Some people say that history repeats. I’m not so certain about that but I do think we can learn a lot from history about modern society and how things develop. Actions are often similar decades apart and, unless we learn from what’s gone before, we do often make similar mistakes or not consider how things could turn out. Parallels should be looked for and considered.
This weekend (May 2 2021) has seen the postponement of the Manchester United – Liverpool Premier League game due to concerns over the safety of players and staff. Whether it should have been or whether there had been any potential for players to be injured is debateable but postponed it was.
United fans had been protesting on the forecourt outside Old Trafford a few hours before the match and some managed to find their way into the stadium. Footage of some smashing a door down and others seemingly walking straight into the stadium at a door manned by stewards have circulated, causing various conflicting views as to how fans managed to get into a stadium that should be impenetrable (if a few hundred fans can get in to a closed and secure stadium what does this say about the general security of the venue?).
The fans that made it in to the stadium found their way on to the pitch and television broadcast the scenes. Eventually the stadium was cleared, although Sky TV told us of a second group of fans who had got into the stadium through the second tier. Ultimately, all fans were cleared but the game was postponed. Fans were also positioned outside the Lowry Hotel where the United team were and television told us that there were concerns as to whether the team would be able to safely travel to Old Trafford.
Similar views were expressed about Liverpool (don’t get me started on the safety of teams arriving at Anfield!).
Whether any player was in actual danger or not didn’t seem to matter. This was the view being expressed by those paid to describe the scene.
So, what should we make of all this? Well, we have been told that the protests were against the owners of Manchester United, the Glazer family, and the birth of the European Super League. The Super League plan has been halted (I’m sure it will keep coming back as the birth of the Premier League did) but the Glazers still own United.
I opened this post by saying how parallels should be looked for and considered and, as a historian, I cannot help but compare what’s happened this weekend with events at Manchester City in 1993. Back then the Blues were run by chairman Peter Swales.
Swales had mismanaged the club for two decades and had taken a hugely profitable and successful club, piled it with debt and seen it lose pace with some of its traditional rivals. Fans had been angry about his chairmanship for years and had demonstrated regularly. Swales Out was often the most popular chant at Maine Road and the pre and post-match demonstrations were an everyday part of life as a City supporter. Fans loved City but hated Swales.
Inevitably, when City were successful the Swales Out protests were not as visible as they were at times of failure – and this has been true at United. There have been many, many United fans who have constantly highlighted the faults of the club’s ownership and they have campaigned, but the wider fan base has been quiet when the successes have occurred. This was true at City (though successes were less frequent at City during Swales’ chairmanship).
Frustrations at Manchester City continued, even when the club had relatively successful seasons. For example, the Blues finished fifth two years running in 1991 & 1992 – poor by 1970s standards but better than the 80s – but fans still wanted Swales out. Part of the reason lay in his support for the proposed Premier League, which began in 1992-93 but had been discussed for several years before that (it was initially planned as a complete breakaway from the Football League by the biggest clubs who were determined to reduce the money they passed down to the rest of football – hmm, parallels here that often get forgotten!).
The Premier League was anticipated to make the rich richer and clubs that had lost their way, like City because of Swales and his supporting directors who had placed the club in enormous debt (for the time) which meant they struggled to compete for the best, were going to make up the numbers to some extent.
The first season of the Premier League went okay for Manchester City. They finished ninth which was a little disappointing but in itself was not the main concern. That was still Swales’ chairmanship and the general mood was poor. Fans had had enough.
City’s chance of glory that season faded in a FA Cup quarter final with Tottenham and fans’ frustrations at their chairman and directors spilled out. It was a day when Swales’ new stand was opened – the Umbro Stand – and this was small-time compared to the club’s history and heritage. The stand it had replaced held over 9,000 seated. The new stand was basically two rows of executive boxes with about 4,500 seats in front. The ordinary fan felt that with that stand and the birth of the Premier League they were no longer relevant. Hospitality, money and TV deals seemed to matter most to club owners.
The frustrations that had been bubbling for years (and we must NEVER underestimate the efforts City fans made demonstrating against their directors and for how many years they did this) bubbled on to the pitch. Live television captured the scenes as City fans invaded the pitch and the FA Cup quarter final was halted.
The media criticised the couple of hundred fans who made it on to the pitch. They didn’t ask why they’d done it, they just assumed City fans were unhappy at losing a FA Cup game. Had they bothered to ask fans – I was there and knew the situation and have over the years discussed this extensively with people who were on the pitch – they would have realised that they climbed on to the pitch out of frustration. Frustration at the way football was developing and frustration at Peter Swales and his supporting directors.
