Manchester United’s fans may be frustrated, but the extraordinary high expectations at the club and the air of [relative] decline that surrounds Old Trafford is also partly a symptom of a corporate culture that has built up over the past 30 years.
While anonymous, shadowy figures hurl abuse at Ed Woodward, the Glazers and possibly the media, United’s unhappy fanatics have to realise that success should be cyclical and the club’s success in the 1990s and 2000s was built on the advantages United accumulated from becoming Britain’s first capitalist club. United floated on the stock market in grand style (I remember the prospectus) and this set them apart from their peer group. But at the same time, being a public company meant they were also vulnerable to takeover or merger. Free market capitalism resulted in the Glazers buying the club and from that point, Manchester United moved into a different business paradigm. US owners like to make money from their sports businesses.
Of course, football fans, historically, don’t like change and the arrival of the Glazers saw the creation of FC United of Manchester as well as the protest Newton Heath scarves. It is doubtful the owners had ever heard of Newton Heath, possibly assuming it was the name of a Republican politician.
Success should be a cyclical thing – there’s nothing more boring than football monopolies
At every stage of United’s evolution, it is a fair bet their supporters have been unhappy, the forlorn cries, “the club belongs to the fans” highlighting just how ill-informed they are about the true ownership model of modern football. With the exception of a handful of supporter-owned clubs, most belong to businessmen or women, oil barons, sharp entrepreneurs and, in a number of cases, financial speculators like private equity groups and hedge funds.
It has been proven that clubs cannot prosper without the generosity of billionaires, for whatever reason they choose to invest in a club, be it soft power plays, relationship building, politics or philanthropy. In most cases, owners do not make money out of their investment, you just have to see reference to “going concern” in club accounts and the capital injections to keep clubs solvent that characterise football balance sheets.
Football’s elevation into a global, multi-faceted industry, like it or not, is down to the involvement of financial and marketing profesionals. The old local businessman model, a la Bob Lord at Burnley, has been superseded by “experts” who have finessed huge broadcasting deals, globalised the sport and attracted unprecedented wealth. The clubs themselves could not be further away from being “belonging to the fans” than they are today. It’s tantamount to heresy to suggest it, but football fans are customers, consumers and emotional stakeholders. Rarely are they partners and owners.
You would like to think that most football fans understand this modern dynamic, which is truthfully not a million miles away from the old. In the past, the wealthy butcher or car salesman underpinned his local club. Today, the oligarch or sheik is doing the same. It’s hard for Manchester United fans to get to the owner, so the public face, the highly-paid former investment banker that is Woodward, is in the firing line. Coming from the world of international high finance, Woodward will appreciate the importance of “the bottom line” more than most. He is an employee of the Glazers, not the fans. He’s made some bad decisions, but not necessarily on the commercial front, it has mainly been on the succession of Sir Alex Ferguson and a series of ill-informed hirings. This is the side of the club the fans are really only interested in, they derive little satisfaction about being at the top of the Deloitte Football Money League.
But… and it is a big but, Woodward does not warrant cowardly attacks on his home, no matter how ineffective the fans believe him to be. No football club has the right to be successful, not even Manchester United. God only knows how the fans that laid siege to his house would have reacted in 1974 when United were really poor and found themselves relegated. At present, they are fifth in the table but they are living in the shadows of a better-run, better-resourced neighbour in Manchester City.
This incident, which is worrying beyond the game of football, is another example of how fans demand that wealthy benefactors fund their passion. For the price of their season ticket, they insist on success that is funded by others yet sneer at any club owner who wants to make a return on investment. Yet United’s position in global football has been built on that very objective. The contradictions are manifold, the attack on Woodward unacceptable, but let’s hope it does no set a precedent. United, like others, will have to wait for their next bout of success. Get over it and show some dignity.