The Man United myth

Manchester United co-chairmen Avram Glazer (left) and Joel Glazer during the team’s Premier League match against Burnley at Old Trafford on February 11, 2015.-GETTY IMAGES Manchester United co-chairmen Avram Glazer (left) and Joel Glazer during the team’s Premier League match against Burnley at Old Trafford on February 11, 2015.

Well before the arrival of the ineffable Glazers, Manchester United had hardly been as pure as the driven snow. The vast basic difference between then and now is that the club — which had its troubles and its scandals long before, in the early years of the century — had at least been run by people primarily involved in football. By Brian Glanville.

We have just accepted rather than celebrated the 10th anniversary of the takeover of Manchester United by the much reviled Glazer family of Florida. Not that being reviled, insulted or abused concerns them in the least. They hold the power, they hold the shares, they own the club, and continue to profit from it hugely. Their takeover was a perverse masterclass in financial engineering.

Nothing that they did was illegal, however controversial and antipathetic. They were simply so much smarter than any elements on the United side, who might somehow have opposed them. That they weren’t in the least interested in football as such was and is the merest commonplace. What they wanted was money and they succeeded in what you might call a complex ingenious coup in seeing not only that they got it, but that they piled the enormous financial consequences of their takeover on to the club itself.

The amount has diminished over the decade, but it is still huge as is the interest. On the other hand, it can scarcely be suggested that United have descended into poverty. They spent vast sums of transfer money last summer and this summer they are preparing to spend GBP150million. While Alex Ferguson, whose successes in charge of Manchester United were phenomenal, managed to achieve at least a modus vivendi with the Glazers. Who don’t, so far as can be seen, appear to be owners who interfere with policy. With its 76,000 capacity at Old Trafford, far in advance of any other club, and the colossal sums it makes from television and sponsorship, United are comfortably competing with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, etched back by billionaire owners with far more commitment to the cause than the strictly commercial Glazers.

Yet the impression given by some critics of the Glazers’ regime that it has knocked the romance and the virtue out of a great club arguably beg the question. Even in its most glorious years, the years of the Busby Babes, the team built by the saviour of the club after the last war, Matt Busby, (they wouldn’t even play at bombed out Old Trafford for years) the club’s chairman Louis Edwards was hardly a pillar of virtue.

While he was no Glazer in the sense of exploring the club financially, revelations late in his Chairmanship and life were very far from salubrious. Edwards owned a prosperous butchery business, and diligent researchers discovered that he was selling large quantities of inferior meat for local schools at high prices to a council buyer whom he bribed by sending him each week a gift of GBP100 worth of meat. In imminent danger of prosecution, he died in the bath from a heart attack.

Busby’s Manchester United was indeed a forcing house of fine young talent from Duncan Edwards through Bobby Charlton to George Best. But like Chelsea at the same periods, they were well known for their ruthless pursuit of such young ability. I so well remember Jackie Milburn, the fans’ idol, when centre forward, for Newcastle United, of how he had expected Bobby, his relation, and a teenaged prodigy, to join him at Newcastle United, only to be shocked when instead he went from North East to North West and signed for Manchester United. Jackie told me that Bobby’s commanding mother Cissie had asked him apologetically, “What could we do: They offered us GBP 750.” Which, in those days, were a lot of money, especially to the family of a coal miner.

As for Alex Ferguson, abundantly paid as he has been over the years by Manchester United, he has never been averse to making more money still. Hence, the somewhat unseemly episode of Rock of Gibraltar. A champion racehorse owner by two Irish millionaires, who out of generous friendship for Ferguson had allowed him to pocket the horse’s substantial winnings. But when the horse was retired, Ferguson demanded breeding rights. When this was very predictably refused, he began to prepare a court action in Dublin. But, ultimately, and wisely, backed down.

Then there was the odd case of the American goalkeeper Tim Howard. A star in the French finals of the so called Confederations Cup, whom United eagerly signed, in the hope that he would get a permit to play in England.

Although the rigid and unimaginative laws of the Department of Employment and the football authorities laid down that a player to be eligible had to have played some three quarters of his country’s international matches, Howard couldn’t possibly have qualified for all his recent exploits, because the way had been blocked by two accomplished older ’keepers. But such decisions were subject to appeal.

Appeals which were heard by a four-man committee in central London of which I was then a member. Howard was obviously going to get through as indeed he did though I wasn’t on the committee on that occasion. Subsequently, my own newspaper the Sunday Times published an article reporting that Manchester United had paid a large sum of money to an obscure Italo-Swiss agent for facilitating the appeal. Most of that money it transpired had gone on to an English agent in Monaco and from him to the Elite agency run by Ferguson’s son. Yet I knew very well that no agent could ever come near the committee’s private discussions. Draw your own conclusions.

When Louis Edwards died his son Martin succeeded him as Chairman and chief executive of the club. But whereas his father, like all football club chairmen through the years, had not been paid in his position, Martin made himself a salaried executive and became very rich indeed. He was neither a popular nor a significant figure, but he did make one major contribution to the club.

When Ferguson, who had worked wonders with Aberdeen in Scotland made a shaky start at Old Trafford and seemed in real danger of losing his job, Martin Edwards strongly supported him. When near the end of the season United won the European Cup Winners Cup, which Aberdeen under Ferguson had so gallantly and surprisingly won, he was safe and went on to his long triumphant reign.

Thus, well before the arrival of the ineffable Glazers, Manchester United had hardly been as pure as the driven snow. The vast basic difference between then and now is that the club — which had its troubles and its scandals long before, in the early years of the century — had at least been run by people primarily involved in football.

By sharp and severe contrast, the Glazers, who, as we have seen, display no genuine involvement in football, see it only as a means of making vast sums of money.