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Friday, July 19, 2024

What’s gone wrong at Manchester United under Glazer ownership?

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND — “My money is in this pot and I’m not here to make more — I just want to win.” As a statement of intent, Sir Jim Ratcliffe had turned night into day at Manchester United by telling club staff why he has decided to spend £1.3 billion for a 25% stake in the team.

It is early January and Ratcliffe, alongside Sir Dave Brailsford (former performance director of British Cycling and director of sport at Ratcliffe’s INEOS Group), is addressing over 100 United staff — ticket office and administration staff, security officers, canteen workers — in one of Old Trafford’s vast conference suites. Others are dialing in remotely to watch on video as the incoming minority shareholder offers his vision of United’s future.

“Everyone left the room feeling 10-foot tall,” a United staff member who attended Ratcliffe’s introductory speech told ESPN. “All we have heard for years has been about cutbacks and engagement targets, so to hear somebody tell us that we are going to be a football club again was long overdue and a refreshing change. It was also nice to be in the same room as the person in charge. That has never happened with the Glazers.”

Ratcliffe’s determination to speak to the club’s team behind the scenes was welcomed by another United employee in the room.

“Sir Jim said that we were as important to the club’s success as the players,” the employee told ESPN. “He said that the club couldn’t move forward and succeed without us all working together, as one, and that we were all part of the same team with the sole objective of making everything better.”

Ratcliffe’s net worth was estimated at £29.7bn by the 2023 Sunday Times Rich List. He’s now the second-richest person in the UK according to that list, behind India-born businessman Gopi Hinduja. Ratcliffe will take charge of football operations from United’s owners, the Glazer family, when his investment is ratified by the Premier League in early February. Having made his fortune by building INEOS, the petrochemicals company, Ratcliffe, 71, wants to use his wealth and business expertise to help revive the club he supported as a boy, growing up in the blue-collar Manchester suburb of Failsworth.

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For many who work at United, Ratcliffe’s arrival can’t come soon enough. The club has been under the control of the Glazers, who also own the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, since a leveraged buyout in May 2005 that plunged United into more than £500m worth of debt.

Even before the Glazers bought United, they encountered hostility from the club’s supporters who were angered by the prospect of the team, previously debt-free and incredibly successful, being forced into a huge level of debt. A vehicle carrying the Glazers was attacked by fans on their first visit to Old Trafford and the anger has never subsided. In 2010, United fans launched their “green-and-gold” campaign — green and gold were the colours of Newton Heath, the club which later changed its name to Manchester United — as a visible protest against the Glazers, with former player David Beckham putting a green-and-gold scarf around his neck while returning to Old Trafford with AC Milan that year.

Walk past any lamp-post or building near Old Trafford and you will see faded stickers, dating back to 2005, which simply say, “Love United Hate Glazer.” The antipathy toward the Glazers was played out to a global television audience in May 2021 when fans forced the postponement of a Premier League game against Liverpool at Old Trafford. A protest outside the stadium at the Glazers’ involvement in plans to form a breakaway European Super League spilled over when supporters forced their way onto the pitch.

For almost two decades, the Premier League’s biggest and most successful club has had to service the Glazer debt at the same time as paying regular dividends to the family. Over the past five years, no other Premier League club paid a dividend to its owners. In 2023, the Glazers opted against taking a dividend for the first time to use the funds for new signings.

By 2015, 10 years after the takeover, the cost to United of being owned by the Glazers exceeded £1bn in interest payments, financing costs and dividends for the six siblings in director roles at the club.



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In contrast to United supporters, the Bucs fanbase in Tampa likes the Glazers. A source familiar with the Glazer regime at the NFL club said that the family “brought hope” when buying the franchise in 1995, ousting an unpopular owner and investing in a new stadium and the team before building a new training centre. In 2016, the Glazers began a three-phase renovation of Raymond James Stadium, including new giant videoboards, suites and a bigger locker room, in order to host Super Bowl LV in 2021, which the Bucs won in no small part to the Glazers recruiting legendary quarterback Tom Brady. Off the field, the Glazers — notably Darcie Glazer Kassewitz — attend functions and host social and charity events, but in Manchester, they have remained largely invisible for almost 20 years.

Ownership under the Glazers has seen United overtaken, on and off the pitch, by rivals Liverpool and Manchester City, with both the team and stadium at Old Trafford requiring extensive — and expensive — improvement and modernization. The decline of the team speaks for itself, with no Premier League titles, or even a sustained challenge, since 2013. In that time, City have won six titles and a Champions League, while Liverpool have won the league and Champions League.

