Chair's Report - MUST Annual General Meeting - October 29, 2023
It has been a year to remember.
In all of our lives, the passage of time always brings ups and downs, but it feels like the year that just passed has been especially momentous.
Let's talk about some of the good things first.
Just a few months ago, MUST celebrated its Silver Jubilee. The organisation that began life as a handful of fans trying to stop Rupert Murdoch from buying Manchester United some 25 years ago now counts its members in six figures and over sixty countries. We will do something appropriate to commemorate this achievement at some point this season.
This past year also saw some welcome news on the pitch. Both the women's and men's teams went all the way to the FA Cup Final and qualified for Europe. Both played better football, and the men's team especially finally seemed to be on the right track. Admittedly, this new season hasn't started the way any of us might have liked. But for all the vitriol and complaints levelled at the players and the Club and the Glazers, we still turn up and back the team.
It is a momentous time for me as well. My very first match at Old Trafford was this fixture, 20 years ago, a 3-1 win. A few weeks later, I would join Shareholders United. January will be my 20th anniversary as a proud member, and now the organisation's Chair.
There have been some awful moments as well.
The first, and I know you will all agree, is the loss of our friend, Ian Stirling. I can still hear his voice and his laugh. Whenever we have a tricky issue to deal with, I try to imagine what he might say. The most important thing I think we can do to honour his memory is to remain true to his values and principles, which I'll mention in the course of my remarks.
There is also the Glazers so-called Strategic Review. We do not need to know the outcome of this process to understand that it has absolutely nothing to do with ensuring the greater good of Manchester United Football Club. We can only hope that it spells the beginning of the end for a venal family whose sole motivation is its own enrichment. Will Sir Jim Ratcliffe invest his own money in the Club? Will there be more debt? What is to become of the Glazers? One year on and we still have too few answers.
To make matters worse, as the uncertainty around the Strategic Review persists and the team flatters to deceive on the pitch, it seems the shrillest voices now hold sway. Just as is happening in the broader political sphere, the legitimate complaints and concerns we all have about our owners have been weaponised by the intolerant, the ignorant, the childish, and the small-minded.
What a time to be alive.
So, what do we do?
History teaches us that protests alone will not rid us of the Glazers. My first protest against them was nearly 20 years ago, during the 2004 US Summer Tour. Those protests continued until shortly after the takeover, when it all went quiet as fan groups essentially went into exile, breaking off all contact with the Club. We paid for it, literally, with abusive price increases, and we left our supporters with no independent representation and no collective voice to raise their concerns with the club.
In 2010, the Green and Gold movement and the possibility of Red Knight investment brought renewed protests. Because people thought the end might be in sight, they reacted in numbers that were even bigger than those we have seen over the past three years. As that possibility diminished, it again went quiet. It took the Super League scandal for these protests to start again.
Why then, after 20 years of protest, are the Glazers still with us? Why, despite (finally) an almost universal understanding of how bad they have been as owners, are they still here?
The difficult truth is that it has never been in our gift as fans to remove owners via protest alone for reasons that largely come down to money. The NOT FOR $AL£ coalition of IMUSA, SU, and the fanzines couldn't stop them in 2005. The match-going fans and international fans who rallied to the cause in 2010 couldn't remove them then. And in 2023, even tens of thousands of people on Twitter—many of whom will never set foot in the United Kingdom, much less physically attend a protest—won't remove them.
And yet, these protests should go on. I welcome that they do. The Glazers should never be made to feel comfortable.
But but but, people will say… In speaking with the Club, aren't we doing exactly that? Isn't MUST, in speaking with the Club, giving aid and comfort to the enemy? The answer is emphatically no. Speaking with club staff to best represent fans’ interests is not the same as speaking with the owners. And equally importantly, if/when we do have any direct dialogue with the owners, our message is exactly in line with, and reinforces the message being sent by, these protests: we need new ownership.
There is so much frustration right now that everyone wants to do SOMETHING. And it's not just anything, but something that allows us to convey our discontent with maximum venom. That means protests. But that's where it stops. Because it is such common wisdom that anyone who might call for a broader sacrifice—like a boycott, which would be the logical extension of enforcing a policy of no collaboration—would immediately lose all credibility.
The frustration this engenders for people—the sense of powerlessness—is palpable. They can't see any other way but to be angry. The idea that somehow talking to the enemy will be useful is not just disbelieved, but seen as treacherous behaviour.
As our friend Ian regularly observed, too many people view MUST only as an anti-Glazer group. But that was never our mission. In promoting fan ownership, our goal was to ensure that the Club had the right priorities. That mission has expanded as the demand and need for representation has increased. The need for representation; the need to campaign on fans' priorities; to stand up for fans to make sure they are fairly treated. These needs didn't go away in 2005 when we cut off all contact with the Club, and they surely aren’t going away now.
Whether through the ISLO service, the work we do on ticketing, the advice we give the Club on a range of issues from communications to travel to, most recently, how to better handle crises like the Mason Greenwood situation, there is incontrovertible proof that dialogue with the Club is necessary, helpful, and impactful.
