Where Manchester United stand after 10 years of Glazer family ownership
Ten years ago this week, Manchester United changed forever. May 12, 2005, was a Thursday, and Sir Alex Ferguson's squad, set to finish third behind Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, prepared for their final Premier League game at Southampton, before an FA Cup final against Arsenal in Cardiff the following Saturday.
Ferguson was dealing with a crisis that morning. Nigerian wunderkind John Obi Mikel, who had signed a deal the previous month to join United from Norway's Lyn Oslo, was rumoured to be on a plane to London. "I don't want to play for Manchester United anymore," he had said, and Chelsea was his destination.
Later that Thursday afternoon came the even more sensational news that the Glazer family were now the club's biggest shareholders, having purchased the 28.7 percent of the PLC owned by Irish horse-racing tycoons J.P. McManus and John Magnier, to add to the family's previous ownership of just shy of 30 percent.
By that evening, there was insurrection around Old Trafford, as protesters demonstrated opposition to a complete takeover that was now little more than a fait accompli. "United, United, not for sale," had become a regular anthem among fans, its words defiant against the spirit of United being a commodity, but the Glazer putsch proved such idealism was misplaced.
This Sunday's match against Arsenal sees the old rivals fighting out who might finish third or fourth in the Premier League. Arsene Wenger may remain with the Gunners, but United are very different.
Forever in your debt?
It was not just fans who harboured doubts. Those running the business, including CEO David Gill, did not see how a leveraged buyout could work. "Debt is the road to ruin," he had warned in 2004 as the planets began to align for the deal. The price was £790 million, and to pay it, the Glazers borrowed funds at eye-watering levels from doubtful financiers, which meant that once the deal was complete, a debt of £558.9 million was loaded onto the club. As a PLC, Manchester United had been debt-free.
It meant that turnover would be drained by interest payments each year, cash that might have been earmarked for players. "A lot of businesses have debt," said Joel Glazer, appearing on MUTV in July 2005 in what remains to this day his last public statement on the club. "This should not scare you."
In 2015, United's debt lies at £380.5 million, though at one point in 2010 it pushed toward £800 million before stormy waters were ridden out. A £500 million bond scheme and a partial flotation on the New York Stock Exchange raised funds, while the club's corporate wing, run from London offices, is the envy of the football world.
Tie-ins with Malaysian potato chip companies and Indian tyre manufactures have filled the coffers, and the summer of 2014 saw United spend as big as anyone on the likes of Angel Di Maria, who cost a British record £59.7 million. Those initial high-interest purchase loans have been refinanced, meaning that debt is no longer a crippling burden.
Green and gold until the club is sold
The Glazer family have never been made to feel welcome in Manchester. Their first visit, in June 2005, saw police escorting them away from a band of red-shirted, balaclava-clad protestors, who made clear a threatening intent toward the new owners.
Anti-Americanism was a charge frequently levelled against the anti-Glazer camp, though in fact, it was a distaste for corporate business practice that lay at the root of the unrest. Even now, the Glazers' rare visits take place amid heavy security.
That 2010 high tide of debt came when a loosely organised movement struck to unseat the owners. When Old Trafford became filled with fans wearing scarves coloured green and gold, United's original playing colours when the club was formed as Newton Heath, it was a colour-coordinated statement that a moment for change had arrived.
After David Beckham, playing for AC Milan, wore one after a Champions League visit, the cause had its avatar, even if Beckham later pleaded ignorance of the symbolism. Meanwhile, a group of United-supporting financial big-hitters, the Red Knights, fronted by Jim O'Neill, then chief economist of Goldman Sachs, sought investors from across the globe.
The Glazers rebuffed that no deal would be considered, and returned to silence. O'Neill, now retired, has found himself paying grudging tribute to the owners. "If I ignore all the human sides of it, it's been staggeringly executed," he told the Manchester Evening News this week. "It also refutes the notion that you can't make money out of a football club."
