5 Positives and 5 Negatives to Take from the Glazer Era at Manchester United
The Glazer family takeover of Manchester United happened a decade ago, and in that time a great deal has happened at the club.
United have enjoyed plenty of success in terms of trophies during their tenure but can that make up for all the negatives associated with the manner of the buyout and the effect it has had on fans?
Ten years is not long enough to salve the wounds associated with the leveraged buyout of United, which forced fan shareholders to sell their stake in their club to a family whose only recognisable motive seemed to be the search for profit.
The worst fears of those who fought the buyout have not been realised, in that the club still exists, and the naming rights to the ground have not been sold. However, plenty of sad things have come to pass for those whose hearts are in United.
Let's take a look at the best and worst of the last 10 years.
Negative: Increasing Commercialisation of Old Trafford, Increased Ticket Prices
Ticket prices at Manchester United have increased significantly during the Glazer era, in spite of some freezes in recent seasons. David Conn in the Guardian last summer wrote:
Amid the reams of corporate boasting in the Glazer family’s pitch to make $200m from selling a small slice of Manchester United plc shares, a section trumpets to likely investors United’s concerted raising of Old Trafford ticket prices since the Americans bought the club in 2005 and loaded it with their own £525m debt.
Fans who pay those ticket prices are confronted with rampant commercialisation—sponsored half-time shows where a dancing noodle bowl prances with Fred the Red and on-pitch interviews with United legends that are sponsored by United's commercial partners. Commercialisation began before the Glazers arrived, but it has become almost ubiquitous.
The ground's naming rights may not have been sold, but almost everywhere else in the club's activities, the interests of commerce are served. While there is obviously a financial upside to that, for those who are less keen on the excesses of commercialism, it definitely counts as a negative.
The club is now registered in the Cayman Islands. It is all a far cry from a football club which emerged to meet the needs of local railway workers.
Positive: Hands-off Approach to Sir Alex Ferguson
In 2010, speaking with Riviera Radio (h/t Sky Sports), Sir Alex Ferguson said, "My take is that the Glazers have supported the team very, very well. They don't interfere, they let us get one with the job and when we've asked for a player, we've got it."
While the last part may be open to questioning, as we will come to later, Sir Alex clearly valued the Glazers' hands-off approach to his day-to-day running of the club.
He was allowed the control he wanted, and managed to use it to great effect in terms of on-field success. Presumably not all owners would have been as laissez-faire, particularly given that the Glazer takeover happened when United had not won the league for a couple of seasons.
From 2007 onwards, of course, Ferguson gave little cause for any owner interference.
Negative: Division Amongst Fans
There has been plenty of infighting amongst United—and ex-United—supporters over the Glazer issue. United's is a global fanbase, and there are many different opinions on how good or bad the Glazers have been—as the comments on this piece will likely show.
Multiple fan groups have advocated different approaches, from boycotting the ground, boycotting merchandise, supporting the Green and Gold campaign or even backing the Glazer ownership.
It led to the formation of FC United of Manchester, an entire spin-off club created by disenfranchised fans.
The Ken Loach film Looking for Eric, partially examines the subject of the division wrought by the Glazer takeover, and characters argue about which side to take.
United's fans have always found cause to debate among themselves, but some of the bitterest of those debates have come post-Glazer.
Positive: Sir Alex Managed to Keep Winning Trophies
The key argument used in favour of the Glazer ownership is the number of trophies won during their time in charge.
Mark Ogden, writing in the Daily Telegraph on Monday, asked the question:
Does 15 pieces of silverware in 10 years count as success or failure? Success, but how much more could have been achieved without over £700m of the club’s earnings being used to service the debt imposed by the Glazers?
Whether even more could have been won, the truth is that Sir Alex's most successful period came under Glazer ownership. In the seven seasons from 2006/7 to his retirement in 2013, Ferguson led United to five league titles.
In the two seasons in which he did not win the title, United finished second, first by a point, and then on goal difference. It is an absolutely incredible record.
Add in a Champions League win and two further Champions League finals, and Sir Alex was clearly able to navigate his Glazer-owned club to remarkably successful outcomes.
Negative: Poorly Handled Transition After Sir Alex Ferguson's Retirement
Once Sir Alex retired, it was a different story. The Glazers' first real test as owners—in terms of making an enormous decision—was a spectacular failure.
Here, the hands-off approach was less successful.
On the club's official website, the language was telling as a bullet-point read "Manchester United Board unanimously approves the recommendation of Sir Alex Ferguson."
It seemed like the decision had been delegated to Ferguson, with the board happy to accept his football expertise.
However, allowing Sir Alex to essentially choose his own successor did not bring fruit, as David Moyes floundered on and off the pitch. With David Gill leaving the club at the same time, United had a torrid time during their first post-Ferguson transfer window.
