Friday, 4 June was a momentous day in the recent history of Manchester United. The club’s ownership spoke directly to the fans.
Not once previously in a stewardship that dates back to the summer of 2005 had any representative of the Glazer family engaged with supporters.
But on that day, co-chairman Joel Glazer spoke with 11 representatives at a virtual fans’ forum.
He started with an apology, followed quickly by an admission that the distant nature of United’s American ownership “was not right”. Over the course of the following two hours, Glazer went through some of the plans he feels will make the club more inclusive and give the fans what they want.
However, many do not trust the 54-year-old.
They argue Glazer’s presence at the meeting was due entirely to the simmering discontent around his family’s ownership of United that erupted following the collapse of the European Super League.
They claim the £8m that will be paid to the family in dividends announced on 17 June is proof nothing is going to change.
Those fans are not interested in listening to the Glazers. They just want them out of their club.
At the meeting with fans, Glazer set out his stall.
“There are many factors that lead to a club’s success,” he said. “However, we realise that, ultimately, for a club to be the most successful, it requires everyone – the club and its supporters – to all be working together.
“While no team can win every match, everyone pulling in the same direction gives us all the best chance for that success. We believe there is a bright future ahead for the club, but we need to try to break down areas of conflict.”
But many fans argue that the major area of conflict stems from the Glazer family – and their complete lack of communication previously.
“Cynicism from supporters is understandable,” said Ian Stirling, vice-chairman of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST), which attended the forum.
“There have been 16 years of Glazer family ownership – practically zero communication. But cynicism was in place when the Super League plans were announced, when people said it couldn’t be stopped. It was there for the fans’ forum offer, saying Joel Glazer would never meet us or commit to anything.”
Glazer has committed to strengthening the forum. In addition, he said a fans’ advisory board would be created, which would “advise and consult with the club’s senior leadership on a regular basis”.
He also wants to continue discussions with supporters’ groups on a “mutually beneficial fans’ share ownership scheme” that carries the same voting rights as the Class B shares that are almost exclusively owned by the family.
Can fans really be owners?
It has been a stated aim of MUST for United fans to have a meaningful say in the running of the club.
On 25 June, MUST launched the Sign for United campaign. Backed by legendary former United captain Eric Cantona, the scheme asks fans to “register their commitment to becoming a supporter shareholder”. Within four days, 50,000 people had signed up.
However, there are issues.
The Red Issue fanzine, which has more than 58,000 followers on Twitter, has questioned the motives behind it.
They argue “direct action” such as the protest before the Premier League game with Liverpool on 2 May that saw two lots of fans storming security around the stadium – and the match being called off as the coronavirus bubble around Old Trafford was breached – is the only way to force the Glazers out altogether, which is what they want.
Although it was suggested to BBC Sport the will may not exist to repeat those scenes, there have been rumours of more protests at the pre-season game against Queens Park Rangers at Loftus Road on 24 July.
Practically, it is not clear how a fans’ ownership scheme would operate.
Firstly, there are major investors in the club already whose shares have no voting rights. United have also carried out extensive work on how the share issue could fit within the legal and regulatory realities of the club’s New York Stock Exchange listing, but the thoughts of those Class A shareholders are unclear with regard to a new lot of shares being made available exclusively to fans that theoretically have more power than theirs.
And how many fans will sign up?
On 27 June, the Newcastle United Supporters’ Trust said it had received more than £100,000 in pledges as it tries to raise money to buy a stake in the club amid the massive discontent at the ownership of Mike Ashley.
Yet the belief was Ashley was going to sell the club to a consortium from Saudi Arabia for around £300m. Even to secure a 5% stake at that valuation, it would take £15m. Manchester United is worth around £1.8bn according to its share price, so a 5% stake would cost £90m.
“At Newcastle, is there any prospect of building a meaningful stake?” said Stirling. “Does Ashley want supporters at the centre of the club?
“If that prospect for change was offered to supporters and they knew their shares were protected, you would see far bigger sums than £100,000.
“We believe the desire is there from Manchester United fans to build a meaningful stake. It doesn’t happen overnight. It is going to take years.
“We are not asking for £1bn worth of shares to be handed over to us immediately, but that vehicle has to be in place for supporters to be able to invest.
“We have to build for the future. Unless you start, you will never achieve what you want to. Look at the position we were in three months ago compared to where we are now. Look at where we could be if legislation is introduced following the government’s fan-led review. It would be stupid not to plan for that.”
Is 50+1 realistic?
MUST is one of a number of supporters’ groups to have already met the government’s review team as the drive for a reset in the wake of the European Super League storm continues.
Germany’s 50+1 model, where supporters have a golden share that stops private investors taking control of clubs, is seen by many as the aspirational aim.
However, there is no clear solution about how to achieve that state in England, where almost all clubs are privately owned.
For now, the best United fans can hope is that the Glazer family honours a commitment to be more inclusive of the people from whom they have enjoyed such a significant financial benefit.
“Direct action has played its part in speeding up the process of bringing the Glazers to the table, but there is lots of work that has gone on to bring us to this point as well,” added Stirling.
“People enter these things on different levels with different motivations. Ours at MUST is long term.
“Joel Glazer’s words weren’t woolly. There were commitments in there and we have to hold him to account on them.
“We want to get the best deal possible for supporters. Not for ourselves, but to protect the club. Whether he appears genuine is immaterial. It is what actions come out of it and what is delivered.”