The battle for the heart and soul of Manchester United will be fought in the days and months to come but, on as evening that may prove to be one of the most monumental in the modern history of the club, the first reaction among supporters was one of simple relief.
Relief that the poisonous, and financially restrictive ownership of the Glazer family has moved a step closer to its conclusion.
Relief that their beloved, but dilapidated, spiritual home of Old Trafford could finally receive a badly-needed overhaul to drag it into the 21st century.
And, above all, relief that owners who have, in the eyes of all United fans, bled their club dry while watching the team fall behind so many of their peers, will no longer be lining their pockets with supporters’ money.
Instead, the American owners could be lining their pockets with billions, from the sale of a club of which they took over complete ownership for around £790 million in the summer of 2005.
The purchase was unpopular from the outset with supporters who did not need degrees in advanced economics to grasp the fact that the Glazers were primarily financing it through loans secured against the club’s future assets.
Only £270 million of the final purchase price came directly from the Glazers, with the remainder, effectively, being borrowed at crippling interest rates.
‘The Glazers are going, fans will be happy with that’
A club, which had been debt-free before the leveraged buy-out, instantly took on one of the largest in the world of sport – a debt which has cost an estimated £1 billion to service over the Glazers’ reign and which still stands at £514.9 million, according to the latest financial figures.
Resistance to the takeover was vocal and swift and never disappeared, even as United quickly won five league titles and a Champions League under the Glazers’ stewardship.
However, the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013 led to a dramatic downturn in the club’s football fortunes, accompanied by a series of disastrous appointments in upper management, and, with every passing season of futility, opposition to the Glazers became ever stronger and, in May 2021, more volatile.
The ill-fated European Super League plans may, with the benefit of hindsight, be viewed as the moment when supporters finally made their owners realise that they could never hope to win over, or even enjoy a state of détente, with their fan base.
Upon announcement of the proposed breakaway league, furious protesting supporters even broke into Old Trafford before a game with Liverpool, forcing the postponement of what should have been a behind closed doors game.
One police officer suffered bad face wounds in the protests, but thousands of passionate and peaceful United supporters let their feelings be known.
United’s shares had briefly increased by nine per cent in the wake of the announcement – an indication of why the Glazers and other Premier League owners had backed the plan – but, thereafter, it seemed a question of when, not if, they would be forced to sell.
Increasingly gloomy debt figures, a global economic downturn and the increasingly embarrassing state of Old Trafford – which conservative estimates claim needs a minimum £200 million spending on it – simply expedited a process which led to last night’s bid from Qatar.
‘Is there a perfect bid? I’m not sure there is’
Against that backdrop, the general reaction to the first of the declarations of interest were favourable, even if the first of those, from Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani, brought with it added complications.
Mark Goldbridge, from The United Stand YouTube channel, claimed that in a poll of 12,000 fans – split evenly between domestic and international – 77 per cent had wanted the bid from the Qatari banking chief to succeed.
The brief statement issued by Al Thani certainly pressed the right buttons in the battle for hearts and minds: the phrases returning the club “to its former glories,” “debt free” and “invest” all featured prominently.
More importantly, there was the promise of placing “the fans at the heart of Manchester United Football club once more” – something the Glazers could never be accused of doing.
Post the failed European breakaway league, the Glazers had briefly paid lip service to engaging in dialogue with supporters but such promises quickly proved cosmetic and hollow.
Thus, the late bid tabled by British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe may offer fans the best of both worlds – the exit of the hated Glazers, with one of their own also in the running to become new owner.
Born and raised in Failsworth, about seven miles from Old Trafford, Ratcliffe claims to have been a United fan from childhood and was the first serious bidder to express an interest earlier this year.
But amid the enthusiasm for the Glazers’ departure, older United supporters would have been forgiven for not yet popping the champagne bottles.
‘There is a lot of hypocrisy among football fans’
Former chairman Martin Edwards had once been unpopular with much of the United fan base, despite delivering them Ferguson and eight league titles. His departure in 2002 was welcomed by most fans but simply paved the way for the eventual Glazer takeover.
There is also an understandable attitude among the fans who have endured every minute of the 18 years of Glazer ownership that they will only believe it when a sale is confirmed – as reports have suggested that if the Americans do not receive their £6 billion asking price, they will remain in situ.
That “be careful what you wish for” theme was echoed by Andy Mitten, editor of the respected “United We Stand” fanzine, especially where the Qatari bid is concerned.
“Because the Glazers are going, fans will be happy with that,” he said. “But the bar has been set low there. I think the fan base will be divided.
“You have issues such as human rights in Qatar. Is there a perfect bid? I’m not sure there is. A lot of fans are concerned where the money comes from but there is a lot of hypocrisy among football fans. They change their tune.”