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James Gibson’s legacy 80 years on

December 19, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 7 comments

“There is room in Manchester for two clubs,” said James William Gibson upon effectively taking over Manchester United on 19 December 1931. Manchester City was then the region’s premier club, and United, by contrast, was on its knees after years of financial mismanagement and falling crowds. In debt to the tune of thousands, the club went cap in hand to Gibson, a successful local businessman. Salfordian by birth, Gibson became United’s second financial saviour of the early 20th century, bailing out the club and laying the foundations for success to come.

Today, there are parallels between heavily indebted modern United and the club of the 1930s, although the Reds of 1931 would not have lasted the winter but for Gibson’s significant financial aid. United’s peril deepened as the great depression took hold, and crowds fell to below 10,000 at Old Trafford, with the team sliding between First and Second Divisions.

Gibson, the eldest of three children, was brought up by his paternal grandmother after his parents died young. But the orphan owned an astute eye for business, starting his started his first company manufacturing military uniforms after 15 years working for his uncle. With the Manchester textile industry booming, Gibson’s Collyhurst factory expanded into uniforms for transport and other workers after the First World War. It proved to be a successful venture – one that would prove central to United’s rich history.

At the club’s request, Gibson ploughed £2,000 into United through the winter of 1931/32, ensuring the players’ wages were paid. Later he would spend another £40,000 to keep the club afloat through the economic downturn, funded the rebuilding of Old Trafford after the Second World War, and then had to vision to start the youth academy – Manchester United Junior Athletic – that produced the Busby Babes. More than a benefactor though, Gibson became United’s chairman, appointing Matt Busby manager after the war.

James Gibson

Source: Andrew Embling

The saviour’s legacy, superbly documented in far great detail elsewhere, was recognised by Trafford Borough Council in 2001 with a bright red plaque at the railway bridge on Sir Matt Busby Way. Thousands walk past the lasting memory to an a hugely important part of the club’s history each match day.

And on Monday morning, eighty years to the day after Gibson’s gesture of solidarity with the club, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) recognised his legacy once again. Together with Gibson’s relatives, MUST and the Mayor of Trafford laid flowers at the James Gibson Plaque. Unsurprisingly no Glazer family members chose to mark the occasion. Why would they, for Gibson’s story is antithetic to United’s current owners.

Indeed, without Gibson there would be no modern Manchester United; no 76,000 capacity Old Trafford, no multi-million pound players, no global ‘brand’, and certainly no 19th domestic title last May. With the club on the precipice of extinction in 1931, the Salfordian created the environment in which United could survive and then eventually thrive in the years to come.

Moreover, unlike the club’s current owners Gibson did it not for profit, but through genuine selflessness and at huge personal financial risk. What greater contrast to the Glazer family could there be. After all the family has invested not a penny in the modern United, while sucking out millions in personal loans, management fees and debt repayment.

Gibson’s philanthropy is also a reminder of a football world now lost, when local businessmen ran clubs not to generate untold millions in profit, but as a service to the local community. This is not simply nostalgia either. In a similar vein to the mutuals that still exist in Spain and elsewhere, local businessmen once owned for the greater good.

This, after all, is how organised football eventually thrived in England. United, formed as Newton Heath LYR FC in 1878, was a workers union until financial difficulty required the club’s first bailout, by John Henry Davies, in 1902. Clubs all over the country were formed as unions, or Church and school teams, before being taken into largely private, but local hands. At United, it was not until Martin Edwards inherited the club from his father in the 1980s that the club’s owners sought to extract significant profits. In any case, FA rules precluded directors from taking a salary until 1981.

So raise a glass in toast – one that is 80 years in the making – to James William Gibson. United’s saviour.

From the Manchester Guardian, Tuesday 22 December 1931

Manchester Guardian Tuesday, December 22, 1931

Source: Guardian Archives.

Glazers’ dual track IPO gets green light

September 16, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 30 comments

The Glazer family will list Manchester United on the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) this autumn after local authorities gave the American family a green light for the partial IPO. The family will sell off around a third of United’s shares in a much-discussed dual track listing that will raise money but ensure the Glazers remain in Old Trafford control. Amid speculation over pricing, with the family seeking around £600 million for a 25 – 35 per cent listing, United could float by mid-October if the Glazers drum up enough local interest.

