Manchester United’s Yank-Hating Fans – A rebuttal

by David Costelloe

Glazer Manchester UnitedThe following takes liberal portions of Jonathan Mayler’s Bloomberg column “Manchester United’s Yank Hating Fans”, published on March 13th 2013. They are in italics. My response is everything else.

I found the article simplistic, inaccurate and extraordinary biased in defending the key figures of the piece and I found the need to write something of a rebuttal.

Things are going pretty well for Manchester United right now. Sure, the team was knocked out of the UEFA Champions League last week, but it has a comfortable lead in England’s Premier League heading into this season’s final weeks.

The English football season will not be finished for another two and a quarter months. It’s another 13 games, maximum. Minor thing I know, but it establishes a certain ignorance in the author.

 The club is also still in the running for the third leg of English soccer’s triple crown, the FA Cup.

I have never heard of the English Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup being described in such terms, which belies a lack of familiarity with the English game which damages anything else the author has to say. Such a term is cause of extra bewilderment for the English fans the author is addressing, considering its association with Rugby Union and the Six Nations Championship. “Domestic treble” is more apt title.

In the hypercompetitive world of European soccer, winning one title is huge. Winning two is almost unheard of.

Of the 23 teams that have won a top tier English league, only four of them have won it once. The Premier League itself has been won by Manchester United 12 teams, Arsenal three times, Chelsea three times and by Blackburn Rovers and Manchester City once each. I think the point the author is trying to make is that winning titles is rare for clubs in the English league system, in general, but his phrasing is confusing. Still, 19 teams have won two titles, which is hardly “unheard of”.

Again, such a statement belies a lack of familiarity with the English game.

Not that any of this is going to placate United’s English fans. They insist that Man U’s majority owners, the Glazer family of Palm Beach, Florida, are greedy Yankees — unfit custodians for their storied club, which was founded by a British railway company in 1878.

I have no idea why a professional journalist is using such a crass and juvenile term as “Man U” to describe Manchester United. I haven’t used such a term since I was eight. I also sense a certain sneer in the last sentence, but such a declaration can do nothing to denigrate the history of Manchester United, a club far older than most in America.

Here’s a thought: Instead of complaining about their team’s ownership, maybe United’s English fans should start enjoying their team’s success.

 

Simply by buying a majority stake in Man U in 2005, the Glazers took a big step toward securing the club’s uncertain future.

Manchester United have never been in the amount of financial uncertainty as they have under the Glazer family. Pre-2005, it was a publicly limited company traded on the stock exchange, with many fans owning shares. It was healthy, far healthier than now.

At the time, United’s Irish owners were on the brink of firing its longtime manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, over a dispute about the ownership of a prizewinning horse.

Manchester United has never had Irish owners. JP MacManus and John Magnier (of Counties Limerick and Cork, Ireland, respectively), once owned 28.1% of the club and were the largest shareholders, but did not “own” the club. The idea that Alex Ferguson could possibly have been sacked over the dispute mentioned is utterly laughable, as the people involved lacked the power (and probably the will) to do so.

What sort of thanks did the Glazers get for keeping Ferguson, not to mention loading the club with high-priced talent from around the world?

This makes it sound as if the Glazers were the first to do so. They weren’t, and their regime has seen Manchester United far more limited in whom they can buy than before.

That Man U’s supporters are focused on their club’s balance sheet might sound strange to U.S. sports fans.

Part of the problem with this article is that the approach taken by the author is far too American-centric.

 But it’s surprisingly easy to leverage yourself into bankruptcy in the Premier League, which doesn’t cap salaries.

This could have been a good point to mention the new FFP rules that clubs in the Premier League are scrambling to be in accordance with, but that might have detracted from the authors point I guess.

Is Manchester United courting bankruptcy? No.

There was an alarming period when it seemed like it was going that way though. Ignoring that won’t make it go away.

It isn’t Leeds United, a three-time English champion that went bust and was relegated to the third tier of English soccer.

Leeds United was a very different case of irresponsible over-spending and borrowing against unknown future results, not abuse of the clubs finances for personal gain.

It’s true that the Glazers, who also own the National Football League’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, borrowed some $800 million from hedge funds to buy the club. And the club is still carrying a staggering amount of debt. But in the context of its even more staggering growth, there’s no reason to engage in what Paul Krugman might call “fiscal fear-mongering.”

The idea that the huge debt Manchester United has gathered under the Glazer’s should be criticism free is insane. Especially considering his earlier point about how easy it is to go bankrupt for “soccer clubs”.

United’s finances are actually improving, which is reflected in its stock performance: The Glazers sold 10 percent of the company to the public in August at $14 per share, and its current share price is $16 and change — a pretty good return over seven months.

The author could have noted that, in accordance with this, protests against the Glazer family have significantly relaxed in the last two years. Would have damaged his main point I guess.