Having been England’s biggest and most modern stadium in the early-2000s, Old Trafford has been practically untouched by the Glazers since work to extend the capacity, started before their arrival in 2005, was completed shortly after the takeover. Opposition fans now taunt home fans by singing “Old Trafford is falling down” on visits to United. The roof of the Main Stand leaks when it rains and the stadium has been left off the list of venues for Euro 2028, which will be hosted by the United Kingdom and Ireland. In April 2022, United enlisted stadium architects Populous, who designed the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium and Qatar’s Lusail Stadium, venue of the 2022 World Cup final, and designers Legends International to “create a masterplan for the redevelopment of Old Trafford.” Two years later, Populous’ blueprint is yet to be realized.

Former United captain Gary Neville, speaking in April 2023, called the Glazers’ maintenance of Old Trafford “shameful.”

“They have overseen a decline for 20 years in which it has gone from being one of the best stadiums in the world to one that can’t even get into the top 10 in the UK and Ireland,” Neville told Sky Sports. “This is an all-time low. There has been no investment. It is a rusty stadium. This is a dereliction of duty.”

Since 2016, Liverpool have spent £195m on two new stands at Anfield, raising the capacity by over 15,000, while Manchester City opened a new £200m training ground in 2014 and are committed to a further £300m investment in the stadium — built for Manchester’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2002 — between now and 2026. As part of Ratcliffe’s investment, he has committed £250m for the upgrade of Old Trafford and the club’s Carrington training ground, which opened in 2000.

“Sir Jim and his team were really positive when they spoke to us,” another staff member told ESPN. “Without saying it directly, they were saying, ‘We know it’s a bit s—, but we can make it better if we all work together.’ It was inspiring to listen to.”

Ratcliffe already has made a bold start, raiding Manchester City for chief operating officer Omar Berrada to become United’s new CEO, but making up for a lack of investment for almost 20 years under the Glazers will take time.

While there is optimism within the club, and among supporters, that Ratcliffe can act as the catalyst for a renaissance at United, the reality is that problems run deep at Old Trafford.

ESPN interviewed 15 people — United staff members, past and present, from all areas of the club — to gain a clear picture of the club’s decline and where things stand now. Their identities have not been disclosed at their request. Manchester United declined to comment for this story.

It is a story of waste, mismanagement, plunging morale and, at times, the bizarre. A story of staff being diverted from key roles to attend to the needs of the Glazers and their close family, of players being signed or rejected because of their commercial value and of Old Trafford being painted the wrong shade of red.

The widely held view of Manchester United and the Glazers is that their fortunes began to nosedive when Sir Alex Ferguson retired, in 2013, after 27 years as manager. With long-serving CEO David Gill stepping down at the same time, it created a perfect storm with Everton’s David Moyes — handpicked by Ferguson and labeled the “chosen one” by fans — and banker-turned-commercial director Ed Woodward stepping into the vacant roles as manager and CEO, respectively.

But the decline actually began in the summer of 2009, four years into the Glazer era, when Cristiano Ronaldo was allowed to join Real Madrid for a then-world record transfer fee of £80m. At the same time, United withdrew from an agreement to sign Carlos Tevez from Media Sports Investments, the agency that represented him, after a two-year loan agreement. Tevez instead signed for Manchester City and helped trigger the club’s growth into the superpower it has become.

“You wouldn’t mind some of the cost-cutting if it wasn’t for the absolute mountain of waste at the top end of the club.”

Man United staffer, to ESPN

United replaced Ronaldo and Tevez, two key figures in the club’s 2008 Champions League triumph, with a £24m summer outlay on Antonio Valencia, Gabriel Obertan and Mame Biram Diouf, adding a 29-year-old Michael Owen on a free transfer from Newcastle. Put another way: three flops and a steady, if unspectacular, addition of Valencia.

City, meanwhile, spent £160m on six players in the same summer. The following year, Ferguson accused City of “kamikaze spending” after players including David Silva, Yaya Toure and James Milner — all hugely successful signings — arrived at the Etihad in a £125m spree. While City were signing players who would form the bedrock of their decade of success to come, United added four players, including Cape Verde winger Bebe and Mexico forward Javier Hernandez, for a total of £39m.