Yet, with controversy surrounding the dual track nature of the shares being offered – investors will be required to purchase non-voting preference shares in addition to ordinary stock – many questions remain about the IPO’s potential success. Not least just how attractive the Glazer family will make preference share dividends for investors who will have little influence on the club’s future strategic direction.

“They have received approval but the timetable is not fixed,” a ‘source’ close to the IPO told newswire AFP on Friday.

“The company is not in need of funds so they are not in a hurry to list. Basically, they are keeping a watching brief on market conditions. Now that there is approval, they can roll out any time.”

The SGX go ahead will allow United to open formal talks with potential anchor investors, while a prospectus and tour are likely in the coming weeks. The club is believed to have already held informal discussions with investment company Temasek Holdings, which is owned by the Government of Singapore.

SGX’s go-ahead comes amid fresh speculation in the Mirror that the Qatari Royal family is prepared to offer £1.6 billion for total acquisition of the club. In reality United may approach the Qatari’s to take a significant, if minority, shareholding on flotation, with the Glazers now convinced IPO will maximise the family’s profits. Full sale is surely likely only if the IPO gravy-train fails in the coming weeks. After all, with the eurozone debt crisis showing no signs of abating, markets globally have become twitchy about new listings.

However, Qatar is making significant noises in the football market, having won the right to host the 2022 World Cup finals, while members of the Royal family has invested in Malaga and French Paris St Germain. The Qatari Foundation struck a record-breaking shirt sponsorship with Barcelona last season.

“The Mirror understands that a delegation from the Qatari royal family, headed by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, will be in Manchester on Monday in a bid to conclude the deal,” said the paper on Friday.

“Top Middle East sources revealed last night that an official approach to the Glazer family is being made and a deal could even be clinched by next week. The super-rich Qataris think United is a good deal – even at the profit it would make for the current rulers.”

Doubts remain about the IPO’s potential for success, with the family seeking to retain around 90 per cent control on flotation. The dual track listing means each ordinary share will be sold with a preference share. While preference shares hold no voting rights they will attract higher dividends and first option of repayment in the unlikely event that United is made insolvent. In practice this means that post-IPO United is likely to pay out higher annual dividends than if the Glazer family went for a standard listing.

“Football clubs around the world are mostly quite closely held and not very transparent,” Pearlyn Wong at Bank Julius Baer & Co., told Bloomberg on Friday.

“They don’t like to give up voting rights so they can make faster decisions over things like players and management. Usually preference shares come as a follow-up offering, rather than at the IPO stage. Whether people will receive the share structure well depends on how much dividends they can get and whether the company has the cashflows to support it.”

United recently reported annual pre-tax and interest (EBITDA) earnings of £110.9 million for the year to the end of June 2011, with a pre-tax headline profit of £29.7 million. However, the club currently pays around £45 million per season in interest on bond debt, although it spent more than £60 million in the past financial year buying back some of the notes. United has spent more than £470 million on interest, debt repayment and related fees during the course of the Glazer family’s six-year tenure at Old Trafford.

Another senior analyst told Bloomberg that “institutional investors are unlikely to be interested [because] the lack of voting rights is just a kick in the teeth,” raising the spectre that the Glazers will sell United’s brand to retail investors. It is not a community that traditionally has a strong voice in the Singapore market.

The doubts place into question the IPO timescale, which could now happen at any point but is likely to go ahead – if at all – when the Glazer family believes the market is most receptive. Moreover, the family’s oft-reported $4 billion asking price – a significant premium by any measure – will be tested by a genuine market valuation for the first time.

Then there is the question about just how much debt the IPO will enable United to repay. After all, the dual listing has a significant impact on this process, with ordinary share sales diluting the family’s holding and raising money for the Glazers directly, and preference shares raising money for the club.

Photo credit: Flickr/NickD58

MUST evokes memories of Best … and Kitchener in new campaign

August 22, 2011 Tags: , , , Shorts 4 comments

The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) needs you… to don the Green & Gold of protest and force the Glazer family to use autumn IPO proceeds to rid the club of debt. At least that’s the message of MUST’s new poster campaign, which was launched today. Staring George Best in Lord Kitchener mode, the new MUST poster urges United supporters to revive the spirit of Green & Gold and put new pressure on the ruling Glazer family.

Claiming that the upcoming IPO in Singapore later this year is “victory for the Green & Gold campaign,” MUST wants fans to build a second wave of protest, aimed at pressuring the Glazer family into removing debt from United before it is “locked in” post-IPO.

