How can you sell something you never actually paid for? How is it possible to make profit without risk or jeopardy, or indeed any sign of expertise along the way? What is this miracle commodity, this blend of metal, plastic, turf and other people’s monetised joy?
Welcome to football capitalism 101 and the metaphysical puzzle of the Glazer ownership of Manchester United. No wonder they call leveraged buy-outs the beautiful game. It is, in the end, one you just can’t lose.
More to the point, what does it mean when not one but two members of English football’s US billionaires’ club announce they have decided to cut and run, the Glazers midway through a Gulf‑powered World Cup that has, just because it can, cut a hole in the decadent old European club season?
For now, most United supporters will have only one response to the news that the club is, probably, possibly up for sale. That response is unfettered celebration, and rightly so. It will be tempting at this point to say things like: be careful what you wish for, beware what lies beneath, there are no clean hands here, and all the rest. This is undoubtedly true. Newcastle supporters, for example, are currently required to wrestle with the contradictions of being “given back their club” by generous and competent owners; who wish, simultaneously, to use that precious entity as an amplifier for a repressive regime, something that sounds like giving back, but also like taking away.
Just wait until Bahrain gets wind of this, or the Mongol empire (Manchester thanks you, Genghis) or General Zod of the Krypton military command. For now such contortions can wait. In the meantime, why not kick back and enjoy the moment. Because whatever lies in store, at least it won’t be this.
How to summarise the Glazer era? Firstly, it’s not an era. Eras contain events, structure and achievements. This has been something else, a kind of staged congealment, with the sense of an object being expertly hollowed out from the inside.
The Glazers have been terrible football club owners. At the same time they have been very good at being terrible owners. Expertly parasitical, beautifully slick at turning Manchester United into an Avanti trains kind of club: something fundamentally shabby and grudging, all cut corners, blocked toilets, skeleton staff, the natural monopoly on their fans’ footballing loyalties stretched thin for a quick buck.
There have been three broad stages to this. The first was the late-Ferguson plateau, when momentum and managerial will allowed the ship to keep drifting forward. This was followed by the post-Ferguson chaos, during which the club spent (other people’s) money incoherently, appointed pliant placemen to key roles, and still rinsed the brand for all it’s worth with genuine skill and care.
The last year has seen a third stage, a panicked attempt to rescue a little gloss, with money spent in a rush and the disastrous celebrity-influencer partnership with Cristiano Ronaldo.
Through this, the dominant note of Glazer-ism has been that branded emptiness, part haunted medieval hall, in thrall to its own ghosts, part celebrity waxwork museum, a grand old club reduced to something resembling a market stall sale of remaindered Gary Pallister dolls (may have been damaged in transit). It is entirely natural United would want to move on from that version of itself. Whatever comes next will be different. Sometimes you just want to feel something again.
Although what happens next will, as ever, be dictated by larger tides. Because something does seem to be happening here, and it’s not just a Manchester story. The usual suspects will enter the takeover chat. An ambitious nation-state. A consortium headed by a showy US billionaire. Jim Ratcliffe, who sounds acceptable because he’s called Jim and is a genuine home-loving Englishman from Monaco.
The wider note in this story, a little overlooked to now, is the fact Liverpool are also up for sale. Is this starting to seem strange yet? Are the rabbits rustling in the treeline? The two most valuable privately owned properties in English football are put up for sale within a month of one another. The key US billionaires, boarding group one, are cashing out simultaneously. This is significant enough as a standalone event. But there are no coincidences. And as ever, always follow the money.
It is hard not to conclude that this is related to the failure of the Super League. The prospect of fresh growth under that model was clearly a major part of the strategy. Many people think it will still happen in some form, but perhaps not in that same blunt and brutal way the Glazers and Fenway Sports Group had aggressively championed.
It does also feel oddly poignant that this should emerge during the Qatar World Cup. The split in European club football’s power-players has on one side loosely aligned, the nation-state clubs (Paris Saint-Germain, Manchester City, Chelsea for two decades, Newcastle United for the next two) driven by political and soft power aims; and on the other clubs owned by private bodies interested in making a profit, along with others under some more bespoke form of ownership, chiefly Bayern Munich and the Spanish clásico clubs.
The real driver behind the ESL was the prospect of capping the power of nation-state clubs, of finding a way to compete with an entity that has no commercial jeopardy, where simply keeping up – and most football clubs are horribly reckless – means killing yourself. Its collapse, and the likely departures of FSG and the Glazers, are all signs that the nation-state clubs are winning this. The cartel is, frankly, in disarray. Barcelona have sold their future in return for a wonky version of the present. Juventus Ronaldo’d themselves in search of an illusory next level.
What does it leave? The arrival of Todd Boehly at Chelsea is evidence US investors and their partners still see major potential for growth here, that football’s value will simply continue to rise. And yet, somehow, watching Boehly it is hard to shake a slight sense of doubt. Are we through the good billionaires? Is Boehly the Liz Truss of the Premier League ownership party, the sediment at the bottom of the barrel, the comedy endgame? Does this really feel like a convincing version of the future, fit to push Abu Dhabi and Qatar?
It is still a rising tide out there, a product that is relentlessly in demand. And with the old guard on their way out this leaves seven Premier League clubs with US owners or investors. Perhaps the future is a more dynamic form of entrepreneurial growth, the kind of stuff Boehly has been sketching out: tuning the details, introducing new gimmickry, even another great pivot.
The identity of the new owners at Old Trafford and Anfield will tell us a great deal about Premier League ownership 3.0. But it is already hard to avoid two conclusions. First that this is still all within the blast radius of the Super League, collateral to that failed coup. And second, that what the Glazers will leave behind is something desiccated and emptied out, another host body for football’s own vampiric late capitalism.
With no rules around countries and their investment funds owning clubs, or on how private investors can pillage these assets, the hunt for ‘good owners’ will continue. For now the market will decide. For United fans there is perhaps consolation in the simple fact that, at the very least, it won’t be this.