Sir Alex Ferguson stopped the Glazers ruining Manchester United
It should be said, in Joel Glazer’s defence, that he does not have that American inclination to say that the English football team his family owns play “soccer”.
He apparently owes the correct usage to his Tottenham Hotspur-supporting English flatmate at college. Neither has he ever had a predilection to do what his own professional advisers were warned against when the Glazers were preparing to take over at Old Trafford: calling the club “Man U” in public.
Another positive, as we reach a decade of the Glazer family’s owning Manchester United this week, is that apocalypse never happened. The mountain of debt loaded on to the club by the record £790m purchase did not sink it. They successfully navigated the bond issues and renegotiation of payment-in-kind note interest rates and got away with gambling the house – United’s house – on buying the club.
But it would be dangerous to get too revisionist – and to think that the Glazers have created some kind of commercial juggernaut at Old Trafford, with their elaborate range of sponsorship deals which have fixed the United crest to everything from Japanese paint to Mr Potato Indonesian snacks. The United PLC board would certainly not have granted David Gill, the chief executive, a commercial office in London’s Mayfair and populated it with 80 staff, as the Glazers have done. But United were the most commercialised club on the planet when the Americans took over. They had already seen the value of taking the team across the globe.
The trailblazers, the ones who began to put United on that footing, were people like the former chairman Martin Edwards – hated as he became for the way he cashed in on his shares. It was Edwards who hired the man with vision to create United’s commercial juggernaut in the 1990s – Edward Freedman, the commercial executive who had already transformed Tottenham’s financial fortunes.
It’s surprising that more clubs have not engaged Freedman over the years because he was a revolutionary. United were the most valuable club in world sport by the late 1990s, soaring above the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys, and Umbro and Nike were fighting the hell out of each other to be kit sponsor. Even then, this club had created something genuinely remarkable in British football: a capacity to keep the money machine rolling even in the years when no trophies came.
By 2005, they were way ahead of Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose presence in the Champions League semi-finals this week reflects the way they have caught United and surpassed them. Those rivals’ commercial progress these past 10 years has been at least on a par with United’s, when you discount the Premier League effect.
And then we reach the really extraordinary piece of good fortune which has underpinned the entire rickety edifice of Glazer ownership – that battle-hardened fighter from Govan who is about as far removed from their up-state New York reality as an employee could possibly be.
The Glazer brothers did not know it when they stood on the Old Trafford pitch for the introductory photo-calls, hearing the din of protesting supporters battering their fists against the gates outside, but Sir Alex Ferguson was the man who allowed them to take the juggernaut out to the rest of the world and make United an international commodity.