Eleven years of the Glazers at Manchester United: what the players and fans thought

The Glazers' time in charge has featured United winning nine major trophies on the pitch and a rocket in value off it – but at what cost? Players, fans and experts assess 11 years of American ownership...

The story of Malcolm Glazer at Manchester United is one laced with contradiction. Here was an intensely private man who fought tooth and nail to own one of sport’s biggest, most high-profile brands. A man with a net worth of $4.4 billion who continued to buy his trousers for $19.95, even taking pleasure in the fact. A man who irrevocably altered the history of Manchester United, reportedly without ever having set foot in Old Trafford. But who was Malcolm Glazer, and how did he come to own the club?

Glazer was born in 1928 in Rochester, New York, the son of Lithuanian immigrants. At the age of eight he went to work for his father’s watch parts business, taking over and expanding the firm after his father died when he was 15. In the 1950s, Glazer quit Rochester’s Sampson College after just six weeks. Fiercely driven, his goal was clear: set about building a business empire that would make as much money as possible. “All gamblers die broke” was a favourite saying of his.

Malcolm Glazer

Glazer was a successful businessman and owned NFL side Tampa Bay Buccaneers before United

After leaving college, Glazer focused his energy on the jewellery business he’d been running in his spare time. He began to turn a profit, eventually expanding his portfolio by dipping into the property market, buying holiday homes and static caravans in Rochester. Other business interests included food service equipment, food packaging, food supplies, marine protein, broadcasting, healthcare, real estate, banking, natural gas and oil production, stocks, bonds and government securities. He had “an eye for value” according to business and finance bible Forbes.

Piles of debt

A £790m leveraged buyout plunged one of football’s most profitable football clubs into a mountain of debt

Such shrewd business acumen saw Glazer turn to sports franchise ownership in 1995, when he paid a then-record $192 million to buy the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That they’re today valued at $1.2bn tells its own story. Under Glazer, the Bucs moved into a newly built stadium, opened a huge, state-of-the-art training facility and in 2002 won the Super Bowl for the first time in their history. But it wasn’t all roses and coronations. While Glazer “turned this joke of a franchise into one of the most valuable commodities in sports”, as Tampa Bay Times reporter John Romano put it, he earned a reputation as a hard-nosed, shadowy figure who alienated many. Said Romano: “He was an outsider who never sought our love and, subsequently, never gained our trust.”

The Manchester United takeover wasn’t the only bitter struggle of Glazer’s professional career. He fought his siblings for 12 years over the rights to his mother’s estate after she died in 1980. And within weeks of taking over at Tampa Bay he threatened to up sticks and move the franchise if a new stadium wasn’t built using taxpayers’ money. “Glazer was a businessman, not a public servant,” Romano notes. The stadium was 100 per cent paid for with public money to the tune of $194m.

Judging by his prior dealings, there’s every reason to believe the principal motivation behind Glazer’s purchase of United was profit. A £790m leveraged buyout plunged one of football’s most profitable football clubs into a mountain of debt, although after the Red Devils announced a new sponsorship deal with Adidas, Wall Street afforded the club a market value of $3bn – an incredible return on their investment should they ever sell up.

According to Glazer’s son Joel, who acts as club co-chairman with his brother Avram, the family have long been football fans. “I had a room-mate in college who was from London, and who to this day is still my best friend,” he told MUTV after the takeover in 2005. “Every Saturday morning he’d be there with his little radio trying to pick up the Tottenham games. It was infectious, and the more I learnt about the game over here the more passionate I got.”

Glazer words: Jonathan Fadugba

Did the Glazers taint Fergie's legacy? The arguments...

No  Pete Molyneux, season ticket holder and author of Ta Ra Fergie, having held up that banner in 1989

His legacy at Old Trafford is his record of winning trophies, playing football the United way and putting my club right back where they belong – consistently challenging for domestic honours, taking on Europe’s finest and aiming to rule the world

"The fallout from Sir Alex Ferguson’s row with [John] Magnier and [JP] McManus probably hastened the Glazer transaction. You’d have to admit the whole affair had an impact on the club and team.

"You can’t have a situation in any business where a senior manager is at loggerheads with the largest shareholder to the point where legal action is underway. It was a dangerous chapter in Manchester United’s history. Ferguson was distracted – if you look at United’s purchases in that time, Eric Djemba-Djemba, David Bellion, Alan Smith, Liam Miller and Kleberson weren’t Manchester United calibre – but he was bound to be: he was battling for a stake of a multi-million pound personal fortune. That stalled United’s renaissance, but long-term, he fixed it on the field – as he always did.

Sir Alex Ferguson, Glazers

Ferguson never spoke out against the Glazers, much to some supporters' frustration

"I’d say it’s been more that Ferguson ‘saved’ the Glazers than the Glazers saving Ferguson from Magnier and McManus. United’s record once Fergie got the football back on track with the 2007 title took most of the real venom out of the anti-Glazer campaign. I don’t feel Magnier and McManus would necessarily have made better owners than the Glazers, but they would have handled the early PR better.

