Man Dis-United: As the hated Glazers put the world’s most famous football club up for sale for £5bn, why the marriage between the ‘chippy leprechaun’ and the Old Trafford faithful was a hideous mismatch from the start
Even by the base standards of football chanting, one song that often echoes around Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground is explicitly vile and cruel.
‘He’s gonna die, he’s gonna die, Joel Glazer’s gonna die. How we kill him, we don’t know. Cut him up from head to toe. All I know is Glazer’s gonna die.’
It would be shocking enough if this mantra was aimed at an opposition player or manager. Yet the object of the fans’ hatred is a member of the family that owns their club.
No wonder Mr Glazer, 55, and his 62-year-old brother, Avram, his co-chairman, almost always watch the team from the safety of their mansions in America, rather than risk venturing into the stadium.
Their decision announced on Tuesday to consider selling the world’s third most valuable football club (after Real Madrid and Barcelona) is doubtless motivated primarily by money. Its worth is estimated at £3.8 billion, but could go as high as £5 billion.
In an entrepreneurial clan that has profit margins etched in its DNA, it usually is.
But the opprobrium that has been heaped on the Glazers — from the day they first set foot in Old Trafford, 17 years ago, and met such a virulent protest that they had to be smuggled out in the back of a police van — is surely a contributory factor.
As English football becomes less a sport and more a global business where success is usually aligned with investment, disgruntled supporters frequently turn against their mega-rich owners. One thinks of Sports Direct mogul Mike Ashley, thick-skinned enough to endure years of booing and jeering before selling Newcastle United to the Saudis.
Controversial: United’s late owner Malcolm Glazer. Manchester United’s American owners the Glazer family say they are considering selling the club as they ‘explore strategic alternatives’
However, no Premier League owners have been so viscerally despised, and for so long, as the Glazers. Indeed, when introducing the story on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday even the show’s supposedly impartial presenter, Nick Robinson, an avowed United fan, voiced his disaffection.
‘For sale: one football club, arguably the most famous in the world. Condition: in urgent need of love and attention. One careless, American owning family,’ he said, in tones laden with contempt. Though the financial details are complex, the fundamental reasons why so many United fans despise the Glazers can be summed up succinctly.
To acquire full control of the club once graced by Bobby Charlton, George Best, Denis Law and so many more legendary names, they paid £790 million. Yet when the deal was secured, supporters were angry to learn that it was a leveraged buyout — achieved with loans which the Glazers secured against United’s assets.
Loans that saddled a club that had prided itself on its financial independence, and hadn’t needed to borrow from creditors since 1931, with a huge debt. Today that debt is £500 million, gobbling up tens of millions in annual interest repayments.
On top of this, the Glazers are castigated for overpaying themselves in dividends (last June, three months before United declared a £115.5 million annual loss, they took out £11 million) while denying those who love the club a stake in its future.
They are further accused of failing to upgrade the training facilities and 74,000 capacity stadium, parts of which are said to leak; and spending too little on signing new players. In truth, some of this criticism is unfair. Though the Glazers were recently estimated to have taken more than £1 billion from United during their tenure, for example, they have paid out at least that amount for new players — outspending most of their rivals.
And though the team hasn’t won a trophy for five long years, they were, until Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager, in 2013, far and away the most decorated member of the Premier League’s elite. Yet, as often when it comes to England’s new national religion, the Glazers’ tarnished image often clouds reality.
Viewed from the stands, they are seen as greedy, remote, profit-driven Yanks who have hijacked a club steeped in honour and tradition purely for their own ends. That United’s place at the summit of the English game has been lost to their local rivals, Manchester City, has lowered the owners’ standing still further.
As the first British journalist to investigate the Glazers’ background, I quickly surmised that the marriage between the mighty Man United and this eccentric U.S. family was a hideous mismatch.
And a few days ago, in a parting shot at the club, Cristiano Ronaldo — arguably their greatest ever player — waded in. During a blistering TV interview with Piers Morgan, the Portuguese icon, who returned last year but left this week by mutual consent, said the club had failed to progress during the 12 years he had been playing for other teams
It was a realisation based on the observations of those who knew the Glazer story from the inside.
Take, for example Marcia Shapiro, a late sister of the patriarch Malcolm Glazer, who conducted the takeover and ran the club until he had a stroke and relinquished control to his sons.
Presciently, she warned that her brother would have scant regard for United’s heritage, much less the fans, telling me he would ‘buy players, sell players, raise ticket prices, do whatever will make him money’.
Warning that even the fearsome Ferguson would be brought to heel, she added: ‘There has always been an expression in our family: ‘It’s Malcolm’s way or the highway. He can take on the world.’
With his pointy, ginger beard, scruffy clothes and a habit of belting his trousers high up his waistline, Malcolm Glazer, who died in 2014 aged 85, was the least likely football mogul one could imagine.
In the upstate New York city of Rochester, where he was raised, he was nicknamed the leprechaun by dint of his gimpish appearance.
The fifth of seven children born to a Lithuanian-Jewish couple who emigrated to the United States, his father was a small-town jeweller and watch repairer.
