At the Lowry Hotel, there was nothing Manchester United players could do but sit back and watch. Outside, hundreds of fans had gathered, blocking the buses that were to take them on the short trip to Old Trafford. They were to leave at 3 p.m. local time. It came and went. The crowd did not disperse. Then four o’clock passed on the clock. Still no movement.
A few miles later, what had started as an organized protest against team property – the hopelessly unpopular and, by most definitions, parasitic Glazer family – had swelled and turned into something much more. chaotic, much wilder.
Hundreds of fans passed through security forces and arrived on the ground. There were suggestions that some had found their way into the bowels of the stadium, reaching as far as Old Trafford’s sanctum sanctorum, the home team’s changing room. A small number of those still outside the stadium clashed with the police. Two officers were injured.
United players were still limited to their hotel rooms at 4.30 p.m. as the Premier League scoring game should have started. Manchester United against Liverpool is the greatest rivalry in English football, the meeting of its two most successful clubs. This edition even had a title at stake, for good measure, but indirectly: a victory in Liverpool would have given the championship to Manchester City.
For a while, the Premier League refused to bow to the inevitable. The game would be delayed, he said, but would take place as soon as the safety of the players could be assured. By 5:30 p.m. – which should have been the start of the second half – the scales had fallen. The league released a brief statement confirming the game has been postponed.
“We understand and respect the force of sentiment, but condemn all acts of violence, criminal damage and trespassing, especially given the associated Covid-19 violations,” it read. “Fans have many channels to make their views known, but the actions of a minority seen today have no justification.”
There are two paths that the league, the clubs involved and football as a whole can take from here. The first is to focus on the method. It is not necessary to stress that violence outside the stadium – however limited it may be – must be condemned. This cannot and should not be justified. The same is true for the more minor offenses of “criminal damage and trespassing”.
These offenses open a door. They help to portray anyone involved in the protests, both at Old Trafford and the Lowry Hotel, as hooligans and troublemakers and, most importantly, jobs, the epithet circulates whenever football fans see it. must be demonized.
They deter engagement with the sentiments behind the protests, make it easier to portray Sunday’s events as nothing but recklessness and lawlessness. They turn the emotion, sincere and deep, into nothing but selfish revanchism: fans are protesting because their team is not at the top of the league.
They offer a simple solution, the panacea towards which football always turns in the end. Win the Europa League later this month and that will all be forgotten, nothing more than a few million more social media pledges that the club can cite in glowing terms in the upcoming quarterly financial review.
The second is to avoid this easy pitfall and focus on the message instead. The Glazers have never been popular at Old Trafford. There were protests when they completed their heavily indebted takeover of a club they didn’t know much about in 2005. There were more by the end of this decade, with fans showing off in the first colors. of the club – green and gold – rather than its more famous red to signal their dissatisfaction.
This hostility never dissipated. But for much of the past decade, it has been dormant. Not because of United’s success – by their own standards, the past eight years have been disappointing – but because of the apparent futility of the protests.
Manchester United, like all football teams, could feel like a social and community institution. He could continually present himself as one. It can even sometimes act as such. But it is, in the most real and relevant sense, a business, and it is a business owned by the Glazers, and because no matter how fierce the protests, the Glazers didn’t seem to flinch, the energy sank. is dissipated.
And then, two weeks ago, Joel Glazer, co-president of the club, put his name on a proposal to create a European superleague, and the fury arose. Fans of other English teams infected with the association with the project took to the streets – a protest by Chelsea supporters precipitated the league’s demise; their Arsenal peers came out in the thousands a few days later – but none have gone as far as United. None has immobilized the league which presents itself as the biggest in the world during one of its red letter days.
In part, this is due to the unpopularity of the glaziers. The reaction of each of the clubs involved has, in a way, reflected the relationship the fans have with the owners.
Arsenal desperately need to get rid of another unloved American, Stan Kroenke: He came out strong. Liverpool, where Fenway Sports Group has some residual admiration, has been a bit more cautious. Manchester City have not seen any mass gatherings, which is a testament to the debt of gratitude their fans feel towards their supporters in Abu Dhabi. At United, the hatred of the Glazers runs deep.
The message their protest sent, however, goes far beyond parish concerns or tribal affiliations. It’s not just, as it might seem, that fans don’t want a superleague. It was established without a doubt a few weeks ago. It’s not just that fans don’t want their clubs to be used as toys by owners who care less about the names on the list than the numbers on the bottom line.
It is that after years of worrying that their teams had been hijacked by the billionaire class and their game taken from them by TV deals, rampant commercialism and unstoppable globalization, the past two weeks have taught fans that they’re not quite so helpless as they once thought.
If they don’t want a superleague, they can stop it in its tracks; so it follows that if they don’t want the game they have now, they can do something about it. As one of the chants United players will have heard, heading to their rooms in the Lowry from the street below, says, “We decide when you play.”
It hasn’t seemed true for a while, but all of a sudden it’s possible to believe it. It hasn’t been said for too long, but the whole silver-soaked edifice of modern football has been built on the fans: game tickets and TV subscriptions and captive advertising merchandise and demographics. .
All the money wasted on sky-high salaries, inflated transfer fees, and inexplicable agent commissions: it all, in the end, comes from the fans. The fans make it all add up. Fans keep the show on the road.
And it’s the fans, now, who have realized that means they can stop it too: a failed idea for a league here, so why not a major game there? They suddenly rediscovered their power.
The irony of it all, of course, will be lost on the Glazers, and all owners love them. It was the easily monetized fanaticism of football that drew them to the game in the first place, and ultimately convinced them that their wacky superleague plan could work. The fans, they thought, would accompany them. They do not have.
And now that same force is aligned against them. The methods he chooses cannot always be tolerated. But the message is clear and it is a message that football would do well to heed.