It is now six years since the Glazer family waltzed into Manchester United, encumbering the club with hundreds of millions in debt and incurring the wrath of a legion fans. In the intervening period the family has priced thousands of supporters out of the club, while many more have walked away in disgust. Yet, with the Premier League almost in the bag and a third Champions League final in four years to come, the protests of 18 months ago have died down and fans – at least those still attending Old Trafford – seem content with success on the pitch.
Ffan talk of finances has seemingly been refocused in recent months. After all, Premier League titles from 2007-9, and another heading towards Old Trafford in 2011, together with the 2008 Champions League, is a level of success equal to any other era in the club’s history.
Yet, six years after the Glazers’ extracted control of United their impact is felt more than ever. With £500 million worth of bonds piled on the club and a Payment in Kind (PIK) loan refinanced somewhere in the depths of Delaware, damage has undoubtedly been done to a 133-year-old institution. Not least the £300 million that has been lost to the club in interest and other fees during the Americans’ reign. With the Glazer family seemingly now entrenched at the club, United will continue to haemorrhage money up to and likely beyond the 2017 date on which the bonds mature.
The strained finances have necessitated massive ticket price rises, which on aggregate have increased 55 per cent since 2005. Meanwhile, United’s well-staffed London-based commercial department has sought exploit global sponsorship markets to the fullest extent in response. The club, as always over the past six years, is running just to keep still.
This much has been widely debated of course, with fans now conversant in the language of business that had rarely been witnessed at Old Trafford prior to the 2005 leveraged buyout. Indeed, the ‘green and gold’ protests were provoked by the January 2010 bond prospectus, which laid bare for the first time the extent of United’s debt burden. Short of exchange-rate fluctuations, little has changed in the total debt owed by the club in the intervening 18 months.
Yet, the anger felt by United’s supporters has quelled since its height last season. In part success on the pitch, with short-termism always likely to override long-term concerns, has distracted fans’ focus on money. Moreover, the failure of the so-called Red Knights to mount a realistic bid left many protesters feeling disillusioned, with the palpable inability of organised supporters’ clubs to maintain a protest movement a factor.
In this sense the club has won a public relations war. The dual mantra that the ‘Ronaldo money remains in the bank’ and ‘there’s no value in the market’ is now repeatedly aped by supporters. David Gill’s disingenuous appearance in front of a Parliamentary select committee merely one in a rash of repeatedly contradictory statements issued by the club that has seemingly been swallowed by those willing to listen.
It is the symbol of a fragmented support where many traditional supporters have been priced out of Old Trafford and replaced by the affluent, casual and transient. Perhaps the most distressing element of a sorry epoch in United’s history. The road from here to financial probity and a mutually respectful relationship between club and fans is almost certainly lost forever.
This summer promises more of the same, with another heavy marketing campaign expected while season ticket renewals are a stake. Inflation-rate price rises were predictably met with anger from supporters groups, although in truth the failure of MUST or IMUSA to arrange a widespread boycott during the past six years has negated their power to influence. It is unspoken, but both club and fan groups recognise that enough supporters will renew to prop up the regime.
In all of this the family has not been forced into heavy transfer spending, even in the wake of Wayne Rooney’s October revolution. With the Glazers’ position now set for the foreseeable future, it seems unlikely that the club’s strategy spending strategy will alter either. After all, Gill’s oft-repeated promise that ‘the Ronaldo money’ is still available for Sir Alex Ferguson to spend has not yet been fulfilled.
By contrast the policy to buy young, buy often and buy cheap, is seemingly still in place. It is yet to materially affect United’s chances, although the clubs has now slipped significantly behind rivals at home and abroad in terms of wages paid. While Ferguson, the ace in the family’s sleeve, remains in good health the Scot will surely continue to extract just enough from his charges to remain successful.
Competition is set to increase though. Cross town rivals Manchester City plans another summer of huge spending. City’s failure to sign Rooney last January still rankles in the boardroom. Meanwhile, Roman Abramovich’s lust for football has returned and Liverpool is once again resurgent under Kenny Dalglish’s management. Even Arsène Wenger has spoken of bringing experience into his spineless squad.
Arguably rivals’ failings this season will not be repeated. Six years on from the Glazers’ takeover we cannot be sure that the club has the financial muscle or boardroom will to meet yet another challenge.