“Real fans,” said Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday, will look at the Glazer family’s debt-fueled ownership of Manchester United over the past seven years and conclude that it “has not affected the team.” It was an assertion made by the 70-year-old manager that sparked a furious debate across social media, with Ferguson, not first the first time, accused of insulting supporters.
It was also news to United Rant, having previously failed to realise that the key tenet of being a Manchester United fan is not, as many believe, supporting the team – home, away, in good times and bad – but obsequious sycophancy towards carpetbagging, tax-dodging, profiteers.
And this new definition of fandom was odd to Rant not solely because United finished trophy-less last season; nor because Stoke City has spent more, net, on acquiring new players over the past five years; nor because the ‘Ronaldo money’ was splurged not on new talent, but on buying back debt; nor because Chelsea has invested around the same amount in Eden Hazard over five years that United spent on debt last season; nor because the Glazer family has wasted more than £500 million on debt-related costs since taking over in 2005; nor, even, because the family has transferred ownership of United to the tax-haven ultra-secretive Cayman Islands.
In fact, this definition is news to Rant for one reason only: we have always believed that it is none of Ferguson’s business, no matter all the silverware and glory he has garnered over the past quarter-century, to define what a ‘fan’ is. Not least because many of the most loyal fans have remained deeply enraged by the Glazer takeover, despite Ferguson’s support of the family these past seven years.
Especially when the former shop-steward, who is paid £6 million-a-year plus bonuses by the Glazers, is so inclined throw insults at whomever disagrees with his assessment that the Americans have been “great” for the club.
“They’ve been great,” said Sir Alex, in a carefully stage-managed attack on the Glazer family’s opponents.
“So if you’re asking me for my views, I don’t have any complaints. 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 has always been. There have always been wee pockets of supporters who have their views… but I think the majority of the real fans will look at it realistically and say it’s not affecting the team.”
The real problem with the Glazer family, says Sir Alex, is not the huge drain that debt, which remains at more than £420 million, has bestowed on a once profitable club, but lack of good “publicist.” Rant might conclude that you couldn’t make it up, but Ferguson obviously has.
We have heard much of this before, of course – Sir Alex’ assertion that the family is a “fantastic” owner of a 125-year-old institution, or that there is “no value in the market,” or that fans who don’t like the family should simply ‘f*ck off and support Chelsea,’ or – as in this weekend’s interview with the Mail on Sunday – that it has never been United’s tradition to spend big in the market. That, in fact, the Glazer family is simply holding up a fine United tradition.
On the tenth anniversary of United spending £34 million on Rio Ferdinand, including the £5 million handed to the player’s agent, some fans may have pause for thought on that point. It was a transfer that in today’s terms cost United more than £60 million, according to the excellent Transfer Price Index analysis.
Rant would mention club and British record transfer fees spent on Juan Sebastian Veron, Dimitar Berbatov, Andy Cole, Roy Keane and others during Ferguson’s reign. But that would be too easy.
Yet, while Manchester City is unwilling to countenance fielding young players, Ferguson claims, United is the last bastion of youth – bucking the market to uphold a moral principle dear only to the Scot.
“We buy in the right way and that’s the difference between United and the rest,” Ferguson told his principal cheerleader, Bob Cass.
“We can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. City won’t do it. They definitely won’t play any young players who have come up through the system. Their buys are all 25, 26, 27-year-old established players with a good maturity, experience and good ages.”
It’s an argument that would, of course, have more weight had City’s average player age not been two years lower during the Manchester derby last April. Or if the young United players that started the game – the ones who ‘came through the system’ – weren’t Ryan Giggs, 38, and Paul Scholes, 37.
But all that is a diversion, of course; a deflection from United’s decline, and City’s ascent, in recent years; a red herring, leading the debate away from United’s almost universally criticised Cayman-via-New York IPO. The irony being that hard-nosed US investors will take little notice of Ferguson’s latest Glazer defence – not when the club’s bottom line has been consistently obliterated by debt-related costs since the family’s leveraged buy-out in 2005.
In fact, despite City’s wealth, or the renewed investment by the ‘publicity-shy’ Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, United should remain the biggest fish in the transfer pond given the club’s immense profitability. Only for the profit to be spent almost entirely on debt.
None of that is really the point though. There was time long before the Premier League brought United immense wealth – before all-encompassing commercialisation was even a glint in Peter Kenyon’s eye – that a venerable institution stood on its own feet and competed on a reasonably even playing field. When fans watched football, not bond markets.
Yes, there have been many poor owners in United’s history. As Ferguson asserts, fans complained bitterly about Martin Edwards’ stewardship in the 1980s, and the flotation that took United on to the London Stock Exchange in 1991. This is without mentioning Lou Edwards’ dodgy sausages, or the committees that almost took United into liquidation twice in the 20th century.
None, however, has been so singularly dedicated to extracting ‘value’ for themselves at the club’s expense as the Glazer family. None has ensured United haemorrhaged money in quite the same way.
Nor, Rant suspects, has any manager backed the owners in quite the same way as Ferguson. The world’s greatest living manager, now reduced to attacking supporters who care deeply about the club. It’s no way to maintain a legacy.
But since Rant has never been one to follow Ferguson’s obsequious lead, we’re unlikely to pass the “real fan” test anyway.