As the football season unfolds, will Manchester United’s fans topple its US owners and set a pattern for returning English clubs to their communities?by Sam Knight / August 24, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
Fever pitch: Manchester United supporters protest outside Old Trafford against the Glazer family, the club’s American owners
On a bright morning in July, in football’s brief off-season, the red patch of concrete in front of Old Trafford, Manchester United’s vast, girder-pronged stadium, was almost deserted. A few days earlier and thousands of miles away, England’s static and over-hyped team had been knocked out of the World Cup by Germany. Next to a bronze statue of the United Trinity—the imperious attacking line of George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton from the late 1960s—a plump girl, perhaps eight years old, was jumping up and down in front of her father’s camera.
The background on which the father was trying to pin the girl, mid-air, was a giant poster showing Old Trafford through the ages. Above the words “100 years in the making,” was a football match—black-and-white on the left, full colour on the right—showing the sport’s evolution from a game played in baggy shorts before flat-capped crowds, open to the grey skies, to the unmitigated sunshine of the Premier League.
Standing nearby was a man called Willy. Willy was a clown until he got a job last year selling £8 scarves outside Old Trafford. He carried his merchandise—great coils of green and gold polyester like cartoon pythons—around his neck and shoulders. Green and gold were the colours once worn by Newton Heath, a football team formed by railway workers in 1878, which went bust and was rescued by four businessmen in 1902, who rechristened the club Manchester United.
Last season, the forgotten colours of Newton Heath became the shades of unrest at Manchester United, as thousands of fans donned the scarves to protest against the club’s owners, the Glazer family of Palm Beach, Florida. The Glazers, shopping mall magnates who also own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, an American football team, took over in 2005. The team has enjoyed major sporting success in the last five years, but the period has—in the fans’ eyes at least—been defined by the Glazers’ extraction of money from the club for personal loans, mysterious “management fees” and, chiefly, to service the interest on the £700m they still owe for buying the club.