Ferguson spoke of seeking “value in the market” and insisted that the Glazers had “never refused when I’ve asked for money,” but even then, some staff sensed a new financial reality being imposed from the top.

“United won nothing the year after Ronaldo and Tevez left,” a staff member from the time told ESPN. “But the word around the club was that the Glazers weren’t too concerned because no trophies meant they didn’t have to pay big bonuses to the players. Being in the Champions League was what mattered, rather than actually winning it.”

Wayne Rooney, the club’s star player at the time, threatened to leave United in October 2010, citing concerns over their ambition and readiness to recruit the best players. “I met with David Gill [United CEO] and he did not give me any of the assurances I was seeking about the future squad,” Rooney said at the time. “I then told him that I would not be signing a new contract.”

The club persuaded Rooney to stay and sign a new contract, but United would only spend £60m the following summer, on David de Gea, Phil Jones and Ashley Young.

When Ferguson retired in 2013, he had added two more Premier League titles since things began to change in 2009. But United’s frugality in the transfer market coincided with City’s rise under Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan and it was perhaps only Ferguson’s experience — and Gill’s — which enabled United to remain competitive. The £24m signing of Robin van Persie from Arsenal in the summer of 2012 was an example of Ferguson’s ability to identify talent. Van Persie scored 26 goals in 38 games to inspire United to their last Premier League title.



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Once Woodward took charge of the day-to-day running of the club, the wheels fell off dramatically. He advised the Glazers during their 2005 takeover while working for J.P. Morgan & Co., and the Glazers then hired him to work on financial planning, elevating him to a commercial role in 2007 and, eventually, CEO, a reward by the Glazers for his success in those two previous roles.

“Ed would boast that the deals he had done while working in the city [banking] were far bigger than any football transfer,” a United staff member told ESPN. “He thought football deals would be easy in comparison. He would also talk about speaking to Joel Glazer as often as six times a day — he was close to Joel and you could almost count him as a seventh Glazer — but if you need to speak to your boss six times a day, it doesn’t suggest that much is actually getting done.”

“There was a frustration that issues or key decisions would go to Ed and Joel, but days or weeks would pass without anything being resolved or communicated back down the chain,” another United source said. “The search for a new director of football being an obvious example. It was announced in 2019 and nothing happened for two years.”

Woodward gave members of staff his mobile phone number, telling them that his time in charge would be different and that they could contact him whenever required. One staff member told ESPN that they messaged him shortly afterward but that they are still waiting for a reply.

“David Gill knew everybody at Old Trafford and you would often see him in the staff canteen,” a staff member said. “You never saw Ed and he certainly didn’t know everybody. He spent most of his time in the London office.”

Meanwhile, transfer windows came and went with the club making expensive mistakes with the Glazers and Woodward failing to oversee a coherent recruitment strategy.

“[Manager] Jose Mourinho wanted to sign [winger] Ivan Perisic from Inter Milan in 2017, but was told by Ed that, as a player, he wasn’t commercially viable,” a former United player told ESPN. Woodward has told ESPN that no signing was vetoed for commercial reasons, saying “That was never a consideration.”

“After that World Cup,” the former United player continued, “Jose told Ed and the Glazers that he wanted to get rid of Anthony Martial, that he was neither good enough nor reliable enough. That was vetoed by the Glazers — Joel was a big fan of Martial [as a player].”

Six years later, Martial remains a United player and has scored 39 Premier League goals in 123 appearances. The 28-year-old becomes a free agent this summer and United sources have said Martial will not be given a new contract.

The failure to support a manager’s judgment continued during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s three-year period in charge when United failed to seal deals for Erling Haaland, Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice before they all became top, young stars.

“Ole wanted to bring down the age of the squad, so he identified three young players and told the club they should prioritize signing them,” a former United teammate of Solskjaer told ESPN. “United messed up moves for Haaland and Bellingham and didn’t even make an effort for Rice. But they did sign Donny van de Beek, despite him not even being a player that Ole had identified as a target.”

German club Borussia Dortmund beat United to the signings of both Haaland and Bellingham, with the two players since making big moves to City and Real Madrid, respectively. Rice joined Arsenal for £105m last summer and has become a key figure in Mikel Arteta’s team. Van de Beek is now on loan at Eintracht Frankfurt — he spent six months on loan at Everton in 2022 — after two goals in 62 appearances for United since a £40m transfer from Ajax in 2020.

