Purgatory spiced with speculation, hope blunted by stasis. So it goes for Manchester United supporters, for week after interminable week.
It is nearly seven months since the Glazers put the club up for sale – the “anniversary” is Thursday. Yet the family remains in situ, still inflicting the sort of slow torture that would make Torquemada flinch, still desperate to make every last penny before they depart. If they depart.
At least the Glazers have been consistent. They started their 18-year-old reign at the club by stiffing fans. They appear to want to go out the same way. But every week that passes without a sale risks jeopardising United’s chances of improving again next season. If you were an agent of a player lined up for a move to Old Trafford, wouldn’t you wait to see if the Qataris, with almost bottomless pockets, took over first?
The sense both publicly and privately is that Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani’s Nine Two foundation has slipped ahead of Jim Ratcliffe’s Ineos bid after making a fifth and final offer this month. That said, it is understood both parties were still in active and detailed discussions last week, and few behind the scenes are willing to make firm bets.
That is partly because of the opaqueness of the process, and the uncertainty of the Glazers’ full motives – along with the way Raine, the US bank running the sale, has repeatedly tried to ramp up the price. Even so, most believe we are now in the endgame.
But when the takeover fog does eventually lift, and United’s new owners swan into Old Trafford with smiles and promises, the indelible stain the Glazers have left on English football must not be fast‑forwarded over, or forgotten. It is astonishing, even with 18 years’ distance, to remember that United were once a debt-free and profit-making club – before being loaded with £540m of debts purely so that Malcolm Glazer could make himself owner.
And it is also frankly incredible that the Premier League, and a Labour government, saw no reason to object to Glazer using a leveraged buyout to fund his takeover – even though United fans warned of the grim consequences. It meant that Glazer only had to use £272m of his own money to buy a club valued at £810m – with the rest borrowed using the assets of the company as collateral for the loan. In effect, United paid for their own takeover, as well as their continued upkeep.
Even now the debt is still eye-watering. In very simple terms, the gross debt went from almost nothing pre-Glazers, to more than half a billion when they took over, then over £700m in 2010, and now £535.7m in early 2023.
In essence, the Glazers remind one of those insect zombie predators seen on nature documentaries, who drain their hosts of vital nutrients from the inside out, before emerging renewed. And the host? Well, that doesn’t end well.
At least the Premier League has finally appeared to recognise such behaviour isn’t good for the game. Last week it voted to cap leveraged buyouts at around 65% of a club’s value, banning the type of big-debt takeover used by the Glazers. What took it so long?
Meanwhile the rest of the Glazers’ record is little better. You don’t need an MBA to understand that allowing David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson – your chief executive and greatest football manager – to leave in the same summer was rank incompetence. Until then, the Glazers could use United’s success on the field to deflect from the club’s balance sheets. For the past decade, though, there has been no hiding place.
Yet remarkably, despite the downturn in performance, the Glazer siblings have pocketed millions every year since 2015 when shareholders started to be paid a dividend. The biggest, at £34m incidentally, came in 2021-22, when United finished sixth, Ole Gunnar Solskjær was sacked, and Ralf Rangnick turned out to be a disaster. Success should be rewarded. But abject failure?
All told, the Glazers have taken out £154m in dividends and share buybacks since 2015. As the highly respected football finance blogger Swiss Ramble pointed out last year, no owners in the Premier League have taken out more money over the last decade. Indeed many have put in significant funds, including Manchester City’s (£684m), Chelsea’s pre-Todd Boehly (£516m) and Aston Villa’s (£506m). United might still be the world’s biggest cash machine, but when the team, Old Trafford and the Carrington training facility are no longer world class, it comes at a cost.
And let us not forget the Glazers’ shocking attitude to the club’s fans. It says so much that they only began talking to the Manchester United Supporters Trust in 2021 – 16 years after buying the club – following the collapse of the European Super League. By contrast, MUST’s Chris Rumfitt tells me that both the Qataris and Ineos have made clear that if they are given preferred bidder status they will speak to the trust within days.
For now, however, Rumfitt and other United fans must hold their breath. Some of them hoped that when Avram Glazer chartered a £250,000 private jet to watch United play in the women’s FA Cup final last month, with the club footing the hefty bill, it would be the final insult before the takeover became real. But with the Glazers it was never going to be that simple.