How Manchester United’s ‘red rebels’ struck for democracy against the dollar

February 22, 2018
Football Club United of Mancester fans at a match in Brighton, England, in 2010.

Red Rebels: The Glazers & the FC Revolution
John-Paul O’Neill
Yellow Jersey Press/Vintage, 2017
270 pages

Sir Alex Ferguson was deeply affronted by the Manchester United Football Club supporters who got stroppy about the proposed takeover of the huge English Premier League club he then managed by the US corporate raider, Malcolm Glazer, in 2004.

“They carried on to the degree where they actually thought they should have a say in the running of the football club,” exclaimed the outraged manager.

Ferguson got to the core of things by starkly asking just whose club it is. Does Manchester United belong to moneyed managers like Ferguson, capitalist owners like Glazer or his profiteering predecessors, or the mercenary players from around the world who simply follow the transfer money?

Or, as John-Paul O’Neill, former passionate Man U supporter and author of Red Rebels, believes, does it belong the fans who give their club its true local heart?

O’Neill saw Man U as a football club, not a business — a community, not a commercial brand.

This contrasts with the view of the corporate pirate, Glazer, who eyed off Man U for monetary reasons. He bought a majority shareholding in the world’s richest club through a huge, debt-fuelled loan to be repaid by more profit-chasing corporate boxes, expensive seated areas, higher ticket prices and in-your-face sponsorship.

While hoovering millions of pounds out of the club to keep in dividends and to keep up large interest repayments, Glazer has made the club itself the ultimate collateral against the loans. This threatened the 126-year-old institution with death from crippling debt should interest rates rise.

Fan resistance to the Glazer takeover looked doomed, however.  Glazer’s grip on Man U was not to be prised loose by an array of protests. These included pitch invasions, match disruption by tossing beach balls onto the field, boycotts of Man U’s corporate sponsors, pulling the plug (literally) on TV coverage to sabotage the broadcasting revenue stream, fans wearing black in mourning instead of Man U’s trademark red, or a quixotic Shareholders’ United plan to buy back ownership. (Glazer’s controlling stake was bought for £780 million, while most of Man U’s 30,000 ordinary members owned a fiver’s worth of shares each).

O’Neill, editor of Red Issue, the independent fanzine famed for its caustic but literate criticism of the Man U elite, floated one last ditch option. As Glazer’s financiers were banking on Man U fans’ continued loyalty, why not seriously dent Man U’s fan and revenue base by setting up, from scratch, an alternative Manchester team, one based on community ownership and control, that would be obedient to democracy not the dollar.

Thus was Football Club United of Manchester (FCUM) born as a protest tactic to pressure Man U to abandon Glazer and return the club to its supporters.

O’Neill took his cue from rank-and-file AFC Wimbledon fans who set up a supporter-owned replacement club when theirs was torn up from its London roots and transplanted north to become Milton Keynes Dons.

To work as an effective protest, FCUM would have to be viable. But only seven weeks out from the start of the 2005-06 season, the rebel movement had no club, structure, money, ground, coach or players.

They also faced opposition from the doom-merchants and naysayers, the nervous nellies and cynics, the big talkers and empty promisers, and hostile journalists (“does anyone seriously believe people will stop watching Man U because of who’s running the club?” snarked one).

They also faced logistical setbacks, the fading fires of enthusiasm, Man U’s former hooligans who got physical, and devoted Man U fans who taunted FCUM followers with cries of “Judas” and “traitor”.

Nevertheless, all obstacles were overcome as the audacious football revolutionaries won the commitment of thousands of Man U fans on the basis of the club’s founding principle of democratic ownership and control.

This meant each paid-up member would be a co-owner; election of the governing board and all major club policy decisions would be decided on a one-member-one-vote basis; ticket prices would be affordable; local youth development would be prioritised for the playing ranks; the club would be a non-profit organisation that avoided “outright commercialism” (including on-shirt sponsorship); and any profits would be re-invested in the club.

Neither would the football revolution stop outside the club premises. FCUM was dubbed the “Red Rebels” by the local press not just because they were rebelling against Man U’s traditional jersey colour, but also because the club’s founders envisaged a club with a left-leaning “social conscience”. Players and management, for example, banned interviews with the BBC in solidarity with the station’s striking journalists.

The FCUM revolution, however, went a bit Animal Farm after its heady early days. The club’s philosophy was betrayed by a bureaucratic clique that developed around chief executive Andy Walsh, who appointed his friends and former comrades from the Trotskyist Militant Tendency to “nice, cushy roles” and robust salaries within the administration while manoeuvring his allies onto the board.

The ‘Walshocracy’ recklessly pursued revenue and completely stuffed up the club’s finances with debt, ironically replicating the Glazer debt debacle at Man U.

At times, O’Neill got a bit down in the dumps with a touch of the Orwells. He wondered if it was worth keeping the FCUM dream alive, but, together with his “small band of idealists”, he mobilised members behind FCUM’s original banner of “protest and rebellion” and managed to defy George Orwell’s anti-revolutionary defeatist pessimism.

There was a second, successful, revolution with the undemocratic, nepotistic, dissent-crushing board of betrayers routed in 2016.

On the field, after starting football life in the very bottom tier of English football, nine whole divisions below Man U in the Premier League, FCUM had stunning early success. It won promotion season by season until its part-time players met stiffer competition further up football’s professional pyramid. There, mid-table mediocrity and relegation scares awaited them, but they have survived.

So has Man U, however, where Glazer appears to have been accepted. A trophy cabinet of silverware has lulled fans into passivity on ownership issues. A monetary era of record low interest rates has also, for now, kept a lid on the debt time-bomb of £400 million bequeathed by Glazer — even as the US tycoon has shovelled out £1 billion in money-for-nothing dividends.

Not just in terms of footballing glamour, but on fundamentally political issues of democracy, ownership and control, the member-run, community team of FCUM and the make-a-buck commercial team of Man U are truly in different leagues.

Although the book’s regurgative, blow-by-blow, email-by-email account of the internal FCUM power struggle could have done with some cruel-to-be-kind editing, O’Neill has, with Red Rebels, played a blinder.

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