Sometimes I sit down to write this column and it’s a struggle to hit the word count if it’s been a quiet few weeks. And then there’s occasions like this where it’s difficult to know exactly where to start. Super League, Woodward’s exit, anti-Glazer protests, European finalists… it’s no exaggeration to say the last month or so has been fairly eventful.
The proposals for a European Super League announced back in April came as both a surprise and no surprise at all. It was always going to happen one day, it was just a matter of when exactly. What I didn’t anticipate is that the product would arrive as such a half-baked, amateurish package. Everything about it was essentially crap. The justification for it, the timing, even the logo and the site looked like they’d been knocked up in a couple of hours by some low-end web design freelancer.
If something of this magnitude was ever going to succeed, it had to come out fully-formed and ready to roll. Instead, it turned out that the invested clubs weren’t even convinced as the whole thing had collapsed within 48 hours. The ESL arrived dead on arrival because fundamentally, it offered nothing of value to the very people it was being aimed at. They were attempting to sell an inferior product to the one that already exists. It was nothing more than an opportunistic power grab from morally bankrupt, financial leeches who’re ideologically opposed to the very notion of ethical business practice or protecting the sport as a whole.
The motivations of their plot were so transparent that the entire football community were unanimous in their condemnation. Here, after contentious topics such as Brexit and COVID, was a subject everyone could agree on. The momentum was strong at this point and there were encouraging noises being made that we might potentially see a review leading to reform of football club governance. One of the loudest, most passionate voices was Gary Neville. This struck me as a little strange given that Neville is a multi-millionaire thanks to football’s relentless commercialisation over the last 20 years. Perhaps that was just me being cynical and we had to give him the benefit of the doubt here.
The fact that the Glazers were front and centre in ESL discussions came as no surprise to United supporters. This, after all, felt somewhat inevitable given it was widely acknowledged 16 years ago that their ultimate goal would be to oversee a gargantuan boost in revenue stemming from devolved TV rights. We were largely ignored when pointing this out back then, probably because the only party likely to suffer in the short-term from their takeover would be MUFC itself. The reaction was a bit different now the penny had dropped there might be consequences for English football as a whole.
Faced with the prospect of the sacrosanct Premier League applecart being upturned, there was a whiff of revolution in the air for about 72 hours as fans across the country took to the streets in protest. The media cheered from the sidelines and Boris Johnson quickly hopped on the bandwagon, condemning the breakaway clubs for trying to establish a “cartel”. This was later proven to be shapeshifting nonsense as The Sunday Times revealed that Johnson had met with Woodward in the days preceding April 18th and had apparently given the plan his tacit approval. He denied this of course, but it’s a bit of stretch to believe the ESL wasn’t discussed in No 10 that day.
As one of the main instigators of the plot, the hapless Woodward soon resigned and after dominating the headlines for a few days the news cycle quickly moved on. The ‘football family’ had spoken and that seemed to be that as far as the mainstream media were concerned. Errr… not quite. United supporters, after all, have longstanding issues with the Glazer family that dwarf any lingering outrage about plans for a breakaway ESL.
After being the source of much bitterness and acrimony between 2005-2010, it’s fair to say debate concerning the Glazer ownership dwindled after the Green & Gold protests petered out back in 2010. It never went away completely, as referenced in these pages month after month – but a sense of malaise had crept in as people conceded they were likely going nowhere. In truth, after 5 years of banging our heads against a wall in an atmosphere of divisiveness and intimidation from certain parties, most people were probably tired of the subject.
Fast forward back to 2021 and that palpable sense of injustice was back with a vengeance. First we saw a bedsheeted up band of interlopers infiltrate the training ground before that glorious Sunday when a couple of thousand took to the streets and against all the odds, managed to force the postponement of the Liverpool game. Mission accomplished. If the powers that be weren’t listening before, they were certainly listening now.
This time, however, the prevailing media narrative had shifted. Whereas a couple of weeks previously, the noises coming from commentators and journalists were encouraging of supporters taking direct action to protect the national game, the mood changed once this exact scenario was being beamed live into people’s living rooms. All of a sudden it wasn’t about justifiably outraged fans protecting beloved community assets, this was being framed as a minority of thugs overstepping the mark and taking things too far. “Of course you should protest, just make sure you don’t protest too loudly”, seemed to be the consensus.
This reaction was as depressing as it was predictable. Pat Nevin whipped himself into a frenzy on 5 Live, spending over an hour lambasting the protesters. Jermaine Jenas was so out of his depth on MOTD that he seemed bemused as to why he was being asked to give an opinion at all. I mean, come on. It genuinely defies belief that someone paid to talk about English football doesn’t have a grasp of why Manchester United fans might have an issue with the club’s owners. This isn’t a new story. This is something that has been brewing for 16 years. There have been books written about this subject. It led to the formation of another football club for goodness’ sake.
Thankfully, the likes of Neville and Keane were on hand to provide some common sense and perspective amidst all the hand-wringing. Much respect to Jamie Carragher too, who appeared to grasp the protestors’ perspective better than any of his colleagues. Whereas Neville continued to pontificate about the ESL, Carragher cut through the noise and correctly pointed out it was nothing to do with the Super League at this point. It may have have been the catalyst, but this was battle lines being re-drawn in a war that began back in 2005.
Unsurprisingly, the reaction from rival supporters was just as dismissive as some of the nodding dogs in the media. Whereas a fortnight previously there was universal rejection of the ESL proposals, now we were out on our own with people falling over themselves to denigrate the motivations behind the protest. Again, this was entirely predictable. There’s no solidarity amongst football supporters in this country. It’s no wonder that fans have been exploited for decades when club rivalries and petty name calling seem preferable to working together to bring about change that might benefit all clubs in future.
Whether the current strength of feeling continues to gather momentum remains to be seen. We’ve been here before of course, and in the past the Glazers have ridden out similar periods of disquiet holed up in Florida. United’s fanbase is large and made up of many disparate groups. We’ve been prone to squabbling and infighting at key junctures previously, but now is the time to forget all that. Many thought all was lost back in 2005 but the last few weeks have shown that the resistance is still strong. Unity is powerful. Let’s keep the pressure on.
Copyright Red News – May 2021