Tuesday, 27 February 2018

RED REBELS: The Glazers and the FC Revolution by JOHN-PAUL O'NEILL

RED REBELS: The Glazers and the FC Revolution
John-Paul O’Neill
Yellow Jersey Press/Vintage, 2017, 270 pages

Review by Phil Shannon

Sir Alex Ferguson was deeply affronted by the Manchester United Football Club supporters who got stroppy about the proposed takeover of the club by the US corporate raider, Malcolm Glazer, in 2004 - ‘they carried on to the degree where they actually thought they should have a say in the running of the football club’, exclaimed the outraged coach.

Ferguson had, however, gotten to the core of things by starkly asking just whose club it is.  Did it belong to moneyed managers like Ferguson?  To capitalist owners like Glazer or his profiteering predecessors (ever since 1902 when local brewers bought out and renamed the distinctly proletarian but near-bankrupt railwaymen’s team of Newton Heath as a vehicle to sell beer)?  To the foreign mercenaries (the players) who, without a drop of Mancunian blood in them, simply follow the transfer money?  Or, as John-Paul O’Neill, former passionate MU supporter and author of Red Rebels, believes, the fans who give their club its true local heart?

O’Neill saw MU as a football club not a business, a community not a commercial brand – unlike the view of the corporate pirate, Glazer, who eyed off MU for pecuniary reasons and bought a majority shareholding in the world’s richest club through a massive, debt-fuelled loan which was to be repaid by more profit-chasing corporate boxes, expensive seated areas, higher ticket prices and in-your-face sponsorship.

Whilst hoovering millions of pounds out of the club to keep its new owner in dividend heaven, and to keep pace with large interest repayments, Glazer has made the club itself the ultimate collateral against the loans, threatening the 126 year old institution with death from crippling debt should interest rates rise.

Fan resistance to the Glazer takeover looked doomed, however.  Glazer’s grip on MU was not to be prised loose by protests, pitch invasions, match disruption by tossing beach balls onto the field, boycotts of MU’s corporate sponsors, pulling the plug (literally) on TV coverage to sabotage the broadcasting revenue stream, the wearing of mourning black instead of MU’s trademark red, or a quixotic Shareholders’ United plan to buy back ownership (Glazer’s controlling stake was bought for £780 million, while most of MU’s 30,000 ordinary members owned a fiver’s worth of shares each).

O’Neill, editor of Red Issue, the independent fanzine famed for its caustic but literate criticism of the MU elite, floated one last ditch option – because Glazer’s financiers were banking on MU fans’ continued loyalty, why not seriously dent MU’s fan and revenue base by setting up, from scratch, an alternative Manchester team, one based on community ownership and control, one that would be obedient to democracy not the Dollar.

Thus was Football Club United of Manchester (FCUM) born as a protest tactic to pressure MU to abandon Glazer and return the club to its supporters.  O’Neill took his cue from rank and file AFC Wimbledon fans who had set up a supporter-owned replacement club when theirs was torn up by its London roots and transplanted north to become Milton Keynes Dons.

To work as an effective protest, FCUM would have to be viable but, only seven weeks out from the start of the 2005-06 season, the rebel movement had no club, no structure, no money, no ground, no coach, no players.  They also faced opposition from the doom-merchants and naysayers, the nervous nellies and cynics, the big talkers and empty promisers, hostile journalists (‘does anyone seriously believe people will stop watching MU because of who’s running the club?’, snarked one), logistical setbacks, the fading fires of enthusiasm, MU’s former hooligans who got physical, and devoted MU fans who taunted FCUM followers with cries of ‘Judas’ and ‘traitor’.

Nevertheless, all obstacles were overcome as the audacious football revolutionaries won the commitment of thousands of MU fans on the basis of the club’s founding principle of democratic ownership and control - each paid-up member would be a co-owner;  election of the governing board and all major club policy decisions would be decided on a one-member-one-vote basis;  ticket prices would be affordable;  local youth development would be prioritised for the playing ranks;  the club would be a non-profit organisation that avoided “outright commercialism” (including on-shirt sponsorship); any profits would be re-invested in the club.
Neither would the football revolution stop outside the club premises.  FCUM was dubbed the ‘Red Rebels’ by the local press not just because they were rebelling against MU’s traditional jersey colour but also because the club’s founders envisaged a club with a left-leaning “social conscience“.  Players and management, for example, banned interviews with the BBC in solidarity with the Beeb’s striking journalists.
The FCUM revolution, however, went a bit Animal Farm after its heady early days as the club’s philosophy was betrayed by a bureaucratic clique which developed around chief executive Andy Walsh, who appointed his former comrades from ‘Militant Tendency’ (the highly sectarian Trotskyoid entryists who had tried to take over the Labour Party from within during the 1980s) to “nice, cushy roles” and robust salaries within the administration whilst manoeuvring his allies onto the board.  The ‘Walshocracy’ recklessly pursued revenue and completely stuffed up the club’s finances with debt, ironically replicating the Glazer debt debacle at MU.

At times, O’Neill got a bit down in the dumps with a touch of the Orwells, wondering if it was worth keeping the FCUM dream alive, but, together with his “small band of idealists”, he mobilised members behind FCUM’s original banner of “protest and rebellion” and, defying Orwell’s anti-revolutionary defeatist pessimism, there was a second, successful, revolution with the undemocratic, nepotistic, dissent-crushing board of betrayers routed in 2016.

On the field, after starting football life in the very bottom tier of English football, nine whole Divisions below MU in the Premier League, FCUM had stunning early success, winning promotion season by season until their part-time players met stiffer competition further up football’s professional pyramid where mid-table mediocrity and relegation scares awaited them.  But they have survived.

So has MU, however, where Glazer appears to have been accepted.  A trophy cabinet of silverware has lulled fans into passivity on ownership issues whilst a monetary era of record low interest rates has kept, for now, a lid on the debt time-bomb of £400  million bequeathed by Glazer even as the American tycoon has shovelled out £1 billion in money-for-nothing dividends.

Not just in terms of footballing glamour, but on fundamentally political issues of democracy, ownership and control, the member-run, community team of FCUM and the make-a-buck commercial team of MU are truly in different leagues.   Although the book’s regurgative, blow-by-blow, email-by-email account of the internal FCUM power struggle could have done with some cruel-to-be-kind editing, O’Neill has, with Red Rebels, played a blinder.

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