Friday, 12 March 2010

The meaning of MUST and Manchester United's green and gold revolution

Following the Beckham endorsement, I thought now would be a good time to write on Manchester United fans anti-Glazer protests. They are really interesting from a number of angles, not all footballing. They seemed impossible in spring 2005, when I faintly remember my Dad and I rather forlornly traipsing down Sir Matt Busby Way with others who were handing out leaflets for Shareholders United (SU) around Old Trafford. SU were belatedly trying to rouse support from United fans to buy enough shares in the club to prevent the Glazer takeover. They failed to do so, most fans did not care, and SUs impotence compounded the profoundly depressing spectre of seeing one of the worlds most prosperous clubs saddled with the £650 million of debt (now £717 million after refinancing), which the Glazers had borrowed to leverage the buyout. To meet eye-watering interest payments alone they have since ratcheted up ticket prices, introduced abominable ticket schemes, under-invested (not one penny net) in the squad and personally siphoned money from the clubs accounts for personal use.

Thousands have since boycotted and protested from 'the outside' but now a huge swell of resistance to Glazers reign has taken hold from inside Old Trafford too, taking the form of vocal, prolonged anti-Glazer protests and banners during games. Its been brilliantly visualised by fans casting aside the clubs famous red colours to don it's original 19th century green and gold, “until the club is sold” (see here from 1.10 on for a great example). This has coincided with the emergence of a group of partially-United supporting bankers - the 'Red Knights' - who are working with Manchester United Supporters Trust (SU's reincarnation) to launch a bid for the club, as well as public endorsement by United legends past and present (probably).

But it would be wrong to view, as done here, the protests as simply a matter concerning Manchester United fans, or even football per se. It is rather, as one of the Red Knights has said, a kind of “social phenomenon”. In fact, it's not much to do with the team – United have been successful on the pitch in spite of the Glazers.

The anti-Glazer movement implicitly (whether it knows it or not) challenges the idea of a football fan as a passive consumer, an atomised observer of their clubs fortune. It's mostly being driven by a hardcore bulk of fans pissed off on a broader scale with the commercialisation of the club, and football, that has taken it away from what they perceived it should or was intended to be (hence the old colours). Not least this is things like not being able to stand, smoke or drink on the terraces as well as the pricing out of the clubs working class fan base, all of which have long been blamed for the decline in matchday atmosphere and experience.

By demanding and attempting to force the Glazers to sell the club to owners who would put fans at the centre of its operation, the anti-Glazer protest looks to claw back the idea of a clubs principle responsibility to its most passionate fans; it looks to re-place it within its 'community'. An alternative club set up by those who boycotted in 2005, FC United of Manchester, works as a model for this. The G&G protests have also given some previously alienated fans a new sense of identity, a kind of rebel spirit that distances them from the 'asian tourist' or 'gloryhunter' stereotypes surrounding United fans (many of United's hardcore fans have long seen wearing red replica shirts as 'plastic' or synonymous with these stereotypes).

The anti-Glazer protests have worked as a rallying point vocally and visually, on top of just looking pretty damn cool. It also lets a lot of people feel like they are a part of something. This last point shouldn't be understated. To this end, it's interesting to look at the way different anti-Glazer protests are constituted.

MUST is a more traditional, hierarchical activist organisation which draws on the volunteered experience of a small band of dedicated professionals to plot strategy. It lobbies Manchester United, the government and places stories in the press. More recently it's liaised with potential buyers for the club. Equally as important is its role in disseminating information among fans and the media on the clubs finances/debt, putting it in a firm position to dispute and undermine the club's official “nothing to see here” line. This was especially critical around the time the Glazers revealed their bond prospectus.

But it's probably fair to say that MUST owes its (now over 130,000 strong) mailing list, and the G&G movement more broadly to word of mouth among spontaneous groupings of United fans. Though Twitter and Facebook has played a part, this is mostly centred around networks of hardcore, match going fans and particularly on Red Issue forum (which conceived the green and gold idea) where a lot of those fans exchange ideas on protests as well as tips on “how to get a shit stain out of a pool table”, obviously.

Both MUST and the G&G 'movement' need each other to sustain momentum. G&G could easily have fizzled without MUST's efforts surrounding the Red Knights, yet such defining pictures as this could scarcely have occurred without the more organic forms of protest, nor could MUST alone have engineered such ubiquitous and accessible form of protest as G&G.

The anti-Glazer movement, then, currently has its foot both inside and outside of institutions, and Old Trafford, to great effect. So far, it has shown the utility of various forms of power and protest; it has publicly humiliated the Glazers in front of their sponsors (as club attempts to rip banners down and silence players show), which has put pressure on them to sell up and are close to providing them a money-making route out. It also spreads awareness and encourages people to boycott, which is where fans can have the most immediate impact.

However MUST has yet to explicitly endorse an outright, wholesale boycott. Here they face a dilemma that possibly threatens it's symbiotic relationship with the G&G movement. It could end up alienating its hardcore element if its seen as not standing up to the club sufficiently and in the way deemed most effective. Plenty of fans, though, still can't bring themselves to boycott and resent the implication that they're a lesser fan for it. Here MUST may re-ignite old divisions over the virtues and efficacy of fighting from 'within' or 'without'. Neither is it certain that enough money will be found to convince the Glazers to sell or to wipe Uniteds debt, nor how the essentially corporate-minded Red Knights would actually implement the fan-centred model it has promised.

However, whatever occurs in the following months or years the anti-Glazer protests have been pioneering. It has over-come cynicism time and again from within its own base and from opposition fans. It has shown how effective activism can be when enough people care to think and act collectively, especially when institutional and non-institutional, old and new, confrontation and collaboration styles of protest are combined cohesively. There are signs that it's working as a template for other fans, even among hated rivals, who have been similarly shafted by greedy owners. Building on the APPG Football report, pressure should also be brought to bare on the government and footballing authorities to implement changes which would consolidate fans aims. To this end, hopefully the meaning of MUST and the G&G movement will be to start to re-shape ideas of what ownership means, the way fans think about football and football in turn thinks about fans, an era where financially ruinous leaches like the Glazers are an unpleasant memory. Keep the faith!