It currently feels as if the worst of the transition has passed, with Louis van Gaal's United all-but assured of their place in next season's Champions League, but it is difficult to argue that it was handled well.
Positive: Club Has Riden out Worst Impact of Leveraged Buyout
On Monday, Ian Herbert wrote in the Independent:
Another positive, as we reach a decade of the Glazer family’s owning Manchester United this week, is that apocalypse never happened. The mountain of debt loaded on to the club by the record £790m purchase did not sink it. They successfully navigated the bond issues and renegotiation of payment-in-kind note interest rates and got away with gambling the house— United’s house—on buying the club.
Thus, the worst-case scenario has not come to pass. This does not mean that warnings about the risk were necessarily unfounded, though. Few could have predicted the astronomical rise in the value of television rights, for example.
Equally, Sir Alex's extraordinary success in the last period of his career was not guaranteed. Without it the picture may have looked less rosy. Indeed, Herbert goes on to write:
And then we reach the really extraordinary piece of good fortune which has underpinned the entire rickety edifice of Glazer ownership – that battle-hardened fighter from Govan who is about as far removed from their up-state New York reality as an employee could possibly be.
The Glazer brothers did not know it when they stood on the Old Trafford pitch for the introductory photo-calls, hearing the din of protesting supporters battering their fists against the gates outside, but Sir Alex Ferguson was the man who allowed them to take the juggernaut out to the rest of the world and make United an international commodity.
Negative: Put Club Through Financial Risk
The risk that was run was significant. As the previous slide shows, the worst of the risk did not come to pass.
However, as noted United financial blogger and Glazer critic Andy Green wrote in 2013:
The Glazer family took a huge gamble when they conducted a leveraged buyout of MUFC. A quick look down the East Lancs Road shows how far a major club can be set back by excessive debt. Three years after the takeover, the financial crisis hit and the PIKs [Payment-in-Kind Loans] began to run out of control. Only the genius of Alex Ferguson and the sale of [Cristiano] Ronaldo to Real Madrid allowed the whole rickety show to remain on the road.
The reference to the "East Lancs Road" is a reference to the situation at Liverpool, whose leveraged buyout by American owners had much more serious consequences prior to the takeover by Fenway Sports Group.
That the gamble has paid off, does not mean it was one worth taking, especially since all the upside of the gamble lies with the owners, while the risk lay with the club.
Negative: Lack of Investment During Lean Years
Sir Alex Ferguson may object to this one.
After all, he always claimed the Glazer family backed him in the transfer window. In 2010 he said, per BBC Sport "They've done the job well. I've never been refused when I've asked for money for a player."
In the same year he said, per the Daily Mail;
If you look at what we've done this season - and people don't recognise this - we've spent over £20million on young players. We've bought Chris Smalling, Mame Diouf and Javier Hernandez. People don't realise how we're structured and how we see our future of the club. We've always based it on a nucleus and foundation of young players developing in the club.
He repeated the assertion in an interview with Bob Cass in the Daily Mail in 2012, saying:
We buy in the right way and that’s the difference between United and the rest — we can play 18-year-olds because it’s part of our history. It’s like a destiny for us that when a young player emerges we play him, and that has never failed us.
It is hard not to see this assertion as slightly disingenuous. After all, in the pre-Glazer era, Ferguson broke the British transfer record two seasons running in signing Juan Sebastian Veron and Rio Ferdinand, both players in their prime.
Following the departure of Cristiano Ronaldo, United signed Antonio Valencia, Michael Owen and Gabriel Obertan. That hardly replaced like with like. Sir Alex ensured that domestic dominance continued, but perhaps his relative lack of investment was part of the reason that the transition following his departure was so challenging.
Positive: Purse Strings Loosened
Since Sir Alex has left, and with the debt burden more manageable, the club's purse strings have been loosened. There have been no reports of investment in the club from the Glazers themselves, of course—this is no Roman Abramovich situation.
However, the club has been allowed—or decided, if Sir Alex's assertions that there were finances available to him all along is to be believed—to invest more heavily in the transfer market.
A considerable investment has been made in the squad, and it looks likely that similar will happen this summer. Hopefully it will be sufficient to get United back on track for domestic and European success.
Positive: FC United of Manchester
While it may have its origins in anger and division, FC United of Manchester has become an institution dedicated to serving its community.
Thousands of fans have attended FC games and come away full of praise for the atmosphere. The fan-owned organisation have done well on the pitch, too, and the video above shows their supporters celebrating their recent promotion to the sixth tier of English football, just two divisions below the football league.
It is easy to imagine them reaching the league one day, but whether they do or not, their community work and sense of togetherness makes their existence the brightest silver lining to the cloud of the Glazer ownership of Manchester United.