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The Passing Game

This Murdoch business has made me come over all profound. It's all this talk of 'buying' Manchester United. How do you buy Manchester United? What is Manchester United, anyway? The answer to the first question seems to be that you offer lots of money to people who possess little pieces of paper called share certificates. And because most of these people will care little, if at all, for a certain football club, anyone who offers enough dosh will have a reasonably good chance of owning more of these shares than anyone else. That makes him the majority shareholder, as they say, and it gives him power to decide what to do with the company that controls a football team. He also gets a nifty car parking space and lots of people keen to make his acquaintance. It must be rather nice for him. But it doesn't mean he has bought Manchester United, does it? He hasn't even bought all its shares - at least not if enough of the little people tell him to get lost. So what does he own exactly? Just the ability to generate some profits and reap a decent dividend, maybe.

Proper writers like to use a metaphor, so think of Manchester United as a tree. A really big one; the biggest in football's jungle. It was a sapling once, but its roots grew strong, and it's now a pretty complicated organism. It lives and breathes. It blossoms and it sleeps. A multitude of living things turn to it for nourishment, for support, for a place to be, for a home even. But who owns it - the man who bought the forest, the kids whose swing hangs from its branches or the squirrels on its bark? Does it belong to the world that provides its oxygen or to the lumberman with the chainsaw? Does control equate to ownership?

There's more to a tree than wood, and there's more to Manchester United than share certificates. Manchester United is in the hearts of its supporters: from Alex in the dug-out to Joe Bloggs in Row Z to the exile in Timbuktu with a short wave radio. Manchester United-R-Us.

It feels like one of those defining moments in history. There haven't been many: the railwaymen of Newton Heath start up a football club; Davies saves it from oblivion and United is born; Gibson keeps the Red flag flying in the 1930s; Busby arrives; Munich; and now. For over 100 years Manchester United existed for the glory of being. Glory at football was everything, and financial soundness was the foundation for better football. The flotation of the club changed that: some of the money went outside the family, but the tills were ringing and co-existence became the norm. There remained mutual interest in Manchester United achieving the glory, even if the joy of the supporters in Rotterdam and the glow of the fund managers after a rainy night in 1991 were for different reasons.

Now we're not so sure. And even if the new 'owners' give every assurance in the world one thing seems clear: United won't be a standalone glory-and-profit machine anymore; it will be a cog in a corporate wheel, with its own part to play in a grander design. United won't exist simply to be United; simply to win at football. You've heard all the arguments, the talk of big business and the lexicon of finance. To me some things just don't feel right, and I think that is enough.

The trouble is that this is a runaway train, and if it's not to be BskyB it is likely to be someone else - or rather something else, another corporation. United are going to get swallowed up it seems. The Big Five days are a long way off, a quaint station we passed through as the train got up some steam. Spurs and Everton were derailed, Liverpool have chugged along; Arsenal are like the guard's van trying to hang on to the locomotive from Newton Heath.

I'm not arguing for an eternal status quo, because a body can change its clothes without losing its heart. We talk about tradition, and about 100 years of football history, as if this were a long time. Maybe we should recognise that organised soccer is a recent human phenomenon, a product of the latter stages of industrialisation. Back then the trip to an away game at Arsenal was a serious journey, certainly more of a trek than a flight to Barcelona would be now. So why the fuss about the Euro-league as a next step? One hundred years ago the southern amateurs were up in arms when northern industrial towns started taking the game seriously, and began recruiting professional players, often Scots. Now those same clubs are unhappy about United, Juventus, etc going one step further. It's now about globalisation, and our concern that things are getting out of hand is natural. We can envisage a Rollerball future when a contrived global pseudo-sport is presented for the benefit of multimedia conglomerations. It's scary and it's confusing.

Perhaps we just fall into the trap of believing in the importance of our own existence at this point in history. It wouldn't matter a jot to us now what happened to the Roman 'sport' of gladiator fighting, but at the time there's no doubt that people got quite hot under the collar about it. There are, for example, recorded instances of amphitheatres being closed for periods in response to crowd trouble. And those events took place over a much longer period than football's short century. No doubt after the first 100 years of gladiatorial contests people thought the pastime was with us forever. Will football also be ancient history one day, will the sands of time literally blow over Old Trafford, and will future generations wonder what all the fuss was about? To misquote King Eric, we are all just passing through.

If that reality is startling, then it does not mean we should not care here and now. When I see the fuzzy photos of United returning to Manchester with the Cup in 1909 I look into the faces of the crowd around the team coach. They were as proud and as pleased back then as we were in Albert Square in our own time, in the days before gathering in Albert Square became too 'dangerous' to be permitted. Those crowds didn't care about balance sheets; as long as the club was on a secure footing the only thing that mattered was the glory. I wonder how proud those people would be of what their club became, just as I wonder how proud today's supporters are of Meredith and Turnbull, and of Roberts and Barson. We should be proud of them because they were Reds, and they did their bit. Future generations will have the celluloid to convince them of Eric's genius, but we would hope that whatever becomes of Manchester United after our time, that future generations would be proud of him. And we hope they'd be proud of us, 'mere' supporters, for how we played our part. One day we will be faces in an old photo, a crowd on a fuzzy, pre-digital film, but we'd hope to be recognisable as supporters, just as we see our own equivalents in 1909. Our hope is that United will still be recognisable as the club we followed. Perhaps the crowd scenes over the generations provide the common thread: as players come and go, as fashions change and as sponsors grab the spotlight, the fans are the beating heart.

Manchester United is its supporters, and I don't think we are for sale. We just need a driver we trust at the head of this train.

This article first appeared in "Red News"

Copyright Tony Smith


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