The relationship between club and supporters is a nuanced one. In recent years many clubs, save for those actually owned by the fans, have sought to change that relationship. No longer one of homogeneity – fans turned up, paid at the gate and the team performed – to one that emphasises commercialism. In short, from fandom to custom. Indeed, since the Glazer takeover at Old Trafford the American family has not only raised prices by close to 50 per cent but revelled in the fact, boasting of its ability to do so in last January’s bond document.
Support is, of course, both ephemeral in nature and what economists call price-inelastic. That is, while the casual supporter – the 300 million ‘fans’ David Gill so often boasts of – will come and go with good times and bad, regulars will accept increasingly high prices before removing their custom. The Glazer family has traded on it for more than five years.
Yet, when Thomas McKenna last summer allegedly leaked details of companies whom purchase executive facilities at Old Trafford, amid one of the most aggressive marketing campaigns ever undertaken by the club, he retained the support of many fans. After all, dismayed by the Glazers debt-fuelled ownership of United, disenfranchised through price rises and arrogantly dismissed by the club’s management, fans were rightly angry.
Today, the club filed long-expected papers in the high court, suing McKenna for “losses and damages” that the club claims was brought about by the Tameside resident. The now defunct website wewantglazerout.com published a list of more than 400 customers, mostly local businesses, alongside a press release claiming the leak came “with the assistance of senior employees of MUFC who oppose the Glazer family’s asset stripping of our club.”
United has previously denied both that a senior executive could have helped McKenna or indeed that the action had any effect on the bottom line. Yet today the club followed Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s precedent and is taking a United supporter to court. The Glazers’ NFL club sued supporters locked into lengthy season ticket bonds. Hardly surprising given Malcolm Glazer’s predilection for litigation with his own family.
“The defendant’s express purpose in publishing the list was to embarrass and exert pressure and to incite others to exert pressure upon the clients,” the papers said.
“The theft of data led to some of the companies named on the list having their property attacked and suffering significant personal distress. The club has a duty to demonstrate to all our fans that we will not tolerate that and will take action against the perpetrators. We take data security very seriously. Doing nothing was not an option.”
Yet, no evidence has ever been filed that supports these claims and while Greater Manchester Police last August claimed to have arrested “a 43-year-old man from Tameside … on suspicion of an offense under the computer misuse act” no charges were ever filed. McKenna, under any definition, is innocent of a crime.
Why then, with no material losses, no evidence of criminality and no mole uncovered within the club, has United chosen to take legal action? After all, it will be almost impossible to place a value on the club’s supposed losses that were once strenuously denied by Gill. It is a decision that “smells horribly of action being taken out of spite” concludes blogger Andersred.
Legal details aside, there is a question of whether fans can ever have the same relationship with a club that turns on one of them. What is it that fans actually support – the club? The team? Players, manager, or simply a concept? Some will brush off the club’s latest assault on supporters, just as too many fans have ignored David Gill’s regular insult of their collective intelligence. That Sir Alex Ferguson once told a fan to “fuck off and support Chelsea” is now largely forgotten.
Indeed, some United fans will support the club’s action against McKenna too. After all, those apologists for the Glazer family often react as if criticism of the regime’s business model is an attack on ‘their’ team. Partisanship, it seems, has few boundaries.
Others will view McKenna’s actions as this of a martyr; not dissimilar, perhaps, from Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. If knowledge is power then control of that information has the power to cause considerable embarrassment and change.
In court United must prove not only did McKenna knowingly act with the malice apportioned to him but that the damages done are monetiseable; that businesses failed to renew their executive facilities not because of the economic climate, nor the Green and Gold campaign, but because of intimidation brought about as a direct of the fan’s actions.
Victory will bring little of value to United, except retribution for the embarrassment caused. A marker perhaps; a show of power. It is little more than the actions of a bully. Then again, the club has been arrogantly doing that for years.