Sean Bones, vice-chair of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) says that the Football Association and government were derelict in their duty when it came to the 2005 buyout of the club by the Glazer family. The Glazers have since loaded the club with more than £716 million in debt, which will cost United £565 million before 2017.
MUST, which has seen membership rocket to more than 120,000 in the past week, is working closely with the so-called Red Knights on a plan to oust the Glazer family from the club with a £1 billion plus offer.
Recent reports claim that the Red Knights, who include Jim O’Neil, Paul Marshall and Keith Harris, number more than 60 with £1.5 billion in pledges made towards a bid for the club.
“The Red Knights are opening the door to supporters. The supporters are the big players here,” Bones told Sky Sports News today.
“MUST has grown to more than 100,000 members and we hope to have 125,000 by the Milan game. That’s more than the official One United membership scheme.”
Should a buyout attempt prove successful, the Knights will enable a large chunk of the club to rest in supporters’ hands, says Bones. Although the Knights are yet to offer a transparent view of their business model, MUST is confident that any takeover will happen with supporters’ interests at heart.
“We have the best financial representatives in the country. Everything will be transparent, everything will be agreed by the supporters en masse,” adds Bones.
“We’re very very confident, we’ve got to give them [the Red Knights] a chance and be happy they’re working with us and want to create something special.
“It’s the aspiration of the Supporters’ Trust and the Red Knights to give supporters the chance to own part of the club, eliminate the debts as quickly as possible and reinvest the profits of the club in football so we can reduce the ticket prices and have the best players.”
But Bones is far more scathing about the FA’s role, who failed to put any roadblock in the Glazers’ path during the 2005 takeover. The FA has generally taken a laissez faire attitude to football regulation despite a number of controversial owners in the Premier and Football Leagues.
While United and Liverpool have each been loaded with debt from leveraged buyouts, Southend, Portsmouth and Crystal Palace have gone into administration this season. More worrying still, Notts County and Leeds United’s owners have passed “fit and proper” ownership tests this season without the fans knowing shareholders’ real identities.
“My personal opinion is that there has been a dereliction of duty on behalf of the government and the FA,” says Bones.
“Politicians seem to recognize this now but the FA has to be part of it. It should never be allowed to happen again.”
MUST, committed to at least partial fan-ownership, is yet to comment on what stake it believes supporters will hold if the Knights make a successful bid. Fans need to own at least 25.1 per cent to block any future takeover or flotation.
Meanwhile FA chair Lord Triesman, often pilloried as the epitome of weakness in football regulation, says that fans are right to be concerned but stopped short of criticising the huge debt the Glazer family has piled on United. Triesman, appointed as “independent” FA chair in 2008, says that fans have played a key role in clubs with financial difficulties.
Perhaps the best example of fan-run clubs are Real Madrid and Barcelona, who operate as democratic organisations with Presidential elections every four years. Barcelona has more than 160,000 voting members.
“There are some good fan-run clubs and there have been in England too – there have been some clubs in difficulties where the fans have been the decisive factor such as York City and Bournemouth,” says Triesman.
“Broadly speaking we are organised around companies and company law and I think that is a reality of our circumstance.
“But I don’t think that fact alters the way in which fans look at their club and the way it is treasured in a way that not all that many social institutions are.
“I am really not saying Manchester United cannot deal with its overall financial arrangements but of course fans do take a view about whether their club is all right.”
Indeed, MUST’s 120,000 members means that the organisation is one of the largest supporters’ groups in world football and a powerful voice for change at United. It is this growing base, which the group hopes will reach one million in the coming months, that may prove crucial in a future attempted buyout.