Not so much at the indefensible lengths some went to – breaking into Old Trafford, running onto its pitch and into the Covid-19 secure “red zone” before a game, throwing flares in the direction of television pundits including Roy Keane, criminal damage, injuring police officers and so on – but the fact they were protesting at all.
Some misinterpreted it as being about Manchester United’s failed attempt to set up a breakaway European league but it was specifically against their owners, the Glazer family.
But hang on, have the Glazers not (badly) spent £2.9bn on wages and £1bn net (by the reckoning of finance expert Swiss Ramble) on transfers? Are they not second in the Premier League and, except for an almighty collapse tonight, heading for the Europa League final?
What the protestors were angry about had little to do with either – they were protesting when Sir Alex Ferguson was churning out trophies – it was about the lack of respect and accountability the family have shown a footballing institution and them, and that should concern all fans.
The Glazers loaded £525m of debt onto a then debt-free club so they could buy it in 2005. Sixteen years on it is at much the same level but they have creamed off the best part of £122m in dividends, whilst lenders made £500m in interest. Their contempt towards fans is illustrated by Old Trafford’s leaking roof and the fact that days after promising to “better communicate with you, our fans”, neither Joel Glazer nor his siblings deigned to attend a virtual fans forum.
But that is Manchester United. Many rival fans will enjoy watching that club rip itself apart.
The worry is even if your club is well run at the moment, it could fall into the hands of owners as contemptuous as the Glazers because the safeguards are so weak.
How is it even legal to buy an institution and make it borrow the money to do so?
What is the point of “fit and proper persons tests” and “financial fair play” rules that allow such unfit people to behave so unfairly? Too many lower-profile clubs suffer similar disdain and/or recklessness.
Under Andrea Radrizzani, Leeds United are run respectfully, sensibly and ambitiously. The players deferred wages to protect off-field jobs in the first Covid-19 lockdown, but their generosity – in contrast to many squads – was partly a product of the culture created around Billy Bremner’s “side not self” motto. Plans to redevelop Elland Road feed into respect for Leeds’ history and a desire to progress but the cautious timescale is important too.
Even under Radrizzani’s stewardship and Marcelo Bielsa’s coaching, Leeds are still not where they were before Peter Ridsdale’s recklessness started a slide others perpetuated. Bradford City’s recovery is even further off after risks which could have ended as they did for Bury, Halifax Town and Scarborough.
It feels like Sheffield Wednesday owner/chairman Dejphon Chansiri cannot speak without disrespecting Owls supporters. If you listened only to him, you would think their negativity was solely to blame for facing relegation this weekend.
Like the Glazers, Chansiri has overseen significant spending on players and unlike them often from his own pocket, but his disregard for financial fair play means if the Owls drop into League One, their six-point deduction for Hillsborough’s sale and lease-back will have made the difference. Chansiri can complain about the rules and protest innocence but it was only needed because of years of the club spending money it did not have.
If for many Wednesdayites ticket prices are the biggest symbol of Chansiri’s contempt, at Hull City it was the Allam family’s 2013-14 attempt to change the name to Hull Tigers.
A non-football fan might not get it, no more a reason to cut ties than stop buying Opal Fruits when they became Starbursts, but those that understand the game know why these things matter.
Better safeguards are needed and the iron is hot.
The European breakaway reawakened anti-Glazer protests and with its architects weakened, the Premier League is wasting no time pushing rules to punish another attempt.
But the Government and footballing authorities must give fans proper representation – not just box-ticking forums the Glazers and company can dodge. Savvy clubs should get ahead of the curve.
Aping Germany’s 50+1 rule where fans hold majority stakes is not the way, at least at elite level. Some in the Bundesliga question it as an obstacle to investment, others driving a horse and cart through it.
Boardroom representation, though, should happen. Fans must be able to put the brakes on fundamental changes – name changes, moving from London to Milton Keynes, debt-leveraged buyouts, super leagues. This column suggested Chelsea Pitch Owners as a model to consider.
Full democracy is not the way. If Grant McCann’s future was put to a public vote last season, Hull’s League One-winning manager would have been sacked. Big decisions have to be made by those who can see behind the scenes, but they must be accountable.
Clubs are emotional monopolies. A Rotherham United fan cannot suddenly support a rival.
The helplessness Manchester United supporters felt after 16 years of banging heads against brick walls led to some inexcusable behaviour. To avoid copycats at Hillsborough, the KCOM Stadium or anywhere else, collaborative avenues must be opened.
Anyone who understands football knows clubs with fans behind them are far more powerful than those without. Every club should want that and those that do not should be forced to have it anyway.
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