“Green & Gold was a global phenomenon fought in the areas of media and politics as well as on the terraces. It was an uprising like nothing seen before at OT or perhaps anywhere in English football,” said the group in a statement.

“The bonds actually created more expensive debt and more of it than the club’s previous bank financing, however crucially they allowed the Glazers to take up to £95m in a cash “carve out” from MUFC’s coffers with much more to come over subsequent years.

“So while the bonds were more expensive the Glazers desperately needed the money – their PIK debt was rolling up at an alarming rate and threatening to get out of control and there was no other spare cash in the empire. Such was impact of Green & Gold throughout 2010 however, that the Glazers feared an outright rebellion and had to withdraw their plans to take the carve out money.”

The Glazer family removed the catalyst for protest – the PIK debt – in November 2010 at a cost of £249 million. But with personal debts mounting, and no bidder willing to meet the family’s excessive valuation of the club, Plan B is to enact a partial-IPO of the club in Singapore this autumn.

Yet the IPO is likely to ‘lock-in’ any remaining debt, according to MUST, ensuring the the Glazers – as private owners giving way to a PLC board – will not pay down bond debt from anything other than club sources.

“Effectively at that point they will have taken that money from Manchester United meaning our club (and fans) will have to pay their debt off,” adds the Trust.

“It is the duty of every fan to stand up to protect our club from further un-necessary fees and interest payments.”

MUST campaign poster

Glazers to pay down debt? Believe it when you see it

August 19, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 22 comments

There is something rotten in the republic of mancunia when national journalists buy, with seemingly little attempt at corroboration, the Glazer family’s ample spin on the upcoming Manchester United IPO in Singapore. Indeed, the Times and Telegraph each published heart-warming tales of the family seeking to pay down the club’s £500 million corporate debt and invest heavily in the transfer market post IPO. Finally, claimed Mark Ogden in the Telegraph, the Glazers have come to understand the fans’ concerns. It’s a touching story of the Tampa-based family reaching across the water towards hither to embattled supporters.

Believe not a word of it. History and good sense educates that the family’s intentions are likely far less benevolent, with the Glazers almost certain to use proceeds from the Asian flotation to shore up their own precarious financial position. After all, with a £250 million loan almost certainly taken from a US-based hedge fund last year and a financially unstable US property business to reinforce, the Glazer family could use every penny going.

The overnight spin came, presumably, from London-based Chief of Staff Ed Woodward, who has become a familiar if anonymous source to Fleet Street’s finest in recent years. The briefings followed United’s submission to the Singaporean Stock Exchange (SGX) of preliminary listing papers. That submission, reports conclude, appends a promise to cut net debt at Old Trafford; something that is directly tied into a ‘fair’ valuation for the club on listing.

True, if the club is to attract the premium price early noises have suggested – anything from £400 to £600 million according to the BBC – then United’s finances are of direct concern. After all, Asian investors will be offered no more than a third of the Glazers’ equity in United, if that. The promise of long-term profits, capital gains on shareholdings and a healthy dividend are, therefore, preeminent to minority investors with no control over United’s business plan.

Yet, as the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) warned on Thursday, any supporter, institution or interested third-party investor should take the family’s spin with a large pinch of salt. Lest we forget, it was the Americans’ leveraged buyout six years ago that placed so much debt on the club in the first place.

“While on the surface, fans should welcome any reduction in the unsustainable debt burden on the club, if this Eastern promise from the Glazers seems too good to be true, it’s because it probably is,” concluded MUST in a statement on Thursday.

“The share sale will be in the Glazers’ interests – to pay down their debt – not the club’s. What we wish to see is a full sale to progressive owners who are interested in investing in the club’s future so we can compete with Europe’s finest, currently Barcelona. Ultimately, our ambition is for shared fan ownership of a better United.

“The danger is that a partial flotation will provide a poisoned pill to any such progressive potential owners. And by reducing the Glazers’ personal debt we will continue to be saddled with these absentee landlords. To any United fans considering buying shares at the Glazers’ initial offer price – buyer beware.”