Every single one of us loves Alex Ferguson?
Ferguson was the man who had allowed United fans to live their dreams, and he will be remembered as the club's most successful manager. However, his backing of the new owners remains unforgivable in the eyes of many, as was his unwitting part in the takeover itself. A dispute with former friends McManus and Magnier over the ownership of Rock of Gibraltar, the racehorse, had led to the Irish duo purchasing what became the tipping point of shares once the Glazers found the cash to buy them out. McManus and Magnier had never been in the market for their own takeover but their equity had put pressure on Ferguson, and eventually the club's future.
Photos of Ferguson smiling with the new owners in the summer of 2005 turned stomachs among the hard-core and it was suggested that his walking away could have snagged the takeover deal.
Instead, he embraced a new world. "All the things I wanted to hear from them, I heard that day," he wrote in his autobiography, saying life was easier dealing directly with Florida than the previous PLC board. They in turn made him a very rich man, on the type of salary that top players received, and continue to do so in retirement, paying him £2.165 million as a global ambassador in 2014.
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Until retiring in 2013, Ferguson remained United's front man, and his legacy was the trophies he won post-2005, although less glorious was allowing him to choose his successor. David Moyes' descent into Hades meant that Ferguson would never again play a part in footballing decisions. The Glazers had lived off his genius, but the club was ultimately theirs, while he retreated into the shadows of its past.
A riot of our own
Attending United games is an altered experience from a decade ago. Intercity trains to Manchester from London are full of foreign tourists making their way to the "Theatre of Dreams," where the atmosphere only rarely explodes into the fervency of old.
Old Trafford's demographic has changed, the average age of fans is older, and prices have increased to keep local working-class kids from attending, as was previously the lifeblood of the club. And that previous hard core eventually became splintered.
Some fans will continue to boycott United as long as the Glazers rule, while others rationalised that the club had always been a business, and kept paying for tickets, and enjoyed the ride that Ferguson took them on.
Eight miles north from Old Trafford, in Moston, a tough part of the Mancunian conurbation, is Broadhurst Park, the under-construction, 5,000-capacity home of FC United of Manchester. Even before the Glazers arrived, the germ of the idea had been there; the PLC and its attendant commercialisation had a group of activists looking for something different, the return of community to their football.
The takeover made minds up. Pulled together in that summer of 2005, FC United, the club with a rebel heart that is run along collectivist lines of one member and one vote and where terrace anthems recast the Sex Pistols' "Anarchy In the UK," has climbed to within two divisions of the Football League.
It is a venture that continues to ripple tension between those who stayed behind, and those who chose their revolutionary path.
Glory, glory Man United?
The green and gold has faded, FC United's rebels are happy with their lot while Ferguson and Gill have become little more than faces in the Old Trafford directors' box. The Glazers may keep their distance but are at United to stay.
The predicted apocalypse never came. Manchester United remain the biggest club in English football, and became its most successful, too. Ferguson's final campaign pulled in a 20th title.
The doom of losing that 2005 FA Cup final to Arsenal on penalties amid such uncertainty calmed eventually and a Champions League arrived in 2008, with two more finals reached in the following three years. Ferguson, though constrained in the transfer market and unable to match the outlay of Chelsea or Manchester City, proved a supreme guardian of the Glazers' asset, which has now swelled to what Wall Street suggest is a value beyond £2 billion.
"When all interest and charges on their leveraged buyout is added up, plus money they've paid themselves, plus related debt still on the club, they've taken more than £1 BILLION and it's still rising," said a statement from the Manchester United Supporters Trust this week, lamenting money that could have been spent on players, perhaps kept Cristiano Ronaldo from being sold in 2009 or allowed fans to pay less for their tickets.
The flip side of the argument is that necessity forced the club to increase its commercial operations to the imperial levels that now trawl in funds, and which will pay for Manchester United's post-Ferguson future under Louis van Gaal and beyond.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.