Jim White

Red Knights can save Red Devils

Jim White

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There is outside Old Trafford at the moment a giant banner commemorating the stadium's 100th birthday. Typically, it is being used for commercial advantage: buy your anniversary commemorative memorabilia in the club superstore. But nonetheless the poster might remind a few of those emerging laden with red-bagged booty how the place came to be built in the first place.

In 1902, Newton Heath FC were close to bankruptcy, their existence only maintained by some of the senior players going round Manchester pubs rattling collecting tins under the noses of fans. A local brewer called John Henry Davies stepped in and took over, wiping out the debt, changing the club's name and, in 1910, relocating it to a premises he boasted was the finest football ground in the country. Davies built Old Trafford out of his own pocket (or rather out of the purse of his wife, the heiress of the Tate and Lyle fortune). Not a penny of debt was incurred. A proud Mancunian, his intention, he said, was to produce "a team of Manchester men to make Manchester proud."

It was a sense of purpose that ran through the club for generations, understood by his successors. Men like Matt Busby who once took his first team after training to stand at the factory gates and watch the poor, downtrodden locals emerging from their shift, just to remind the players of their duty to lift the lives of those who paid their wages out of the humdrum.

Such a philosophy succeeded in developing an institution that, a century on from Davies's vision, is easily Manchester's most powerful international point of recognition. Its renown even seeped into the consciousness of a family in Florida who were entirely agnostic to English working class culture and Mancunian nationalism; they weren't even interested in football.

But they knew an opportunity to make money for themselves when they spotted one. And since 2005, the Glazers have helped themselves to over £260million in fees and charges from United, money that has come directly from the pockets of the fans, who have seen season ticket prices rise exponentially. To put into perspective what the Glazers have cost United, that money could have been used instead to keep admission prices at 2005 levels and there would still have been more than £100 million to invest in the team.

It has been pillage on an epic scale, the grandest of grand larceny. Every day, one of Britain's finest cultural institutions is being denuded to bolster the wealth of a bunch of people with no understanding of its meaning or history or purpose. It is the same at Anfield, two great establishments, their wealth built up over decades through the dedication of their followers, suddenly denuded for greed. So unparalleled an assault on our collective history is it, the only analogy would be if Oxford and Cambridge universities fell into rapacious speculative ownership, and the years of knowledge and learning rapidly sold off for short-term profit.

Now at least there appears to be some stirrings of resistance at United. The green and yellow scarves waved in the stands at Wembley was a nice visual metaphor for the displeasure of the supporters and an opportunity for them to contemplate exactly what it is they support about the club.

Plus, this week there has been the emergence of the Red Knights, a bunch of high worth individuals keen to buy the club from the Glazers and remove it from the shadow of debt. Sure, with their backgrounds in City speculation, they are about as far from the railwaymen who founded the club as it is possible to be. As it happens, I know a couple of them personally, and I am certain that, as lifelong supporters, they at least understand the place's wider meaning.

They are putting together a plausible strategy that could see the club become just that: a club, an organisation for members defending the members' interests, much in the manner of Barcelona. To help their cause, what might be required is a serious fans' demonstration, perhaps combining with their equally beleaguered rivals from Liverpool on March 21. With such backing, they can progress. As a process, a takeover like theirs won't be cheap and it won't be easy. But that doesn't mean it won't happen.

The Glazers issued a robust statement about the Red Knights' approach this week: "Manchester United is not for sale". It gave ironic echo to the rallying cry of those supporters in 2005 who tried to stop them buying it in the first place. That position proved to be wrong back then. It is for the long-term good of English football that it proves to be wrong again.

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