In 1931, James W. Gibson saved Manchester United as we know it from the brink of financial collapse. The club was on the precipice due to the Great Depression and lingering heavy debts.
The Salfordian businessman initially invested a desperately needed £2,000 and became the club’s owner. He remained in that position for 20 years while investing £40,000 and keeping the club financially healthy and competitive during his tenure. If it wasn’t for his altruistic ownership, the club may well have disappeared.
Gibson’s ownership is a period in the club’s history that is in stark contrast to that of the last decade and a half under the Glazer family ownership.
The Glazers bought Manchester United in 2005 in a buyout that was largely funded by debt and meant that the club had to use its own success-generated commercial revenue to service it each year.
In early May this year, United fans protested in reaction to the proposed European Super League plans (of which United co-owner, Joel Glazer was proposed to be the vice-president) and the Glazer ownership. Due to the backlash and pressure, this Friday, June 4th, Joel Glazer, has agreed to talk to fan representatives at the Fan Forum for the first time, in a bid to ease the discontent and disconnect.
In an ideal world, the Glazers would sell the club to a ‘fit and proper’ investor, similar to the likes of Gibson. Britain’s richest man, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, has been linked in the past, and given his own sporting background, might be a candidate. Also, the Red Knights consortium attempted a takeover in 2010 and recently, in the fallout from the ESL, wrote an open letter to the American owners demanding they forgo their ownership. Ultimately, the Glazers seem to have dug their heels in, with the compromise of communication and promised change.
It might be naive to think that a benevolent businessman or group would pay the roughly £3 billion valuation of MUFC while ridding it of debt and not wanting a financial return, but there are certainly ways to get closer to the ideal.
Firstly, fan representatives will be working towards supporters owning a greater stake of shares in the club, importantly, those with significant voting rights. The Glazers have stated that they would consider the request. If the Red Knights are serious about steering the club in a better direction, then they may bid a significant amount for those shares if they were to be offered after the Fan Forum discussion.
Also, the Glazers should be pressured to commit to lowering the debt significantly and cease taking dividends which dilute the club’s financial strength from the footballing perspective.
Thirdly, if the owners are serious about their promises to change going forward, they need to accept that the performance of the football team and winning trophies is the most important aspect of the club. A highly qualified footballing person should be considered for a position either at CEO level or on the board. Former United goalkeeper and current CEO of Ajax FC, Edwin van der Sar has talked up the role at Old Trafford previously. He would be a good candidate.
Lastly, there should also be fan representation on the board, something which has been agreed between fans and owners at Liverpool Football Club recently.
James Gibson’s intervention 90 years ago was one that allowed Manchester United to stabilise itself and then flourish. The Glazer’s involvement on the other hand, is a weight around the club’s neck.
Fans will be eager to hear what Glazer has to say on Friday, but will also have one eye on the August outcome of the Government’s fan-led review of ownership that, ultimately, might lead to fans taking a majority ownership stake out of the hands of distant capitalists.