That Glazer-held debt, gained when refinancing the exorbitant Payment in Kind (PIK) loans last year, is of course the primary driver for the upcoming flotation, which the family hopes will take place some time before the turn of the year. Within the bounds of whatever promises the family has made to SGX, supporters should expect the minimum possible bond buyback. The Glazer family is a long-term proponent of running their businesses with debt and leopards rarely change their financial spots.

It begs the question: what then the true cost to United of relisting? After all United will almost certainly issue dividends to both the Glazer family and minority shareholders post-IPO. In the worse case scenario, with less than half of United’s £500 million bond bought back from IPO proceeds and a dividend payable to shareholders, the annual cost to the club may conceivably exceed the £45 million currently paid in bond interest.

Lower debt also raises the spectre of Corporation Tax, which the Glazer family has studiously avoided over the past six years, with the club reporting repeated annual losses. This, of course, was not the case pre-2005, with the old PLC regime reporting profits and paying dividends that in aggregate totaled £61.74 million between 1991 and 2005.

Relisting United enables the club to more easily access the capital markets, of course, with future rights issues enabling the Glazer family to extract more value from its shareholdings. Should the Americans remain at Old Trafford post 2017, when the bonds mature, whatever is left of the club’s debt must be redeemed necessitating one assumes a further share issue to the market.

Yet there is no guarantee United’s shares will perform on SGX, assuming the Glazer family successfully IPOs this autumn. Even if the Glazer family, backed by underwriters Credit Suisse and others, achieves the speculated four billion dollar valuation the open market will surely provide a correction. The realistic scenario that United’s shares are overpriced on IPO and fall rapidly on the market will restrict the family’s ability to extract further liquidity when required.

Much of this is of course speculation and further detail is likely only when the club issues a prospectus in the coming weeks. But there is a lesson in history; one that supporters should heed before buying into the debt-repayment fairytale. It is a shame that our nation’s media is not so circumspect.

Asian IPO back on the agenda

August 16, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 57 comments

Belief that the Glazer regime is readying an Initial Public Offering (IPO) in the autumn has once again gained credence following widespread international media coverage today. The Wall Street Journal broke the news Tuesday that the Glazer family has selected the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) as the family’s preferred venue for a $1 billion partial-IPO after exploring options over the past few months.

It is, of course, not the first time that news of the Glazer family’s plan has leaked, with the Times and other outlets reporting in June a potential Hong Kong flotation. Proceeds of any IPO could be used to buy back a proportion of United’s £500 million bond and reduce the Glazers’ personal debt exposure. More to the point institutional investors buying into the offering will also expect a dividend return. As, presumably, does the Glazer family.

Plans, now at an advanced stage according to reports this week, involve the family offering a minority share six years after the Glazer family de-listed United from the London Stock Exchange.

“Manchester United plans a $1 billion initial public offering in Singapore, two people familiar with the matter said, as the record 19-time English soccer champion seeks to cut debt that has fueled fan protest,” reports Bloomberg News.

“Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN) is working on the transaction, which may take place this year, said the people, who declined to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly. The Premier League team had been considering Hong Kong for the IPO but now favor Singapore, although no final decision has been made, the people added.”

Rules governing loss-making companies may preclude United from flotation in Hong Kong, reports said – denied in some quarters – with the club having lost a record £104.7 million in the past fiscal-year. Much of this related to lower income from player sales and the cost of swapping long-term bank debt for the bond last January.

However, EBITDA – earnings before interest, tax and other deductions – has grown by around 70 per cent over the past six years offering the Glazers hope of a substantial premium on the family’s £800 million ‘investment’ in 2005.

While flotation will enable the Glazer family to cut club debt – depending on the mooted IPO’s success – the family is likely as keen on extracting dividends without drawing supporter ire. Bloomberg reported earlier this year that the Americans’ plans to withdraw extensive dividends of up to £120 million had been shelved on fear of further supporter unrest at the height of the so-called ‘Green and Gold’ campaign.

In the meantime the Glazers have refinanced the £220 million Payment in Kind (PIK) loan in a shroud of secrecy, while moving United’s ultimate parent company to Delaware, USA. The full early redemption cost of £249 million was almost certainly borrowed, with the family keen to pay down that debt through dividend drawing rights granted by the bond last year.

Yet questions remain both about the club’s real value and the Glazers’ long-term ownership plans. The reported a $1 billion partial-IPO of around 25 per cent of the club values United at more than £2.4 billion. That price is – based on any recognised method of enterprise valuation – a huge premium.