We’re often asked for examples of what it has achieved. What, indeed, have these jumped-up Romans ever done for us? Safe standing, reclaiming the Stretford End, the end of the Automated Cup Scheme, £30 away tickets, … I could go on. The fact is that while it can never be expected to satisfy all demands, dialogue delivers real benefits for supporters and our club.
Note that I am specifically speaking about dialogue with the Club. As I mentioned already, dialogue with the Club is not dialogue with the Glazers. In fact, I am increasingly of the opinion that dialogue with them is completely useless apart from making sure they hear the call from fans that it is time for new owners. We already know we can't trust them to act in anything other than their own interests, of course. But the bigger reason is that there is nothing they can do for us any more except sell, which is out of our control. Hear me out:
First, it is clear that they are not going to put significant money into a stadium. So they are useless on this matter. What's more important is that the Club continues to make needed improvements to existing facilities, that they carry on with planning phases for a major project which, upon the arrival of sufficient investment, could be set back in motion. They have actually done both things.
Second, it should be clear that they are not investing any of their own money to pay down United’s debt, which, in turn, would free up cash. We have no expectations here. For those thinking that sovereign wealth might be the answer in terms of bringing in players, that’s just not possible. New Premier League rules will soon be in place that limit spending based on the total player cost divided by total revenues. Put differently, that means even the Qataris can’t just go throwing money at players. As an aside, if there is any good news here, United are under zero pressure from any of its investors, including the Glazers, to deliver more profit by limiting the Club's biggest cost, which is players. The United hierarchy insist, to a person, that the Club is trying to spend up to its limit to bring in players. Now, we can ask whether they are choosing the right players or going about negotiations properly, but none of that has anything to do with the Glazers.
In short, all the Glazers really do is piss people off that they’re still here.
Do we want them gone? Of course we do. We didn't want them in the first place. But this gets to the point of having dialogue.
Dialogue with the Glazer family is pointless apart from conveying that they need to go.
Dialogue with the Club is a different matter, though. Dialogue with the Club ensures that fans’ views are heard. Dialogue with the Club reduces the chance that the staff of the Club make decisions that damage the Club financially or reputationally. Dialogue with the Club ensures that the professionals who manage the Club look at more than just the numbers when they make choices.
Dialogue with the Club also does not require us to make any onerous assumptions about whether people are "good people" or not. In fact, if you want to assume the worst in people, you are even more obligated to have dialogue. The more disingenuous people are, the more important it is to pin them down.
But here I think it's important to say that I do not believe whatsoever that we are being lied to or deceived, or even being told only half-truths. The conspiratorial members of our fan base suggest contemptuously that we are idiots for believing what the Club tells us, as if we were children being told about the Tooth Fairy. That's utter nonsense.
Do we always see eye-to-eye with the Club? Of course not. Do people at the Club do things or make decisions that we disagree with? Of course they do. But I have spent enough time with people across Manchester United, including its executives, to say that I find them to be people we can genuinely work with. This is precisely why we have dialogue. When there are differences in views, people—adults acting in good faith—try to work out their differences. I trust that, even if we don't agree, those people aren't lying to me.
And you know what? Ian believed the same. But he also knew the management needed to be constantly reminded of the fact that fans were at the heart of everything the Club did. He knew it was important to sit round that table, to ask the awkward questions, and to make sure that, even if decisions didn't fall in our favour, the fans had a voice and that voice was heard.
Indeed, this is our experience that we have built up over ten years since we restarted dialogue with United in 2013, after an eight-year period we and the Club had virtually no contact.
Ian reminded us regularly that “you can only walk away once.” In restarting dialogue, we have been able to hold the Club to account on a range of issues. In turn, this has allowed us to have an impact not just for our Club, but on the game at a national and international level as well. MUST members are actively involved in lobbying the government and football bodies for stronger rules that will structurally prevent people like the Glazers, or the Sheikh Mansours, or the Saudis, from using our clubs as cash machines or vehicles for sportswashing. Most recently, this has included our participation in the Tracey Crouch's Fan Led Review that will ultimately (and hopefully soon) lead to an Independent Regulator for the game.
Finally, it is dialogue that will provide a solid foundation for engagement with the fans with the new owners of the club, whenever they arrive. The greater the progress we make now, the harder it will be to undo under a new regime.
This is why we do what we do. This is why we are going to continue to do what we do, even in the face of the critics who say it is useless. Because it isn't. If there is even one Red we help—one way we preserve the heritage of our great club—then it's worth doing. As our friend Ian often reminded us: we are a pro-Supporter organisation. We need to run our own race with the same confidence and pride we would expect from anyone wearing a red shirt.
To those of you who have been a part of this for so many years, thank you. Thank you for keeping up this fight. For those of you who are new here today, thank you for joining us. The more numerous we are, the more diverse we are, the easier it is to get our message across, and the more likely we are to make a difference.
In 1958, after the Munich disaster, Sir Matt Busby and Jimmy Murphy came together with United director and chair Harold Hardman to rebuild the Club. They knew it would be hard. They didn't focus on things that were out of their control. Guided by the principles they already knew to be true, they took the pieces of Manchester United and put them back together. It was painstaking work that took time and energy. But they ultimately did it. This is truly what it means to invoke the spirit of 1958. While the circumstances today are different from those grim days, of course, I believe that the mission now is no less important.