs.
The summer of 2009 perhaps best summarised the extent of the financial malaise that afflicted Manchester United, as Cristiano Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid for £80m and Carlos Tevez defected across town to City in a deal which is reported to have made his third party owners in the region of £47m. Challenged with replacing two key figures in a team which had won three consecutive titles and a European Cup, Sir Alex Ferguson invested a total of just under £20m on Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Michael Owen. The remainder from the Ronaldo sale was soon eaten away by legal and refinancing costs associated with unwinding the high-interest debt taken on to purchase the club. Unsurprisingly, the League title was lost and whilst the game’s greatest manager delivered a further two titles and a chastening Champions League final defeat to Barcelona at Wembley, lack of investment has resulted in gradual decline. After the relatively cheap and inexperienced David Moyes was charged with taking over the reins of a squad consisting of a few stars, a plethora of average footballers and some former greats on the downhill slope, the club’s and the Glazer’s chickens came home to roost. Throw in the disastrous 2013 summer transfer window, overseen by an inexperienced ‘yes man’ VP in Ed Woodward and we are left with a ship very much on the rocks.
There have been a number of previous hoaxes, fake social media accounts announcing Malcolm Glazer’s death, and so we knew what to expect when the genuine news of his passing was first transmitted across the web by the official Tampa Bay Buccaneers twitter stream. And yet, even with prior knowledge of what was to follow, the response of many disappointed and bemused in equal measure. Whilst there was some sensible, reasoned comment, the vast majority inhabited the extreme ends of the spectrum of opinion. In some cases matters, unsurprisingly, descended in to bitter debate, not only amongst United fans, but also between Reds and the wider football community. It seemed like a grand waste of everyone’s time and effort, for the death of the Glazer patriarch will likely have little impact on the running or immediate future of the football club.
At one end of the spectrum were those who reacted to the news in celebratory fashion. At the other we witnessed fellow United fans reacting with genuine sentiment and heartfelt condolences about a man none had ever met or knew much about. Both left me with a feeling of distinct disquiet and both seemed to be a part of concurrent games of one-upmanship, so often the case on social media when a notable figure dies.
A strong dislike of Glazer and the way in which he placed an institution that we all adore, not just in a straight-jacket, but initially in a state where its continued existence was in doubt, is entirely justifiable. Throw in the fact that it was essentially the fans who were and still are expected to pay for the privilege of seeing the American’s family profit and dislike turns to loathing. Despite the very occasional conciliatory words from Avram and Joel, the Glazer family care not one iota for Manchester United or its fans, their only motivation being their own personal enrichment. They chose to buy a football club knowing that they were trading for profit in the emotions and dreams of millions of people. The titles won subsequent to the takeover in 2005 are a testament not to benevolent owners but to the managerial genius of one man, Sir Alex, a coach able to wring every last drop of ability out of the declining group of players in his charge. Whilst the exact figures are a source of some conjecture and potentially inflated by some to further their own agendas, the loss to the club and, therefore, the fans runs far in to nine figures, a staggering sum amounting to the equivalent of a whole team of world-class footballers or more. Despite our success we have been cheated and it could and should have been even more. The richest club in world football became the most indebted, from pontiff to pauper overnight despite, initially at least, significant ticket price increases. Whilst the leveraged buyout may be fair game within the wider business world, sports clubs are unique entities to whom millions hold emotional attachment and morally United were most certainly not a reasonable acquisition. As the stickers that appeared on walls throughout the country read, “Love United. Hate Glazer.”
And yet it feels wrong that the hatred of what one man has done to our club should stretch to initially wishing death upon him and then celebrating its coming to pass. He was a ruthless and, despite what some might claim, largely wily, dispassionate and successful businessman. What he was not was a murderer, a rapist, an individual who brought physical suffering or trauma on others. As far as we are aware he was a family man, with six children who will no doubt feel the loss in the same manner that we would mourn our own flesh and blood. He was not evil. And thus it feels inappropriate to take pleasure in his passing, not least because it changes the club’s predicament not one jot. Rumours abound that as many as three of the siblings want out but that the other three are steadfast in their desire to remain in control of the club unless offered a truly staggering amount to part with their 90% holding. The sun still rose this morning, will set this evening and the interest payments on the outstanding debt will continue to be drawn from the club. As strongly as I feel about the cancerous Glazer ownership I cannot take pleasure in Malcolm’s death any more than I can feel sentimental and mournful about the passing of a man I never met, did not know but whose actions I so strongly opposed. Taking part in social media Top Red contests to be the most sorrowful or vulgar are pointless and paint us as fans and our cause in a bad light.