Moreover, the choice of SGX appears unusual, on the surface at least, with Hong Kong offering a larger and more liquid market at a time when European retail IPOs in Asia have not been universally successful. That is quite aside from the question of whether Asian institutional investors have any interest in a UK-based sports company.

While the Glazers’ bond offer was hugely over-subscribed, attractive as it was with guaranteed high rates of return and low risk, the family can offer no such assurances with the mooted IPO.

Then there is the question of supporter involvement. Indeed, more than 30,000 small-holding fans eventually bought into United’s London listing, although few into the 1991 IPO. Whether UK-based supporters will be able to access a Singaporean flotation is very much in doubt though; the IPO may in fact only be open to institutional investors. Presumably this a boon to the Glazer family that has no wish to admit large numbers of share-holding fans into an AGM.

The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) offered no immediate response, preferring to wait until the family’s plans are made more concrete.

“You’ve probably seen press reports that the Glazers are to float at least part of their Manchester United shareholding on the Singapore Stock Exchange and that this is a precursor to a full sale,” said a supporter group newsletter on Tuesday.

“Until we have more details we can’t give a full response but what we do know is we want to communicate with as many Manchester United supporters as possible and make sure every Manchester United supporter has the chance to share in ownership when the opportunity arises. It is quite possible that shares will not be available to ordinary supporters and that MUST will have to provide a mechanism for supporters to buy shares.”

Whatever that mechanism may be it seems unlikely that ordinary United supporters will build any significant share holding in the club post flotation – if an IPO happens at all. After all even if all 175,000 MUST members invest £1,000 each the block will represent just over five per cent of the club.

Then the wider question of what effect floating United overseas will have, – institutional investors are unlikely to be more in tune with supporters than the Glazer family –  is as yet unanswered.

MUST / Reds in Business summer meet-up

July 7, 2011 Tags: , Shorts No comments

Reds in Business (RiB), the business network exclusively for Manchester United supporters, is holding a summer event at Lancashire County Cricket Club, Friday 15 July. The event will bring together fans for the Lancs versus Northamptonshire day/night 20 Twenty fixture at Old Trafford Cricket Ground and Rant can offer readers 50 per cent off the normal hospitality package.

RiB, fronted by MUST CEO Duncan Drasdo, is a free network for United supporters to facilitate  fun and rewarding business relationships. The summer meet-up, with exclusive use of LCCC’s Trafford Suite with private, is a chance for RiB (and MUST) members to build potential business network contacts but mainly just for fun with fellow Reds.

Lancs normally charge £60 for this hospitality package but Rant readers can get a discounted rate of £30 using this code: RIBT20RANT

For more event information, including details of the package, and to book tickets: http://ribsummer2011.eventbrite.com

Glazer IPO unlikely to offer fans major stake

June 14, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 10 comments

The weekend’s Times newspaper report that the Glazer family is considering floating Manchester on the Hong Kong stock exchange raises the possibility, for the first time since 2005, that supporters could claim a stake in the heavily indebted club. It’s a goal that groups such as the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) have been working towards for the past six years.

The family is considering listing on the Hang Seng and not in London, reports the Times, because a potentially higher price could be achieved. Hong Kong has experienced strong growth in the past 12 months, while the recent and upcoming IPOs of Western companies Samsonite and Prada are generally considered a success.

“Bankers have told the Florida-based tycoons that the listing could value the club at £1.7 billion — more than double the £790m the Glazers paid for it in 2005,” claimed the Sunday Times report.

“A recent flurry of floats on the Hong Kong stock exchange by upmarket consumer goods companies such as the luggage firm Samsonite, has prompted the family to consider a listing. Thanks to the international power of United’s brand, and the strength of its following in Asia, advisers believe the club could attract a higher price for its shares in Hong Kong than in London.”

However, if the mooted Asian IPO actually goes ahead it will surely leave United supporters with a tiny minority stake as global financial powers hoover up most of United’s assets. The rumour leaves fans wondering what next for a club that has seen significant financial unrest in recent years.

Indeed, the Glazer family’s decision to refinance existing bank debt with a £500 million bond in January 2010 exposed United’s finances in detail for the first time in five years, sparking a wave of supporter protest that has ultimately proven fruitless in producing regime change.