Fans were right to be frustrated and history has shown that their predictions (covered extensively in City fanzines at the time) about the way football was developing to create an elite and more money for certain clubs was right.
I interviewed Peter Swales about two years after that pitch invasion and he told me that he should have listened to the fans and resigned that night. I agree – things would have been different for him and for City. Maybe in a few years the Glazers will say the same about this weekend?
That 1992-93 season saw Manchester United win the top flight for the first time in 26 years and United’s success brought added pressure to those in charge at Maine Road. The frustration of seeing your nearest rival achieve something that you’ve not done for years (City had been the last Manchester team to win the League prior to 1992-93 as they’d won it in 1967-68) gave fans further ammunition. Fans could point out to Swales that he became chairman of a club that had been hugely successful (four major trophies in the previous 5 seasons before his chairmanship) and profitable (previous chairman Eric Alexander was proud of the profitability of the Blues in the years before Swales). They could also ask ‘where did the money go’, ‘Why were we mismanaged?’ etc.
That event in City’s history is similar to some extent to what’s happened at United. Years of frustration at the owners/directors; the recognition that a rich club had been placed in significant debt; the proposed birth of a new league; the resurrection of a neighbour who seems destined to have a bright future just at a time when your directors don’t seem able or willing to compete etc.
The proposed change of structure to football, where greed of club owners seemed more important than what the fans wanted, was the catalyst to the demonstrations at United this weekend.
Please don’t be fooled into thinking this is a demonstration against the European Super League – that’s the catalyst but United fan dissatisfaction runs much deeper than that. As with City’s 1993 FAC quarter final defeat and the birth of the Premier League that season, these are catalysts that bring the wider fan base on board (and often the media attention), but they are not solely the cause.
In 1993 the media claimed City fans were unhappy because they’d lost the FAC tie. Well, yes, but they’d lost plenty of other FAC ties over the years and never invaded the pitch. That tie became the visible outpouring of dissatisfaction, just like the European Super League has created a situation which has allowed United fans to bring more visibility to their longstanding protests against the club’s owners.
So where do we go from here? Well, there’s one major change since 1993 and that is that the majority of media coverage seems to have sympathy with fans this time. But those working in the media should ensure they go and talk to the fans who were actually on the Old Trafford pitch and ask them why they were there. That would help frame the discussions about what it all actually meant. Some media coverages has said in rather simple terms that United fans were campaigning against the European Super League – no, it’s part of a long standing dissatisfaction with the club’s owners, but I’m not a fan who went on the pitch (that’s my interpretation but best way to find out is to ask those who were in Old Trafford).
In 1993 the media didn’t ask City fans why and they made assumptions which painted football fans extremely negatively. Instead of showing them as people who cared about how their club was developing they were presented as hooligans.
If we’re thinking about parallels then it’s worth considering what happened next in 1993 so that United fans can shape things differently or prepare for the worst! Back in 93 the momentum at Maine Road continued but, as with the widespread protest of the 1980s at City, nothing could change while the majority shareholders supported Swales. Put simply, if you own the club no amount of fan pressure can force you to sell. You only sell when you want to.
Swales felt the protests would die down (he explained all of this to me in an interview) but this time, as protests continued in 1993-94, former player Francis Lee decided to mount a takeover. That was eventually what forced Swales to stand down.
Sadly, for City the damage was done though and financially Lee’s City couldn’t compete with clubs who were able to spend freely like Blackburn (a major benefactor at the time) and those who were already benefitting financially from Premier League success. City ended up dropping to their worst ever position in the late 1990s and were financially adrift of many of their traditional rivals. Only the takeovers of 2007 and 2008 could help the club regain its position as a serious trophy challenger.
If we consider the City situation as an example, then it seems that the best chance United fans have got to change the ownership of the club is if someone like Gary Neville came in to front a major takeover of the club. Even then, as with City, it may well be that the damage done to the Reds and the debt placed on the club limits its future.
It does make you wonder what would have happened had Alex Ferguson, who had spoken out against the Glazers before the takeover, opposed the Glazers when they took over his club. Had Ferguson stood down back then maybe the protests against the Glazers would have been immense?
Football owners have never been properly policed and there are examples throughout the English league system of clubs whose futures were jeopardised by owners who have gambled on future success by borrowing to fund purchases, or who have sold club assets or placed a club in debt for their own personal gain. Change in football’s governance is needed. Simply changing owners is not the answer because football is a business and any owner wants his/her business to be profitable for him/her and shareholders.
Fans views, whether in the 1980s or 1990s campaigning against the Premier League and football chairmen, or in the 2020s campaigning against the Super League and football owners need to be listened to. Understand us and work with us – you might help make football an even greater spectacle.
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