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Fan Power

This article first appeared in the February 2000 issue of Red Pepper

It is a tale to inspire activists everywhere - how ordinary football fans enlisted help from around the world to stop Rupert Murdoch buying Manchester United. Supporter and author Andy Walsh tells the inside story.

On 9 September 2020, the Clinton/Lewinsky affair and Tony Blair's latest soundbite were relegated down the news agenda. Promoted to top spot was fans' opposition to media mogul Rupert Murdoch's takeover of Manchester United Football Club. The eyes of football fans around the world would now be focused on the battle for the heart and soul of the world's richest club. Seven months later those same fans were celebrating a quite astonishing victory.

The relationship that a football fan has with their football club is difficult to define. Supporters believe they are a club's lifeblood. The directors see fans only as customers and treat them in a way that would have most customers changing brands. A fan's loyalty is hard to explain when a club is a public limited company that talks to City institutions rather than supporters.

Yet even this seems benign when compared with ownership by a media mogul whose only interest in sports is that he can use them as a 'battering ram' to sell broadcast output. Many saw Murdoch's proposed purchase of Manchester United as inevitable. It was one of those events that make instant headlines but does not come as a complete surprise. Securing Premier League football coverage had rescued the ailing BSkyB in the 1980s.

Now this cash-cow was being threatened: the contract was up for renewal, and the restrictive practices court was due to hear from the Office of Fair Trading why Sky's contract was unfair. Additionally, a group of rival media companies were proposing a breakaway European league and Murdoch was being left behind. The Dirty Digger needed a back up and quick - owning Manchester United would provide the answer.

His sole opposition were a group of supporters organised around the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association (Imusa) who were not ready to see the last vestiges of a great club trampled under hoof. The football authorities stuck their collective heads up their collective backsides and refused to act.

We fans made a defiant declaration that: 'Rupert Murdoch may have walked all over the USA and the rest of the world, but he was not going to walk all over Manchester.' The press ridiculed those who would 'stand in the way of progress'. Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail was typical, declaring that the fans had no chance. It was billed as the most one-sided contest football had ever witnessed. Yet the combined might and financial muscle of Murdoch and the board of Manchester United proved no match for Imusa and the hastily formed Shareholders United Against Murdoch (Suam).

Most fans had lost hope that they could make a difference as the commercial juggernaut of recent years had long since quashed resistance to change. Murdoch's house journals, the Sun and The Times put out propaganda promising exotic signings and huge investment in the team, although neither Sky nor United's board made any such promises. Sky's sports presenter Helen Chamberlain even declared that her channel owned the club only a matter of days after the initial bid was tabled.

Imusa needed to rally support. It booked Manchester's Bridgewater Hall for a public meeting. An appeal raised more than £40,000, with former Queen drummer Roger Taylor donating £10,000 early on. Sympathetic members of Manchester's business community lent office space and equipment.

Leaflets and pamphlets were produced and links built with supporters of football clubs in Britain and across Europe - this was not going to be a battle won by United fans alone. It had to be demonstrated why this deal was bad for the game both at home and abroad to draw other supporters into the campaign. The flotation of clubs was an English disease that was spreading Europe-wide. At Barcelona and Bayern Munich, fans were already opposing such moves and they contacted Imusa to offer assistance.

The Internet proved vital in pulling together distant resources and researching material on Murdoch's activities. Fans all over the world could become involved and a web site was quickly established as a central repository for materials and a source of information on the campaign's progress. Thanks to Murdoch's past, his worldwide notoriety meant plenty of people were willing to assist, especially in the field of sport and the media.

Sky believed that with Parliament in recess and the football season barely begun, any opposition would fizzle out quickly. Running Sky's press and PR campaign was former New Labour protege Tim Allan. He was so confident things would die down quickly that he barely made any moves in the press in the vital first two weeks, leaving the way open for Imusa and Suam to set the tone.

Sky was heavily reliant on the element of surprise and it was believed that any delay would see its strategy begin to unfold. Obtaining a referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission would allow all interested parties to make submissions and give Imusa the best chance of winning. Before then those same bodies had to be persuaded to make submissions to the Office of Fair Trading to get an MMC referral in the first place. Imusa needed heavy duty legal assistance, and got it free from leading London law firm Lovell White Durrant.

The first target was to get the OFT investigation delayed to allow as many people as possible to make submissions. Between swatting up on merger and takeover regulations, campaigners tried to ensure that every institution and individual of influence in media and football was asked to write to the OFT. In the end the OFT was lobbied so hard that its fax machine twice broke down and it eventually announced an extension to its initial investigation.

The beauty of football is its universal appeal, a fact that Murdoch had recognised as a key element in selling his coverage. But Imusa and Suam used this to their own advantage, unearthing United fans and campaign sympathisers in City institutions and law firms, all of whom were willing to offer their services for free.

Having secured the services of Lovell White Durrant and a couple of barristers, Imusa took advice from a Westminster lobby firm, which proposed using an early day motion to focus Parliament's attention. Manchester MP Terry Lewis, a proud member of Labour's unreconstructed left, was already a member of Imusa, and persuaded the all party football group to back the campaign. More than 200 MPs eventually signed the EDMs.

In the week that Peter Mandelson was due to consider the OFT's report on a referral to the MMC, representatives of more than 20 football clubs descended on the Commons for a lobby of MPs and a kickabout on St Stephen's Green, complete with jackets laid out for goalposts.

Mandelson's fall from grace was a tremendous boost for the fans as Sky had reportedly spent a lot of time and energy lobbying making sure Mandelson was 'on-side'. It is believed that the home-loan from Geoffrey Robinson was made public when the football lobby in the Cabinet saw an opportunity to settle a few old scores.

The submissions to the MMC were crucial - the final report showed the fans made a tremendous impact. Close observers of the campaign reckon Sky's takeover of Manchester United would have been nodded through but for the fight waged by Imusa and Suam.

Using a combination of heavyweight professional advice, carefully targeted propaganda and lobbying, the 'inevitable' was stopped. Now Murdoch has changed tack and is buying up small stakes in a multitude of clubs, and again the football authorities are refusing to act. Many leading football clubs remain in the hands of plcs and City institutions.

Imusa and the fans' movement have helped launch a public debate on how football should be managed and organised in the future. In addition, Suam is advising the government on a scheme to allow fans a greater say in the way clubs are run.

Out of the despair felt by many on hearing the news of Murdoch's bid for Manchester United there is now hope that fans will have some way of acquiring clubs worthy of their unstinting loyalty.

Andy Walsh and Adam Brown's bestselling book, Not for Sale, Manchester United: Murdoch and the Defeat of BSkyB, is published by Mainstream. Available for £9.99 (p&p free) from the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, PO Box 69, Stretford, Manchester M32 0UZ.