"I didn’t feel let down; nor do I believe Sir Alex sold out on his socialist roots. Without getting too deep, the big question is: how does a very successful person in business square the circle if they have socialism at their heart? His legacy at Old Trafford is his record of winning trophies, playing football the United way and putting my club right back where they belong – consistently challenging for domestic honours, taking on Europe’s finest and aiming to rule the world. His time at Old Trafford had blemishes, but they were a small price to pay for the best 23 years any United supporter has enjoyed."

Sir Alex Lifts Trophy, Manchester United 2 - 1 Swansea - 2013

Ferguson lifts his 13th and final Premier League trophy

Yes  Colin Hendrie, Vice-chairman, Independent Manchester United Supporters Association

Ferguson was asked to support the fight against the Glazers’ takeover of the club and as far as we were concerned, he chose to support them instead

"The Magnier and McManus row was probably the last time Ferguson enjoyed the unequivocal support of the supporters. There were ‘F**k Off Magnier’ T-shirts, and Fergie’s name was chanted around the ground to show our support for him. There’s no doubt his fight with Magnier drew strength from this.

"There were other protests as well: one at Hereford Racecourse, where John Magnier had horses running, and another planned for Cheltenham Gold Cup day, and those really seemed to put the wind up Magnier, as it was affecting his core business. Then Ferguson asked fans to call off the Cheltenham protest, saying it was “the equivalent of the FA Cup final to horse racing fans”. He had settled with Magnier, for £2.5 million as it turns out. And there it was: the protests ended flatly. In my opinion, Ferguson had plainly used the fans for his own benefit, and that was the last time he could rely on us to support him without question.

"The upshot of the whole falling-out was that Fergie was put on a one-year rolling contract – meaning there would be no big payout if he walked – and there’s strong speculation that his role in transfers was reduced to saying “I want that one”. If that was the case, it must have been painful for a man used to the old school ways of doing things, and therefore the change of ownership [to the Glazers] must have seemed like he was having his b****cks taken out of Magnier’s vice.

"Did I feel let down by it all? Yes, of course. Ferguson was asked to support the fight against the Glazers’ takeover of the club and as far as we were concerned, he chose to support them instead.

"Overall, I would certainly say that the Glazer affair, and the way Ferguson dealt with it, ultimately tainted his legacy at Manchester United."

The Takeover: What the players made of it all

I respected the fans’ right to protest but it was hard for any of the players to speak out during the takeover; we weren’t encouraged to and most weren’t really that interested, or didn’t understand what was going on

"We didn’t want to speak out," says a former player offering his perspective, on condition of anonymity. "I looked around Wembley during the 2010 League Cup Final and saw the United end with our fans – 30,000 to 40,000 of them. Green and gold scarves were everywhere; it looked like Aston Villa against Norwich. For the first time since the Glazer family takeover, I thought: ‘Our fans are really not happy here.’ The players spoke about it privately, but never publicly. That would never have been approved.

"The green and gold scarves appeared at the start of 2010. I first started seeing them when fans asked us for autographs after matches. I thought: ‘Why is a Norwich fan asking me for an autograph?’ I knew fans were wearing them in the stadium, but they didn’t stand out at first. Over the months the numbers grew. David Beckham was pictured with one around his neck after United played Milan. Some fans saw him as a protestor, but I think a scarf was thrown to him and he put it around his neck. He was a Milan player and didn’t realise they were a form of protest.

"I respected the fans’ right to protest but it was hard for any of the players to speak out during the takeover; we weren’t encouraged to and most weren’t really that interested, or didn’t understand what was going on.

"The squad was assured that everything was going to be fine and that was the end of it. We realised that a lot of fans were against it but people are reluctant to speak out against their bosses. The players concentrated on football, not finances. Some had come from countries where football is run really badly. They thought United was the best-run club they’d ever been at – and they were probably right.

"The manager assured us that everything was going to be all right and that was enough for the players. He said that he and David Gill would remain at the club and that their roles wouldn’t change. Both were trusted and respected by the players. Gill was a strong character – the only person I saw stand up to Ferguson and tell him he was wrong. I think even the manager appreciated that sometimes.

"We could see the manager was getting criticism at the time of the takeover, both from the media and even our own fans. So did David Gill, who had people turning up to his house. Both wanted the club to carry on as normal, and that’s what happened. From a player’s perspective, there were very few changes after the takeover because I think Sir Alex took it upon himself to protect both his staff and the players.

"The only change for us players was the extra commercial work after training. It went from a couple of players doing something once or twice a week to something happening every day.

"There was a diary for all of that and loads of footballs to sign – they were lined up along a corridor. But signing footballs, many of which were going to charity, is hardly a chore, is it?

"I don’t think every player loved the commercial work, but what could they say? They were all being paid very well and a lot of the money coming in was from the club’s commercial success, which the Glazers were driving forward."

This feature first appeared in the May 2015 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

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