At eight, Glazer began working in the shop and, by 15, when his father died, he took over as manager. He then branched out into real estate and care homes, before building an empire that included a controlling stake in big-name brands such as Harley-Davidson motorbikes and Tonka Toys, and several local TV stations, under his controlling company, First Allied Corporation.
It was in 1995 that he went into sport, buying the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gridiron team for $192million, then a record for an American football franchise.
In the Florida city, the Glazers’ image contrasts sharply with the way they’re perceived in Manchester. Over a quarter of a century, they have transformed ‘the Bucs’ from serial losers into two-time Super Bowl winners.
They have earned further popularity by setting up a community relations department and a foundation that allows underprivileged children to watch matches for free. It also helps to improve the vision of young people with poor eyesight.
Had they taken similar steps on arriving in Manchester, the fans might just have warmed to them.
However, public relations were never Malcolm Glazer’s strong suit. A chippy, reclusive little man, he almost seemed to relish his unpopularity among the residents of the low-rent trailer parks he owned.
Calling him ‘a piece of garbage’, a man who lived in one of his rusting cabins told me Glazer had ‘ripped him off’ by charging excessive rent and refusing to carry out repairs. His was not the only such complaint. Some tenants told me he increased the rent if they owned dogs, in apparent violation of state law.
Gary Neville, who believes Manchester United should cancel Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract in the next few days, is pictured
When I was in Rochester, Glazer was also embroiled in an acrimonious family wrangle. His sisters claimed that when their mother died, he took control of almost all her assets and refused to share her legacy with poorer relatives.
The resultant legal case dragged on for 15 years and one of the presiding judges referred to Glazer as ‘a snake in sheep’s clothing’.
According to his sister, Marcia, Malcolm was so mean that when he put his two Florida mansions on the market, he resolved to live in the one that attracted the smallest offer.
She also poured scorn on his claim, in a rare local newspaper interview, to have been a self-made man.
What’s more, he had no interest in football. ‘He has never liked sports. He has never played a game in his life,’ she told me, saying he had acquired United purely to boost his fortune. Whether or not that is true, it certainly happened. Back then his worth was estimated in the hundreds of millions; today the family company is valued at more than four billion dollars.
Of course, the perceived sins of Glazer, the father, must not be visited on his sons. And Joel and Avram are clearly men of a different era and a different corporate model. Nonetheless, in Manchester at least, their reputation has doubtless been tarnished by association. They might reasonably argue that it isn’t safe for them to go walkabout at Old Trafford.
Yet their failure to engage with the fans, much less permit them to buy shares, has fuelled their unpopularity.
The protest against the Glazers’ ownership began with many supporters wearing green and yellow scarves, the colours of the 19th century railway works team Newton Heath, which spawned modern-day United.
Breakaway fans even formed a new football club, FC United of Manchester, in the hope that it might grow to surpass the team that had been ‘stolen’ from them. Thus far the quixotic plan has not materialised: the ‘real’ United still languish in the seventh tier of the football pyramid.
Some expected the anger to subside with the passing years yet, if anything, it has grown more menacing and bitter.
Last year, the Cheshire home of United’s then executive vice chairman, Edward Woodward, was vandalised by saboteurs apparently frustrated that the Glazers remained beyond reach in the States. Then, in June, a leaked video emerged showing his successor Richard Arnold speaking in a pub to a group of fans who had accosted him after protesting outside his house.
Unaware he was being recorded, Mr Arnold admitted to ‘not being thrilled’ about United’s current situation, and described last season as a ‘f****** nightmare’.
He was caught saying: ‘We spent a billion pounds on players, more than anyone in Europe… it doesn’t sit easy with me and I worry how we get this sorted for the future. What’s happened is, we have f****** burned through the cash.
Given that British football is replete with dubious foreign owners these days, perhaps the United hatemongers should be careful who they wish to take over their beloved club
‘You can’t go to our training ground and say, “Show me where the £1 billion is”, because we haven’t spent money well historically. Last year was a f****** nightmare. There was hate at every game. We have blown an enormous amount of money.’
In the humiliating secret video, Mr Arnold also referred to the Glazer ownership, saying: “I’m not here to defend Joel, or the shareholders, they can speak for themselves.’ His words hardly painted a reassuring picture.
That the Glazers had supported lucrative plans for a breakaway European super league, in defiance of the grassroots fans’ wishes, only agitated Old Trafford’s troubled waters. The team’s former captain Gary Neville — in his self-styled role as Mancunian man of the people — branded them as ‘scavengers’ who needed ‘booting out’.
And a few days ago, in a parting shot at the club, Cristiano Ronaldo — arguably their greatest ever player — waded in.
During a blistering TV interview with Piers Morgan, the Portuguese icon, who returned last year but left this week by mutual consent, said the club had failed to progress during the 12 years he had been playing for other teams.
Dismissing United as a mere ‘marketing vehicle’, he claimed the facilities were antiquated by comparison with the most modern clubs in Europe and said the Glazers didn’t appear to care.
A damning indictment. Yesterday, news that the American interlopers might be selling up at long last prompted celebrations across Manchester and far beyond.
Yet given that British football is replete with dubious foreign owners these days, perhaps the United hatemongers should be careful who they wish to take over their beloved club.
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