And while the so-called Red Knights came and went the Glazer family has reorganised the club’s finances away from prying eyes; a £220 million Payment in Kind loan was probably refinanced somewhere in the depths of Delaware last November, while the family has also spent £30 million of club money buying back bond debt in the past two quarters.

Yet to realise a profitable exit the Glazer family must either sell out to a private investor or float. With the Americans reportedly turning away offers from the Red Knights and the Qatari Royal family an IPO could be a viable out.

MUST reacted with circumspection to talk of a floatation, with the opportunity it brings for greater supporter ownership in the club. While ordinary fans owned a tiny percentage of the club on takeover in 2005, there were at least thousands of individual shareholders.

“If this report proves to be well founded the prospect of a flotation of Manchester United is one that many supporters would cautiously welcome because it could be an opportunity for supporters to once again share in ownership of their club,” said the organisation in a statement.

“However three immediate concerns spring to mind. Firstly that this would have to be a full IPO signalling a clean exit for the Glazers. Secondly the valuation would have to be realistic – something closer to £1 billion rather than the £1.5 billion that the Glazers seem to feel is possible. Thirdly shares should be freely available to all MUFC supporters and certainly floated on the UK market to maximise accessibility.

“MUST’s avowed aim is Manchester United FC owned by the fans and run for the fans. Our task is to create the opportunity for all United fans to share in the ownership of their club.”

However, MUST’s conditions seem unlikely to be met, with the price now seemingly much higher than £1 billion. Indeed, at a 12-15 EBITDA multiple that is typically used by the Forbes Magazine’s annual football club valuation list United’s sale price could reach £1.5 billion on the open market. Clearly, the Glazer family believes United’s international profile will equate to hundreds of millions in ‘brand value’.

The high valuation may also negate MUST’s desire for widespread supporter ownership. After all, the organisation’s growth to more than 172,000 members is impressive but is unlikely to create a huge pool of finance from which to carve out a meaningful stake in the club. Should each member, for example, find £1,000 to buy shares in an IPO MUST members would own a little more than 10 per cent of the club. Buying individually, even a 10 per cent holding is probably an unobtainable goal should fans be able to reach a Hong Kong listing at all.

Meanwhile, United’s management continues to look at ways to increase revenues and cut-back costs, according to a Bloomberg report on Monday. Bloomberg quotes an unnamed source close to London-based club COO Edward Woodward, who has been leaving the drive towards global commercialisation over the past two years.

“Woodward, a former banker with J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., has discussed several ways to cut financing costs,” reports the newswire.

“The club isn’t concerned about its finances, but wants to ensure it has the most efficient funding policy. It’s not close to making any definitive decision about changing its current terms.”

Bloomberg says that United will look to invest any savings in the transfer market – a proposition fans will take more seriously if the club makes good on an oft-purported spending spree this summer. After all, the Reds currently spends around £45 million per season in bond interest payments, separate from any costs associated with the refinance PIK loans.

Costs and interest associated with the Glazer regime has sucked more than £300 million out of the club over the past six years. Whether an IPO will cut net debt is as yet undetermined and probably moot. After all, the Glazer regime’s history tells us that value maximisation is the goal.

Morning after the night before

May 29, 2011 Tags: , , Opinion 34 comments

Time heals but a second resounding defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final is a pain that will not subside easily; the heavy hearts hardly aided by a collective hangover.

Thousands gathered, both at Wembley and in bars, clubs and hotels across Manchester and the country. Indeed, thousands of Reds descended on London, whether they held match tickets or not. The need to be part of the experience was overwhelming. The anti-climax as realisation set in that United could not, would not, defeat the Catalan giants was just simply cataclysmic.

Yet optimism grew as kick-off approached, aided by the Reds-only atmosphere and the liberal consumption of alcohol. Certainly,the Rant crew joined a packed bar in subduing any pre-match nerves with JD Wetherspoon’s finest. Sadly, the guest ale ‘Flight of Fancy’ was a more prescient name than expected. In hindsight, Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops had always lived on hope more than expectation against Barça’s collection of world stars.

The 500-strong crowd in this corner of North West London seemed, anecdotally at least, to have collectively travelled south, driven perhaps by the need to be closer to Wembley and Ferguson’s embattled team. Around 25,000 United supporters held tickets to the game; perhaps as many again travelled to the capital simply to be part of the experience.