When contacted by ESPN, Woodward said that United would not match Dortmund’s guarantee of “minutes” for Bellingham, while Haaland, in United’s view, was always destined for City.

One high-profile player that United did sign was Paul Pogba, who became the world’s most expensive transfer ever in August 2016, joining from Juventus for £89m — he had left United for Juve as a free agent in 2012 and would return to the Italian club as a free agent again in 2022. Despite his huge fee and big reputation, Pogba was another player who was viewed differently by the manager than Woodward and the Glazers.

“Ole was ready to get rid of Paul Pogba in his first summer window,” one of Solskjaer’s former teammates told ESPN. “But he feared he wouldn’t be given the proceeds of any transfer fee to replace him. That’s how it worked.”

Solskjaer’s representatives did not respond to requests for confirmation when contacted by ESPN.

In the summer of 2021, United canvassed former players employed as club legends for their opinions on recruitment and who should be signed. One notable ex-player told United that Kieran Trippier, a boyhood United fan, was keen to leave Atletico Madrid and “desperate” for a move to Old Trafford.

“The Trippier suggestion was rejected out of hand, basically laughed at,” the former player told ESPN. “He was only 31 and ended up at Newcastle for £12m six months later.”

A week after rejecting a move for Trippier, United completed a £12m deal with Juventus for Ronaldo to return to Old Trafford, 12 years after his £80m exit to Real Madrid. Despite the need to get younger and more competitive, more money was sunk into older stars — to the tune of a £500,000-a-week contract for Ronaldo, then 36. Within days of moving back to the club, he complained that broken tiles in the swimming pool at United’s Carrington training ground had been left unfixed since his first spell at the club.

The tiles were the perfect metaphor for the club United had become under the Glazers — money lavished on extravagances while everything else fell apart.

The football team is the visible face that Manchester United projects to the world and what happens on the pitch — good, bad or indifferent — dictates the mood within Old Trafford. But it is the people behind the scenes who make up the United workforce who have had a front-row seat to how the Glazers have mismanaged spending.

“You wouldn’t mind some of the cost-cutting if it wasn’t for the absolute mountain of waste at the top end of the club,” one United staffer told ESPN.

A good example of the Glazers’ financial priorities is the recent upgrade of the Old Trafford director’s box with plush, heated seats and newly laid carpet. The Glazers rarely take their seats at Old Trafford — Avram Glazer has been the most regular attendee of games over the years, but his most recent visits were for last season’s Carabao Cup and FA Cup Finals at Wembley. Meanwhile, Old Trafford’s roof leaks.

MUTV, United’s in-house channel, began broadcasting in 1998. MUTV was ahead of its time as the first in-house channel in English football and United were able to broadcast to fans all over the world for a monthly subscription. In United’s most recent annual accounts, published in October 2023, MUTV was reported to be available in 72 countries, with last summer’s tour of the United States driving a record number of subscriptions.

But MUTV no longer send their commentators to away games. Instead, match commentator Stewart Gardner and co-commentator Ben Thornley, a former United player, watch away games from the Old Trafford press box and commentate from within an empty stadium while watching on television.

“It saves MUTV about £40,000 a year in match fees and travel expenses,” a United source told ESPN. “It’s embarrassing, really. MUTV used to be the envy of all of the big clubs who took years to catch up, but now the moneymen are asking MUTV to watch United play at Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton from a cold and dark Old Trafford press box.”

One source told ESPN of Old Trafford ground staff having to repeatedly ask for funds for new equipment to maintain the playing surface while requests for club clothing, worn by officials on matchday, can take weeks to be dealt with.

“It’s been worse since the pandemic,” a United staffer said. “The Glazers have just used that as an excuse to cut costs, but they have really rinsed [squeezed finances from] the club since then.”

On a matchday, United staff work as hosts in the corporate lounges, where fans pay between £235-£550-a-game for hospitality. Former captain Roy Keane once criticized those supporters for “eating prawn sandwiches” rather than getting behind the team, but their financial contributions are a huge driver of the club’s revenue.

“At the start of last season, matchday hosts were told that their fees had been cut by 50 percent,” a United staffer told ESPN. “The money they receive now, for 5-6 hours work, is nowhere near the level it should be and that figure is before tax.

“Some of the matchday staff also work at Manchester City and they say the difference between the two clubs is staggering. City look after them really well, everyone at the club makes an effort to go the extra mile. At United, it’s just a miserable experience.”

