The Political Football
In the market economy money talks, and US tycoon Malcolm Glazer has shouted the loudest.
The recent success of Malcolm Glazer, the US tycoon, in gaining a 75 per cent controlling interest in Manchester United has once again propelled the club into the media spotlight, and for reasons most of its fans find abhorrent. Long used to the idea that United was ‘their’ club, they have found out that what seemed to be ‘their’ club was not really theirs at all. It is, of course a common and understandable illusion: ‘our street’ is an expression of affinity more than a statement regarding ownership, ‘our town’, ‘our city’ and ‘our club’ likewise. It is clear that the vast majority of Manchester United fans oppose the Glazer takeover, and many thousands have worked tirelessly to try and stop it, but to little effect. In the market economy money talks, and Glazer has shouted the loudest.
In a sense, the fears of United fans are understandable. Although Glazer claims to be a United fan there is little evidence of this (his interest previously has been in US baseball) and a lot of evidence that he is really in it just to make money. Most of the capital he has used to buy his stake in the club is loan capital, most likely amounting to around £540 million if reports are to be believed, and he is keen to recoup these monies and pay off his creditors as quickly as possible. One of his key aims appears to be to ensure that what is already the most recognisable brand name in football has an even wider audience and depth of penetration in terms of its marketing and merchandising across the world. The other is to negotiate separate, lucrative TV deals for the club outside of the existing arrangements for the Premiership and other competitions. Overturning the existing financial set-up at United by stealth and angering the long-existing and highly successful management team are byproducts of a wider game plan – to make more profit out of an already highly profitable venture.
Whatever problems face Manchester United at present, they pale into insignificance compared to those of many of the clubs lower down the food chain. The collapse of ITV Digital financially devastated a number of Football League clubs, to whom they were the principal sponsor, and in total more than 30 league clubs have now gone into administration in recent years – over a third. The creation of the Premier League had previously exacerbated an already existing tendency for the rich clubs to get richer while the poorer ones got poorer, and the collapse of ITV Digital was almost the last nail in the coffin for many.
As football clubs across the UK ailed, so the vultures circled. And most of those vultures took the form of property speculators, attracted by the land that was the principal asset of the clubs. Clydebank, Wimbledon, Chester and York are just three of the clubs who became notable victims of these predators, with Clydebank being killed off by them completely. The stories of two other clubs though are more illustrative than most, combining many of the defining characteristics of institutions that fall prey to the worst aspects of market forces at work in sport. Both are also smaller clubs that have nevertheless punched above their weight in footballing terms and have a higher profile than their size might otherwise suggest, both have occupied land in prime positions with a high redevelopment potential, and both have been subjected to highly underhand takeovers that have driven them – possibly deliberately – to the brink of financial ruin.
Brighton and Hove Albion is a club that has now been in crisis for ten years, following the sale of their former home, the Goldstone Ground, a sale which was pushed through without the club having another ground to play at. The two men responsible for this were the Chief Executive David Bellotti and club director Bill Archer. Bellotti, a former Liberal Democrat MP for neighbouring Eastbourne, showed that the Lib Dems are not all about respect for the environment and high ideals associated with fighting for the worst off in society – the Goldstone Ground became a retail park dominated by a Burger King and Bellotti was literally chased out of the ground in Brighton’s last season there by irate fans. After a hugely unsuccessful groundshare at Gillingham, Brighton returned home to their present site at the Withdean Stadium, little more than an athletics track with a pitch in the middle and some temporary stands. For a variety of logistical reasons, the only really viable venue for Brighton’s proposed new ground is on land at Falmer just outside the city, and for several years now a running battle has ensued to try and secure permission for the club to move there, culminating in a lengthy and messy public enquiry and then the involvement of the Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott.
While the move to Falmer may still be some way off, what is most interesting about the Brighton story is not just the way in which the club was fleeced to line the pockets of property developers and kicked out of its ground, but the way in which their fans organised themselves to ensure the club’s survival. They became the backbone of the Fans United organisation which fights for the interests of football fans in the UK and attempts (increasingly successfully) to encourage fans to leave their tribal loyalties aside and to support club’s battling against hostile takeovers and property speculators.
Wrexham FC’s fight against property speculators is more recent and the club still occupies its Racecourse Ground home, albeit under notice of eviction. In 2002 a majority stakeholding in the club was secretly bought by a company owned by Alex Hamilton, a former struck-off solicitor from Manchester, who – without making his ownership public – installed his then business partner Mark Guterman as chairman and front man. Guterman already had a dubious record as the man who took local rivals Chester City into administration after wages and Inland Revenue demands had gone unpaid and the water board had arrived to cut off the supply.
Within a couple of years exactly the same sequence of events unfolded at Wrexham until the club’s fans organised a ‘red card protest’ directed at Guterman at their last home match of the 2003-4 season, interestingly enough against Brighton, whose fans supported it enthusiastically having been in a similar situation themselves. At this point Hamilton sacked Guterman and installed himself as Chairman, having already been outed as the real owner of the club, and after secret plans to redevelop part of the Racecourse land and rotate the pitch 90 degrees had been uncovered.
Since then developments have been peculiar enough to have graced the plot lines of the likes of Dallas or Dynasty. Hamilton, whose bizarre antics in life had years before been unmasked by Private Eye, was revealed to have transferred ownership of the Racecourse Ground and surrounding land from the club itself to one of his own companies for the princely sum of one pound. This happened without consulting the Wrexham FC shareholders, thereby stripping the club of its major asset in an act described by BBC’s Week In Week Out as ‘completely illegal’. In an increasingly bizarre series of events he was banned from the ground by the police on matchdays, described Wrexham fans as ‘luddites’, ‘lowlife’ and ‘detritus’ and stated that his battle with them to remove the club from the Racecourse was ‘the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on since I was 21 years of age’.
The club’s remaining directors eventually forced his resignation from the chairmanship which then allowed them to put the club into the relative safety of administration, from which position the administrators have so far managed to resist Hamilton’s attempts to move the bulldozers in and raze the site for a retail development :- a development that could net him as much as £15 million for a paltry initial outlay. A legal battle over owed money with former chum Mark Guterman is ongoing, as are police investigations reportedly into missing gate receipts, under-declared attendances and other irregularities, recently culminating in a High Court injunction battle by Guterman and Hamilton over access to audio tapes made by a Wrexham fan.
While someone like Hamilton may be a highly idiosyncratic individual, he represents something much more routine about the world of business. In a society where common endeavour and shared identity count for little where there is a quick buck to be made, it can be no surprise that football has become infested by the sort of parasites whose idea of fun is making money, especially at other people’s expense.
The market economy creates the conditions in which they can prosper and seize control of assets that communities often mistakenly think are theirs already. The people of Brighton, Wrexham and many others towns and cities across Britain have recently been finding this out the hard way. One encouraging aspect of this though is the vigorous resistance people have had to offer and of the radicalisation of their ideas in the process. ‘Kick Property Speculators Out of Football’ and ‘Football Not Profit’ are the kind of banners that are currently seen at soccer grounds up and down the country, indicative of another groping attempt by the victims of the market economy to make sense of what is happening and to identify problems to be overcome.
Unfortunately, those problems can never be overcome within the confines of a system that rewards vultures like Glazer at United, Archer and Bellotti at Brighton and Hamilton at Wrexham as a matter of course, and which summons up new rich pickings for parasites to squabble over on a seemingly daily basis.