Yet, even in the unlikeliest of settings – a cookie-cutter chain bar set in a shopping centre – this group of Reds generated an atmosphere rarely experienced at Old Trafford these days. How the Scot’s men could have done with this passionate support just one stop north on the Underground.

The singing began more than two hours ahead of kick-off, with few United legends left off an impressive roster of chants: Bryan Robson, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole and the rest, in addition to the current crop of heroes. The men’s bathroom rocked to the sound of “Tallest Floodlights,” while an elongated version of Eric the King will surely have been heard in the nearby leafy Hampstead streets.

Ferguson’s men seemed to respond to the overwhelming support in absentia, hurtling into challenges, pressing high and forcing Barcelona into more errors during the first 15 minutes than rarely afforded during 90 minutes of most Los Cules fixtures. Although United’s bright start didn’t last the team’s ticketless fans pressed on in applying the rousing soundtrack.

While Pedro Rodríguez’ opening goal quietened the din it was only momentary; Wayne Rooney’s equaliser simply brought the house down. There is something about supporting United that encourages even the burliest of complete strangers to embrace in sheer joy.

The Wetherspoon’s screening was organised by Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), with 15 other venues across Manchester and London also showing the match. Around 15,000 fans gathered at the events. Reports agree that the atmosphere from the Ramada Hotel in the heart of Piccadilly, to Ministry of Sound nightclub in central London to the Point, Lancashire County Cricket Club’s fabulous new facility, was consistently up-beat until defeat was all but confirmed.

Frustration set in of course and anger supporters’ anger turned to Barcelona players’ prevalence for hitting the turf early and often. Perhaps the dawning realisation that fans’ heroes were being thoroughly outclassed nipped any potential for trouble in the bud. Indeed, supporters’ weary resignation to defeat set in as David Villa curled in Barca’s superb third.

Then talk quickly turned to the summer and much-anticipated rebuilding. While some fans called for an immediate clearout – the knee-jerk element growing louder during United’s second-half drubbing – the truth is more nuanced of course.

United’s current evolution could be accelerated by investment in top-class talent; whether the expected arrival David De Gea, Ashley Young and Raphael Varane falls into that category is certainly questionable. Sadly, overwhelming supporter demand for a midfielder to match Barça’s quality is yet to be heard by United’s top management.

Yet in winning the Premier League by nine points and reaching the Champions League final Ferguson’s side has surely over achieved this season. This was seemingly widely recognised by pub-going fans on Saturday night, who came in hope rather than certainty.

Many of this group have been driven from Old Trafford by the Glazer family’s excessive pricing. Therein lies something unique about United. The passion has not died, even though ticket prices and debt-fuelled ownership have excluded many from matches. UEFA’s disgraceful decision to offer just 25,000 tickets to each club competing in last night’s final – at £80 to £300 a piece – is yet another symptom in the race to monetisation of the ‘people’s game’.

Events such as those organised by MUST may become more commonplace. The group’s Chubb Club is already a Manchester institution, now expanded to exiled Reds in London. For now, United’s weary supporters have the summer to contemplate what might have been but look back on a thoroughly enjoyable collective event.

Champions League Final 2011: Rant @ London drinks

May 26, 2011 Tags: , , Shorts 25 comments

The United Rant podcast crew will be attending the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust drinks event in London during the Champions League final this weekend. There are several meet-ups planned across the capital and in Manchester – we’ll be at Weatherspoons O2 Centre, near Finchley Road tube station in London, for the duration.

Fans can buy tickets for any of the events from MUST – there are venues across Manchester and London. We’ll be at venue #11 and all profits from ticket sales go to the trust. Tickets guarantee entry for pre-match drinks for those going to the game at Wembley (with easy access via the Metropolitan Line), plus a screening of the match and after-party for those who are not.

Join us where we’ll be recording supporters’ views before, during and after the match for the Rant Cast!

If you can’t get to Finchley Road these other Manchester and London events are taking place, all bookable via the MUST website (or here for the Fabric nightclub event).