And while the cost-cutting at that level of the club would seem unlikely to be an issue that lands on the desk of the Glazers in the United States, the reality is different.

“There was one occasion when the club wanted to hire some new cleaners to work in the North Stand,” a United source said. “The decision on that went right to Joel Glazer. That speaks to the problem at United. The Glazers really do count the cost of everything. Fair enough, they are running a business, but it is so inefficient to have the co-chairman involved in such low-level hiring and firing decisions.”

Other United sources have told ESPN of the “layers and layers” of bureaucracy and endless chains of accountability, resulting in having to wait days and weeks for the Glazers to make decisions. “All [the Glazers] care about is money and social media engagement figures,” a United source told ESPN. “You’ll have internal meetings with staff trying to get praise for getting so many likes on this or engagements on that.”

In last year’s club accounts, it is reported that the “club gained 2.7 million followers and generated more than 318 million digital interactions and 1.5 billion video views across all global social platforms in the fourth quarter.” But those numbers — on Google, X, Instagram, TikTok and YouTube — point to why the Glazers remain so keen to retain an involvement in the club rather than sell it completely to Ratcliffe.

“The big idea, or maybe the big hope, that the Glazers have — and this was driven by Ed Woodward — is the emergence of Augmented Reality,” a source familiar with the Glazers’ business model told ESPN. “The technology is already out there whereby a player could have an AR wearable on his body and a supporter anywhere in the world could pay a small fee to experience a game through the eyes of his favorite player.

“Just imagine how much United could generate from their huge global fanbase if supporters were able to pay to be Marcus Rashford or Bruno Fernandes for 90 minutes?”

Woodward confirmed to ESPN that AR was seen as a “huge opportunity.”

Perhaps the Glazers are smart enough to have identified the next big opportunity, like AR, which could propel them into a new earning sphere. But they still run a club that has developed a habit for getting things wrong.

“They tried to smarten up Old Trafford with a paint job a couple of years ago,” a United source told ESPN. “But they messed it up. They used the wrong shade of red. When Sir Alex was in charge, he would always insist that United played in a darker shade of red than Liverpool. Nike, kit partners at the time, even designed a specific shade for the team’s kit called ‘Diablo Red.’ The paint they used for Old Trafford is Liverpool red — it’s too bright for United.”



Marcotti confused by the Glazer family’s strange hotel stay needs

Gab Marcotti and Mark Ogden discuss the Glazers’ need for their sheets to be washed in a specific laundry detergent when staying in hotels.

The Glazers aren’t going anywhere, but with Ratcliffe and his INEOS associates taking charge of football operations, the club’s majority owners are likely to fade further into the background. For many at United, they won’t be missed, especially by those staff members who meet the needs of the extended Glazer family during preseason tours to the U.S.

“Jill Glazer, Avram’s wife, is very involved during the summer tours in the U.S. and people are always on edge when she is around,” a United source told ESPN. “You’ll be at venues and the kids will turn up and all of a sudden, you feel like you’re working for them rather than Manchester United.

“On one occasion,” the source continued, “somebody got a call at 3 a.m. in New York saying that one of the kids wanted some cupcakes, so this member of staff had to get some. There was also an occasion when somebody was sent for a certain juice from a certain shop at 7 a.m. in Los Angeles.”

ESPN has been told that one senior member of staff was taken off their role during a U.S. summer tour to travel a day ahead of the team to visit the hotels being used by the Glazer family to ensure that all of their requirements, including the detergents used to clean the hotel bed sheets, were carried out to the letter.

Other staff have said that Joel, in particular, comes across as pleasant and wanting United to succeed.

But almost two decades of Glazer ownership leave the family without mitigating factors for United’s decline on their watch. Since Ferguson retired in 2013, United have won four trophies — 1 FA Cup, 1 Europa League, 2 EFL Cups — and failed to progress beyond the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

“One of our senior guys bumped into [former United executive] Richard Arnold about 10 years ago and told him that United were the benchmark that everybody wanted to reach,” a Manchester City official told ESPN. “He said that City were copying everything that United did.

“Richard’s response was that City could never catch United or outstrip them. He was quite arrogant actually.”

Arnold has now gone, Woodward left two years ago and the Glazers are ready to hand over the baton to Ratcliffe. United have been overtaken by City and the club’s foundations are no longer as solid as they once were.

But Ratcliffe wants to win and, just by saying that, he has given everyone at United hope that things can only get better.

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