Manchester United supporters will gather outside Old Trafford on Monday night for a massive match against Liverpool, but also for a protest. Some will meet at Tollgate, a nearby pub. They’ll march toward the Trinity, a famous statue outside the stadium. And thousands of them will, in some form or fashion, tell the Glazer family, Man United’s American owners, to get their hands off English soccer’s most famous club.
Some have been protesting since 2005, when the Glazers, who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, bought a majority stake in the club. Their controversial 2005 takeover is what most of the present-day hatred stems from. Eight years of on-field success under Sir Alex Ferguson tempered that hatred, but nine years of mismanagement and on-field embarrassment since have unleashed it.
It boiled over last spring when the Glazers and their henchman, now-former Man United CEO Ed Woodward, helped hatch the infamous plot for a European Super League. Prior to United’s first home game after the plot was foiled by widespread backlash, anti-Glazer supporters broke into Old Trafford, protested on the pitch, and forced the game’s postponement.
This time around, the catalyst for anger was a 4-0 loss at Brentford that left United 20th out of 20 in the Premier League after two weeks. “We don’t normally comment on matches,” the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust said in a statement, “but extraordinary times call for a different approach.” The “humiliating” result, the representative fan group said, felt “like the culmination of a long-term direction of travel.” They blamed the owners “for this new low in our decade of decline,” and demanded “urgent and radical change.”
A more vocal anti-Glazer group, The 1958, organized this latest protest to “show the world our deep discontent for this vile ownership, [a]n ownership that is systematically starving and killing the greatest football institution in [the] world.” And over the years, they have explained why they believe that to be the case.
The controversial Glazer takeover
Malcolm Glazer, the late family patriarch, bought his first shares in Manchester United in 2003, and ultimately spent some 790 million pounds — over $1.4 billion at the time — to acquire nearly 100% of the club in 2005. He did so via a controversial method known as a leveraged buyout.
He essentially took out a nine-figure loan, used it to buy the club, and foisted the resultant debt onto the club. The family has since used over 700 million pounds (over $1 billion) in Manchester United revenue to service that debt — to pay the interest on it. Many fans interpreted this as Manchester United, their beloved social institution, paying an American billionaire so that the American billionaire and his family could own the institution — and squeeze money out of it.
And although some of the debt has been paid off over 17 years, it has not disappeared. United’s annual interest payments are still the highest in the EPL. Since 2010, the club has paid almost as much in interest as the rest of the league combined.
Focusing on the last 12 years, #MUFC £517m interest payment is nearly three times as much as the next highest club, namely #AFC with £174m. Looked at another way, it is almost as much as the rest of the Premier League combined (£536m). pic.twitter.com/0kPnmd5F6e
— Swiss Ramble (@SwissRamble) August 16, 2022
The debt has not prevented the Glazers from shelling out for players. Over the past decade, United’s net spend on transfers (over $1.1 billion) is the highest in global soccer. Its wage bill is unceasingly enormous.
The issue, though, is two-fold: 1) The money has not been spent well on players, and 2) the gigantic sum used to service the debt has seemingly left less-visible facets of the club — the academy, the training facility, the stadium — underfunded and, in the eyes of many fans, “rotting.”
Manchester United's ruthless commercialism
United can still spend big on players because it is a sprawling commercial enterprise for which the Glazers are partially responsible. Under their ownership, the club’s annual revenue more than doubled from roughly $305 million in 2004-05 to over $800 million in 2018-19, the last full season pre-pandemic.
The primary reasons for that surge, of course, are that United has always been one of soccer’s most popular brands, and that revenues in English soccer have soared across the board this century. But United’s savvy and ruthless commercialism was ahead of its time. It allowed United to keep financial pace with clubs achieving more on-field success, and left others who didn’t adopt similar commercial strategies in the dust.
That ruthless commercialism, though, has also rankled fans, many of whom generally resist the capitalist urges that now govern the sport. In fact, nearly every foreign owner of a Premier League club has incited skepticism. The Glazers, though, are the most despised.
They have run United less like a soccer club, more like a soulless company. Until last year, the club’s two most influential decision-makers in transfer dealings were Woodward and Matt Judge. The latter was originally the "head of corporate development." Both were finance bros who crossed paths decades ago at PricewaterhouseCoopers and JP Morgan, and who had relatively little experience in soccer.
With Judge negotiating contracts and Woodward closing deals, and without legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson presiding over the soccer side of the club, United spun into a cycle of misguided signings, lackluster performance and crisis.
And all along, the Glazers, who initially promised to connect with fans, have been astonishingly silent.
Glazer hatred goes mainstream
The Glazers did not prevent Ferguson from continuing to win. He lifted five Premier League trophies and a Champions League crown in the eight seasons between the Glazers’ takeover and his 2013 retirement. But in many ways, he papered over cracks that had begun to appear, and that have since become visible for all to see.
And as they have, the discontent, which for years survived in a vocal minority, has gone mainstream.
Some of that vocal minority would still frequent Old Trafford and roar players on to championships, but, starting in 2010, they’d sport green and gold scarves as a symbol of protest. Others disavowed the club and started their own, FC United of Manchester. Results under Ferguson quelled the fierce resistance that had initially greeted the Glazers at Old Trafford, but didn’t completely squash it.
It began to regain steam in early 2020. Anti-Glazer chants crescendoed. A small faction within the resistance attacked Woodward’s house.
The owners themselves aren’t often present in Manchester — Malcolm died in 2014, and his three sons who now control most of the club, Joel, Avram and Bryan, live in the U.S. — so they are somewhat sheltered from the vitriol. And it naturally ebbed again when COVID-19 struck in 2020 and stadiums emptied.
But the Super League fiasco reignited it. An eight and ninth season without a true Premier League title challenge have since sustained it. A new manager brought cute storylines and cautious hope, but two season-opening losses confirmed that the same forces that have powered the crisis cycle since 2013 are still at play.
And so, on Monday night, the fans will gather at 5:30 p.m. local time, march at 7, and chant until the 8 p.m. kickoff. Some will enter the ground and cheer on their beleaguered players; others won’t. All will implore the Glazers to sell up.
"Bring the heat, bring the noise, bring the passion," The 1958 wrote in a message to supporters. "Let’s show the Glazer family that this time it will not blow over."