LONDON — Few Manchester United fans will ever forgive Malcolm Glazer for his acrimonious buyout of the club that left the 20-time English champions with millions of dollars of debt.
As a result, there was no outpouring of grief or flood of tributes from fans in the northern English city of Manchester following Wednesday’s death of the club’s 85-year-old former American owner.
Perhaps aware of the supporters’ enduring animosity, there was a low-key response from United – just a 75-word website statement that was in noticeable contrast to the gratitude flowing from the Glazers’ NFL franchise, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
United’s Twitter account made no mention of the passing of the man who bought the club for 790 million pounds (then $1.47 billion) in 2005.
The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, which has spearheaded the movement against the Glazer family, avoided any criticism of the billionaire in the hours after his death, choosing to reassert its condemnation of the family as a whole.
Glazer’s direct involvement in United appeared to end after he had a stroke in 2006, and his six grown children control all but the 10 percent of the club that has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 2012.
“As a supporter I am aware of the detrimental effect the Glazers have had on the football club and the huge debt that has been placed on Manchester United,” MUST vice chairman Sean Bones said.
Although United’s debt has fallen from a high of 716.5 million pounds (then $1.1 billion) in 2008-09 to 351.7 million pounds ($590 million), the financial burden remains a source of bitterness among fans.
United was debt free before the Glazers saddled the club with loans to finance the buyout, which was greeted with violent protests and burning effigies of Malcolm Glazer in the streets outside the 76,000-capacity Old Trafford.
Servicing the debt has cost United more than $1.5 billion in finance charges over nine years. Fans can only dream how that money could have been spent on new players rather than going to financial institutions.
The fans’ anger has only grown since Abu Dhabi’s ruling family bought crosstown rival Manchester City, investing more than $1.5 billion to overhaul the team and infrastructure to finally challenge United’s supremacy. City won the Premier League title this season for the second time in three years. United finished seventh.
Some supporters were so incensed by the Glazers’ takeover that they not only stopped going to games in 2005 but started their own breakaway club. Fully owned and run by supporters, FC United has reached the seventh tier of English football – just three promotions from the professional league system – and is opening its own 5,000-seat stadium later this year.
“The Glazers’ ownership of Manchester United is a product of the lack of regulation that we have in the game,” FC United general manager Andy Walsh said. “Malcolm Glazer took advantage of that and his passing does not change that fact. The Glazer family still own Manchester United Football Club. The takeover of Manchester United caused a lot of pain in this city.”
With the value of Premier League television rights still going up, the Glazers have little urgency to sell a business with a market capitalization of $2.7 billion. But one of the six siblings, who have shown little emotional attachment to the club and rarely attend home games, could decide to cash in on their investment.
Across Manchester, and even on parts of the London Underground, “Love United, Hate Glazer” stickers can still be spotted, having outlasted the campaigns to oust the Glazers that lacked momentum.
Fans adopted green-and-gold scarves in 2010 in honor of the club’s original colors to protest against the Glazers – even former midfielder David Beckham was draped in one when he returned to Old Trafford with AC Milan. But the scarves quickly became another fashion accessory and a separate, much-hyped proposed takeover bid by wealthy fans calling themselves the Red Knights collapsed.
Maintaining a sustained campaign against the Glazers was always going to be challenging as manager Alex Ferguson continued to deliver success on the pitch. He guided the club to five Premier League championships, a Champions League title and Club World Cup victory alone after the takeover. It was Ferguson’s fallout with shareholders John Magnier and J.P. McManus over the ownership of racehorse Rock of Gibraltar that led to them selling the club to the Glazers.
Just how reliant United was on Ferguson became clear last May when he retired after more than 26 years in charge. Hand-picked successor David Moyes flopped and was fired after 10 months in April. Dutchman Louis van Gaal, a title winner with Ajax, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, has been hired to replace him.
Returning United to the top echelons is important not only for prestige but to provide tens of millions of pounds (dollars) in UEFA revenue to service the debt.
Even the Glazer family’s fiercest critics will grudgingly acknowledge their success in extracting cash from the club’s strong global brand more successfully than any domestic rival. Revenue is set to exceed $700 million in the 2013-14 financial year, helped by United amassing a portfolio of global companies willing to pay to use the Red Devils logo on everything from scooters to credit cards.