In contrast to the rejoicing we had the mourning and the RIPs, faux sentiment towards a total stranger. “But he oversaw the most successful period in the club’s history and has grown revenues beyond imagination”, we hear. The first of these points has already been dealt with. Sir Alex was the mastermind behind those titles, or most certainly those beyond 2009 when the money dried up. Any evaluation of spending beyond that date demonstrates a net drop off on comparison to our competitors despite money continuing to pour in to the club’s coffers. Unfortunately those coffers sprang a leak and the cash drained away almost as quickly as it was earned. There is no doubt that United’s commercial operation has grown beyond any expectations under the Glazer ownership, as a flood of novel and innovative revenue streams have been exploited. But even taking these gains into account the cost of the takeover remains far into the red. What benefit is an efficient money-making business if a large proportion of that cash is not reinvested into the company? Are trophies handed out today for off-pitch success? The Glazers got lucky in that they had Sir Alex and, in recent years, have hit the jackpot with the new TV deal. The business is no longer under serious pressure and yet, as of today, we are yet to see the club reinvest anything like the sum of its earnings into the acquisition of players. Even if that were to change this summer it could never make up for what has been taken from us. As recently as last year, as the club briefed about vast ‘war chests’, the best part of £70m was siphoned away to fund the refinancing of half of the outstanding debt with the Bank of America and to pay off a portion of the principle sum. Following the relatively recent IPO it should not be forgotten that approximately half of the proceeds were passed to the owners rather than being used to reduce the gross debt. There can be no measure by which anyone can evidence the Glazers as good owners and those fans who trumpet them as such are suffering from an unimaginable level of ignorance about the club they profess to support.
Perhaps equally galling were the actions of sticky-beaks and the hard of thinking from the fan-bases of other clubs, lining up to lament Glazer’s passing simply because they considered him to be a member of the embarrassingly pathetic artificial construct that is the ‘football family’. There is no football family. No one in football cares about anyone else or gives a monkeys about your lives or suffering, least of all a group of money-hungry Americans. Part of this fake sentiment involved condemning anyone from within the United support who offered a negative appraisal of Malcolm Glazer’s contribution to our club. Some fairly objected to the celebrations, but others considered us ‘ungrateful’ and ‘classless’ for not offering our condolences or rapturous adoration. This included a number of Liverpool fans who, obviously, added that they hoped that the Floridian “Never Walks Alone”. The irony of this, after a similarly leveraged buyout of their club by Messrs Hicks and Gillett took them to the brink of administration and ruin, appeared to be totally lost on them. The opinions of fans of other clubs appeared to be borne out of ignorance, but this is a limited mitigating factor. Football finance is perhaps the most pertinent topic within the sport today and it is always best to take the view that if it’s something you don’t fully understand then it’s best not to stick your oar in until you do. Tribalism also plays a part, but merely exposes once again the grand hypocrisy within football. Every plague that is suffered by a rival club is to be celebrated, but should it happen to your beloved institution then a whole new set of moral guidelines are to be adhered to. One wonders when fans will start to realise that what threatens others in football is usually a symptom of a wider problem which will most likely have consequences for the rest of their God-awful ‘football family”. As so many other clubs have found, the rules regarding club ownership are utterly inadequate and leave every single one open to predatory takeovers and incompetent governance. If it happens at United, the biggest club in the country, then it is a warning that it can happen to anyone. That fans of other clubs remain so ignorant of what is going on around them and so tribal in their reactions is depressing. That some United fans cannot see what has been going on under their own noses for 9 years is beyond comprehension.
Perhaps the death of Malcolm Glazer will, if nothing else, help to educate some about the deeply damaging leveraged buyout model within football and at United. If you are a red and it isn’t of interest to you as long as the team are winning matches then take this opportunity, when they aren’t, to acquaint yourselves as to why you should care. It was apathy that contributed to the takeover occurring in the first place and that scuppered the subsequent attempts to starve the Glazers out and make the world aware of the club’s plight. That apathy extends beyond the fans to those at the very top of football governance. It still seems remarkable that UEFA’s Financial Fair Play regulations penalise clubs with wealthy benefactors, willing to plough millions of pounds into the game, but permits predatory owners intent on taking huge sums out of football. Change will only occur through education and pressure within the game. What won’t make any difference is mindless squabbling, revelling in a man’s death or glorifying his deeply questionable and emotive foray into football club ownership. Malcolm Glazer was a hard-nosed businessman, intent on profit at the expense of a historic institution and its fans. His purchase of Manchester United was deeply divisive and has damaged a grand football club and its relationship with many of its supporters. Morally there can be no excuses. We had every right to despise him. But he was not, as far as we know, evil, and nor was he a saint. His death should be marked neither by celebration nor deification. It changes nothing and extremes of behaviour merely damage our cause. Take the opportunity to inform and highlight the issues, but bickering and one-upmanship serve no purpose. The king is dead, but his legacy remains unchanged, an ownership model which should continue to dismay fans of all clubs and football administrators. There but for the grace of God go you.