Manchester

  • Ramada Piccadilly
  • Palace Hotel
  • Copper Face Jacks
  • The Point – OT, Lancs Cricket Ground
  • The Crown
  • The Quay House, Salford Quays
  • Mint Lounge, Manchester

London

  • Wetherspoons, O2 Centre, Finchley Road
  • North Star, Finchley Road
  • Walkabout, Finchley Road
  • Fabric Nightclub, Farringdon
  • Trinity Bar, Harrow
  • Sattavis Patidar Centre  (pre and post match party, NOT showing game)

Glazers could reignite fan battle

April 21, 2011 Tags: , , , Opinion 41 comments

It is now almost 18 months since Old Trafford was first bathed in the green and gold of protest. The Glazer family’s decision to borrow more than £500 million on the international bond market sparked a new wave of supporter protest, and a level of anger not seen in Manchester since the reclusive Americans first appeared in the city. Yet that protest has achieved very little bar a thousand headlines and last summer’s season ticket prize freeze. Small fry compared to the regime change that became supporter groups stated aim.

But with next year’s ticket prices shortly announced, will Manchester United’s executive management stick or twist; fending off protest for the summer or provoking another wave of anger?

Indeed, the decision to raise prices (or not) at Old Trafford – rises have been announced by both Arsenal and Chelsea recently – will have already been taken, despite disingenuous claims by the club that it has not. The imminent announcement on ticket prices will be the first salvo in another summer-long battle of wills between supporters and United’s ownership.

Last summer’s price freeze bought the regime few friends, with thousands of fans still walking away from season ticket ownership, but the relative absence of green and gold at Old Trafford this season has marked a lull is supporter protest. The Glazer’s decision to raise, lower or freeze prices for next season could add new verve to the protest. Or perhaps kill it stone dead. Another freeze will buy the regime more time; price rises could spark yet more anger and another call to boycott season ticket renewals.

And although the regime has not once lowered prices in six seasons in charge at United, there is precedent at the Glazer’s NFL franchise. In fact, with attendances at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers falling so steeply that the team’s TV coverage was blacked out by the league, the Glazer family chose to cut ticket prices by up to 30 per cent. It was a move born of financial necessity – blackouts, designed to keep attendances high, are costly to franchise owners, and the regime had been forced to buy its own tickets for many matches last season.

The family made the most of its decision though, claiming the owners to be supporter-centric in a time of financial hardship in the United States.

“Our organization has spent a lot of time listening to our fans at this time when our team is thriving and our economy is not,” Joel Glazer recently said recently.

“As a result, we are now offering several pricing changes in response to our community’s needs.”

The move has raised hopes that the Glazer family will similarly reduce costs at Old Trafford, which have increased by 50 per cent in aggregate since the Americans took control. Unsurprisingly, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) has called for fans in Manchester to be afforded the same treatment as their counterparts in Florida.

“Joel Glazer said he’s listened to the Tampa fans. Well it’s about time he listened to Manchester United fans and responded by cutting our ticket prices too,” MUST Vice Chair Sean Bones said in a statement.

“Manchester United supporters should not feel they are subsidising the Glazers’ American Football Franchise as well as their debt. After the huge price rises our fans have endured while the Glazers have been taking out millions of pounds from our club if anything we deserve bigger price cuts than the Tampa fans.

“Anything other than an equivalent cut in prices at Manchester United will be seen as a slap in the face for United fans.”

There are, however, key differences between the financial model at Old Trafford and that in Tampa. First, and certainly most important, there is no TV blackout system in the Premier League. There is, therefore, no chance United’s TV revenue will fall sharply under the current rights contracts, unless the club fails to make the Champions League. With that possibility remote, Old Trafford bean counters are under no financial pressure to act on ticket prices.

There is also little pressure on attendances in Manchester. While thousands of supporters have given up season tickets, the scale of United’s support is such that matches are mostly sold out or as close to it to make very little financial difference. The family’s decision to increase individual non-member match ticket prices this season, and retain the despised automatic cup match ticket scheme, underlined the Glazer’s confidence is continuing to sell in volume.

Indeed, the evidence supports a rise in prices at Old Trafford this summer, backed by another aggressive marketing campaign aimed at selling season tickets. Already, the club has marketed its non-existence ‘season ticket waiting list’. While the list is nothing more than an email marketing database – offering no priority tickets to supporters who sign up – there is also no shame within the regime about using every available tactic to sell tickets. After all, how can there be a waiting list when United failed to sell all available season tickets last summer?

Still, the question for the regime is whether it feels the need to pacify United’s supporters with price cuts and star names, or not. History points to another summer of promises over money available for transfer spend spending; and misleading statements that United is a club built on ‘making stars, not buying them.’

If the close season also includes a price hike, green and gold may also return next season.