Then there’s the team’s on-the-field performance. Since the Glazers bought Man U, it has earned four Premier League titles and reached the finals of the Champions League three times, winning it once. These are remarkable results, especially in a sport in which the better team often loses.

The last sentence here is so bafflingly vague as to demand some kind of elaboration. How does the better team lose? How often? In what context? Are you claiming “Man U” should have won more titles?

That kind of trophy haul is also down from pre-Glazer years. I’m not bemoaning success, simply pointing out that the level of success under the Glazers has been less that before.

Perhaps the author should also have noted that the leagues and Champions Leagues were lost to clubs of far sounder financial foundations, albeit due to billionaire owners.

There are also intriguing rumors circulating about United’s future. After losing to Real Madrid, the world’s second-biggest sports franchise, following a controversial red card in last week’s Champions League match, Madrid’s manager, Jose Mourinho, told reporters Man U was the better team — fueling speculation that he might be in line to succeed the 71-year-old Ferguson as early as next year. Reading even further between the lines, Cristiano Ronaldo, who used to play for Man U, conspicuously opted not to celebrate after scoring for Real Madrid during the game. A sign that he may follow Mourinho to United?

This paragraph of baseless speculation has nothing to do with the matter at hand. Imagining what future successes or big names the club may garner is a pageantry of the mind until it becomes hard reality. The comment on Ronaldo’s celebration, or lack of one, is especially reaching. It is common for players to refuse to celebrate when scoring against old clubs, simply as a mark of respect. The authors ignorance on this point is telling.

As for the Glazers, they’re doing pretty well, too, helping themselves to half of the $233 million that Man U raised in last summer’s IPO. (The rest was used to reduce the club’s debt.) Does this make them rapacious Yankees? Maybe. But wouldn’t a better question be: As long as the team keeps winning, why should fans care what its owners do with the club’s money?

Only, the team isn’t winning is it? Losing out on the League title to their most hated rivals, a succession of Champions League failures since 2008, certainly no “Triple Crowns”. The casual dismissal of the Glazers plundering is evidence of an extremely one-sided viewpoint, matched by the last sentence. It is disturbing to see such a viewpoint, that sporting club is nothing more than a business that exists and operates for the gratification of its owners and little else.

If Man U’s supporters are really so unhappy, they can do what any dissatisfied customer does: Stop buying the product.

Many of them have. See FC United. Also, football fans should not be seen solely as “customers”, but I suppose that is part of the problem. Manchester United may have become the poster-boy for the new era of football clubs being mega-businesses, but it is still as much a football club as FC United or any club. It is more than just a bottom line. It is not a “franchise” like so many sporting institutions in the USA. It is a thing of genuine emotional investment for the fans of the club and they should not be dismissed so easily.

For United’s hometown supporters, that’s an admittedly complicated proposition. They could stop showing up at Old Trafford, but even considering their antipathy toward the Glazers, that seems masochistic. They could boycott Red Devil merchandise, but with every jersey the club sells in China, it grows further insulated from the wrath of its English fans.

The Chinese fans aren’t the ones filling Old Trafford every week. And Manchester United hardly have as much of a monopoly on the Asian market as the author makes out. There are plenty of other clubs seeking a piece of that pie, and you could argue they are better placed financially to do it. Not to mention the rapidly growing Chinese League itself.

Of course, those jerseys only sell if the club is successful. And isn’t that what every fan wants?

Of course. Successful, on the field and off it. Manchester United have stuttered badly at times in both columns since the Glazers acquired the club. Their tenure has brought some success, but has seen the club lag behind in other areas.

Lastly, I’ll address the title. The author describes “Man U” fans as “Yank-hating.” This is obviously just a dramatic headline to suck in hits by encouraging a sense of outrage, but it should be addressed.

Manchester United fans don’t hate America or Americans. In general anyway. They intensely dislike the Glazer family, but that has nothing to do with their birthplace, but their business practises. If you feel the need to mix in that business practise with their nationality, you’re going in the wrong direction. It wouldn’t matter if the Glazers were Irish, German, French or from Salford. They’ve still used the club to generate huge profits for themselves in remarkably shady ways, and have left it with a jaw-dropping amount of debt, the kind of debt that should not be so easily dismissed with cries of “Yank-hating”. The author wants to turn this into some sort of xenophobic fight between nations, of us vs them, of America vs Britain, painting poor deluded Manchester United fans as some sort of ungrateful pile of whingers. The Glazers are recast as the victorious Yanks coming over the save a desperate English club from the clutches of financial oblivion.

It isn’t so. The Glazers have, thus far, done far more damage to Manchester United than good. Mr Mayler can pretend otherwise all he likes, but he will not change the reality of the situation. It is this typically American way of doing business that infuriates the fanbase, not America or its “Yanks”.

Love United, hate Glazers. The USA doesn’t come into it.

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