Glazers out? Manchester United fans right to be giddy but there are no benevolent billionaires

An anti-Glazer protest sign at Manchester United Credit: Alamy
An anti-Glazer protest sign at Manchester United Credit: Alamy

Cancelling Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract and confirmation that Manchester United are up for sale are both good news for the club’s supporters.

 

Life comes at you fast, and when you’re Manchester United you don’t need to worry about some piddling World Cup going on in the background should you need to make a headline or two. Over the course of one day, the club sent out two shock waves across the global game, the first coming with the announcement of the mutually agreed cancellation of Cristiano Ronaldo’s contract following his troublesome interview with Piers Morgan, the second with confirmation that the club has been put up for sale.

The first of these announcements will provide a short-term shot in the arm for United supporters who had grown weary of a homecoming that long ago turned sour. There was a very modern debate on social media about who benefits the most from the thoroughly sensible decision to cancel a contract that didn’t seem to be doing anyone any good. Was Ronaldo benefitting more by being able to put himself ‘in the shop window’ in Qatar or were United benefitting more by having him off their wage bill?

There’s something almost charmingly naive about the idea that the sophisticated scouting departments employed by the sort of clubs that could afford his wage demands would ignore everything else known about him and base a decision to sign him on how many goals he scores for Portugal against Ghana, Uruguay or South Korea, but setting that to one side for a moment, the short answer to that question is, ‘well, it doesn’t really matter to United now, does it?’.

The interview had made his position at the club effectively untenable, and whether that was engineered by him is broadly an irrelevance. If it was intended as an exercise in bridge-burning, then it was successful and Manchester United can console themselves with the millions they will not be paying him in wages.

But while Ronaldo’s departure from Old Trafford may provide a short-term endorphin hit for those keen to see substantive change at Manchester United, it’s unlikely that the timing of his departure and the club being put up for sale is any more than mere coincidence, and the second announcement brings a more existential question for the entire club. United supporters have been campaigning for the Glazers to leave their club since before they even arrived, but now that this moment has arrived, who will replace them and how much will they pay for the pleasure of doing so?

United supporters may well be hoping for Sir Jim Ratcliffe, who’d previously expressed an interest in Chelsea and who spent the summer dipping into the Premier League transfer market with his other club, OGC Nice. Of course, no-one knows whether Ratcliffe will make a bid.

On the one hand, at 70 years he may never get another opportunity to buy United if he doesn’t move now. But on the other, he spent a fair bit of money at Nice last summer and may well be happy with what he already has and wonder what he has to gain by throwing several billion pounds at United’s quest to stay in touch with clubs operating as extensions of Middle Eastern oil interests.

And then there’s the small matter of what the club may be sold for. Fans and analysts may well stroke their beards and throw around huge numbers with enormous confidence, as though there’s no difference between £3bn, £4bn or £5bn, but it is worth remembering that each billion pounds added to the club’s valuation is a thousand million pounds or, to put it another way, twice the amount of money that was put onto Manchester United in debt as part of the leveraged buy-out that installed the Glazer in the first place.

 Credit: Alamy
Credit: Alamy

As ever, the short answer to the question of how much Manchester United is worth is ‘whatever someone is prepared to pay for them and whatever the Glazers are prepared to sell for’. For now, anything else is idle speculation. And that figure may well have been distorted by the sale of Chelsea earlier this year and the recent announcement that Liverpool are also available to purchase.

Indeed, it has been suggested that United’s decision to sell may have been influenced by Liverpool being put up for sale, and it’s certainly true to say that in a world in which the cost of buying an elite-level football club is so astronomically high, the number of available buyers is necessarily limited.

Some will be hoping to be showered with the oil money that has rained down upon Manchester City, Chelsea and Newcastle, but that’s not guaranteed, while more American investment in the club offers few guarantees of a brighter future, with any new owners expecting a return on the vast amount of money put into the club to buy it in the first place.

And while Manchester United have shown clear signs of moving in the right direction on the pitch this season – even if they’re only one place better off than they finished last season after 14 games, with the same goal difference of zero – the new buyer will have to find the funding for long-overdue renovation work on Old Trafford.

It’s unlikely that these costs wouldn’t be absorbed through external funding, but it’s another consideration to take into account at a club which still has catching up to do, with the sellers having done so little to keep the club’s infrastructure up to standard over a period of almost two decades. It’s going to be expensive and it’s going be complicated; these two factors alone mean that the completion of any sale might not be quick.

But perhaps the big questions are for another day. The Glazers have been despised like no other owners in the history of the game in this country. The soundtrack to the two decades of the club’s history has been a steady beat of protest, from the formation and growth of FC United of Manchester to the green and gold protests and the abandonment of the club’s European Super League ambitions as the club’s supporters forced the cancellation of a Premier League match against Liverpool at Old Trafford.

Do the opinions of supporters count for anything much? It’s mixed. In a very real sense, and as the last 20 years have shown, United supporters are as disenfranchised as anyone else when it comes to the matter of who owns their club, but they do have one thing in their favour. Just as at Liverpool, the sheer volume could influence decisions to make a bid, even if the Glazers are famously tin-eared when it comes to making decisions that benefit anybody beyond themselves.

There are no truly benevolent billionaires and a change of ownership is unlikely to guarantee immediate success, but Manchester United supporters are at least being given a chance to dream of a brighter future. The new owners could get the club back to where all concerned feel it should be. Or it could be Elon Musk.

The stakes are high, but the fact that most Manchester United supporters seem happy to take that gamble speaks volumes for the way in which the Glazers ran the club in the first place.

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