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It is not often that Graeme Souness and Liam Gallagher are in agreement. But watching a couple of hundred Manchester United fans take to the Old Trafford pitch on Sunday ahead of the game against Liverpool, the pundit and the parka-clad Oasis frontman both suggested the protest was driven entirely by current disappointment. If United had been winning trophies like they used to, was their argument, the invaders would have been nowhere in sight.
“It was born by Man United no longer being top dogs,” Souness said.
Which was news to Dave Scott, a match-going United fan of some 30 years standing, who was involved in the much larger gathering outside the stadium to protest against the club owners, the Florida-based Glazer family.
“This isn’t down to United’s lack of success but the toxic relationship between the club and the fans,” Scott says. “This isn’t a new thing but has been compounded by the Glazers’ audacity to drive the final nail in with this European Super League nonsense.”
Those taking part insist that to dismiss it as a whinge about lack of titles is to misunderstand how long - and how profoundly - the Glazers have been loathed in the red quarters of Manchester. Nor, they say, were those protesting “not the real fans” of Souness’s dismissal. Had the pandemic not struck, many of those shouting out their anger would have been off to Rome on Thursday to support their team in the Europa League semi-final.
“We’re not throwing the toys out the pram because we’re having a bad run,” says Peter Boyle, a home-and-away match-going United follower who was at the protest with his 11 year old son George. "This is about the Glazers’ utter disregard for the fans since they took control of the club. The Super League was just typical of the way they have always viewed us. They just think they can get away with anything they like. Well maybe now we have given them pause.”
Back in 2005 when the Glazers first took control of Manchester United with a leveraged buy-out, the protests by fans were vociferous and extensive. Encouraged by the success they had had in preventing the club being bought by Sky TV six years earlier, fans took to the streets against the Americans’ reverse takeover. Their claim was that £540million of debt had been foisted on to a business that had been entirely debt free not to improve its competitiveness, but simply for the family, who had not provided a penny of investment of their own, to assume financial control.
However, while the Sky bid had been deemed anti-competitive by government, the Glazer reverse into Old Trafford broke none of the rules. Disappointed at their failure to prevent what they saw as a parasitic new owner, a group of followers set up their own club, FC United of Manchester, to put into practice the principles of fan ownership they believed were being eroded by the Glazers.
Those who remained, however, did not bite their tongues. In 2010, the annual accounts demonstrated much about the owners’ approach after five years in charge. While the debt continued to skyrocket to £716.5million, while profits were only maintained by the sale of Cristiano Ronaldo for £80million, the dividends the family were drawing every year continued to grow, reaching £15million per year for Malcolm Glazer's six children by 2015.
United had seemingly become the personal cash machine of absentee landlords. At the Carling Cup final in 2010, fans were encouraged to wear the green and gold colours of the club’s original shirts when they were founded as Newton Heath. It was to be a visual protest of how they believed the family were abusing an institution forged in the railway yards by working-class Mancunians.
It reached a visual peak when David Beckham picked up a green and gold scarf when he left the Old Trafford pitch as a Milan player in the Champions League quarter-final later that season, although the spark which could have ignited the powderkeg - condemnation from the all-powerful manager Sir Alex Ferguson - never came. Instead, Ferguson always made a habit of defending the owners.
"They have always backed me whenever I have asked them. I have never faced any opposition," he said in 2012. "They have always been as sensible as they can be in terms of financing the club. They have to invest in the team to maintain the value of their asset.
"I think there are a whole lot of factions at United that think they own the club. They will always be contentious about whoever owns the club, and that's the way it's always been."
Either way, the Glazers were unmoved by fan anger. They continued to allow the debt to sit on the club accounts even as the total amount of repayments and dividends to have leaked out of United since 2005 swelled over £1billion. The complaints remained extant, however. Especially after Ferguson retired and the scale of the lack of financial commitment became ever more evident.
As Liverpool, Manchester City, Tottenham and others invested heavily in infrastructure, everything at United remained as it had been when the Glazers took over. A hole in the roof of Old Trafford’s South Stand, which meant a section of the crowd was soaked during a not unwholly unexpected Mancunian downpour, was indicative of their approach: Old Trafford might be the biggest club football stadium in the Premier League, but sections of it are amongst the most dilapidated.
“The club they bought were at the forefront of everything in English and European football,” says Scott. “Now where are we? The stadium doesn’t look too dissimilar to the derelict warehouses in Trafford Park.”
The Glazer-driven European Super League plans announced last month were no surprise for the United fans who had once donned green and gold. They had long insisted that tradition, heritage and competitive accomplishment had been institutionally side-lined in the pursuit of profit. They had also warned United’s was a model of ownership likely to be repeated elsewhere. Now here was final proof.
Deprived by lockdown of the opportunity to voice their discontent from the stands, they instead organised a protest march ahead of the first home league game since the putative breakaway was announced. It was not hard to galvanise a sizable number to turn up. Existing protest networks were quickly humming with plans.
Interestingly, in a statement after the collapse of the Super League idea, Joel Glazer had said he was determined “to listen to the fans”. Almost immediately came practical evidence that no attention was being paid to them. This was not a secret march. It had been widely discussed on social media all week. Yet clearly no-one at the club had noticed or thought it might be an idea to increase security round the stadium.
And, when the angry thousands arrived at the ground, Old Trafford’s rapidly dilapidating condition allowed a group of activists quickly to gain entry, something that would have been impossible in the more secure, modern surrounds of the Tottenham or Etihad stadiums. The excitement of their unexpected ingress was evident on the faces of the trespassers.
“Everyone was buzzing like it was matchday,” says Boyle. “I think the Glazers have inadvertently lit a fuse. There were people there [on Sunday] I’d never expected to be on a demonstration. Ten years ago, they probably wouldn’t have been. But they were there because they realise that what everyone has been saying all these years about the Glazers was right. They think they can get away with whatever they want. Well, we’ve shown that they can’t.”
Though many observers thought the pitch invasion was a step too far, the wider protest garnered significant support. Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville both placed themselves on the opposite side of history to Gallagher and Souness. Roy Keane, meanwhile, acknowledged the length and strength of the anti-Glazer campaign when he said: “The United fans we have to applaud them. They have had enough. That’s why they have reacted as they have. I find it very difficult to criticise them.”
In truth, despite the temporary inconvenience it caused the club, the protest is unlikely to change anything. After all, 16 years of vituperation has not altered the Glazer approach in any way. Not that that will stop the protestors, anxious to recover something long lost. Especially now the Premier League has shown that it abandons games at the merest hint of disruption, the call to challenge is likely to become ever more frequent.
“Sunday was the proudest I’ve been as a Red in a long time,” says Dave Scott.
He was not alone.