The images were striking. Fans, many masked, facing off against police at Old Trafford and some managing to break through onto the pitch. There was red, green and yellow smoke, adding an apocalyptic air. A flare was fired toward Sky pundit and former Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, and one policeman was left bleeding from his cheek. But while there was clearly some real unpleasantness, the protest of Manchester United fans against the Glazer family ownership, which resulted in the postponement of Sunday’s match vs. Liverpool, was generally peaceful. For the most part, the demonstrators who got onto the pitch seemed vaguely befuddled, wandering around not really knowing what to do next.
But the really significant part of the protest perhaps came three miles to the northeast, at the Lowry Hotel, where somewhere between 200 and 300 fans blocked the road, preventing the United team bus from leaving. This is a new and potentially critical tactic: football stadiums can, by and large be defended, but it’s far harder to ensure a team bus can safely leave a hotel, particularly when everybody knows roughly what time it will have to set off to be at the stadium an appropriate amount of time before kickoff. Given the self-perpetuating nature of such things, it seems reasonable to assume other frustrated fan groups will similarly attempt to disrupt kickoffs over the next few weeks.
The bigger question is why, and why now? The simple answer is the Super League proposals, of which Manchester United was a key figure, but nothing is ever simple. Nothing has only one trigger. At Man United, dissent will inevitably focus on the Glazers, on the leveraged takeover in 2005 and the vast sums lost to the club in interest repayments and dividends. But that is only the surface trigger. There has been a growing sense for decades that football for years has been losing touch with the people who believed they owned it: the local fans. Some will dislike the corporatization of the game, some will dislike the global nature of the audience, some will rail against difficult kickoff times and the influence of television. It’s rare that any crowd of protestors will ever have one clear and uncomplicated objective, but the Glazer protest is part of a wider movement of fan activism triggered by the Super League proposals.
But there is another layer as well that is connected with football only in the sense that sport has become a symptom of a much broader issue. The impact of the 2008 global financial crash continues to be felt. The austerity policies of the David Cameron government may not at least officially be over, but the aftereffects linger. The pandemic has magnified that. There is a cohort that evidently feels increasingly left behind. Among the many causes of the Brexit vote of 2016 was a protest against the status quo, something that has, to an extent, been harnessed by Boris Johnson’s government.
Britain feels febrile. There is serious economic hardship at a time when the prime minister is spending $1,165 on a roll of wallpaper (and trying to get somebody else to pay). Yet Johnson is still regarded as a defender of “British values” against a suspiciously cosmopolitan Labour Party. There have been protests across the country: in support of Black Lives Matter; against lockdown; against the policing bill whose opponents claim it threatens the right to protest; in Belfast for complicated historical reasons brought to the surface by the way the EU Withdrawal Bill cuts across the Good Friday Agreement. After a year of COVID-19 restrictions, there is a lot of pent up energy and anger.
The economic data so far is not as bad as feared. The prognosis seems relatively optimistic, but the proof may come as Britain emerges from lockdown over the next few weeks, and then when the furlough scheme nears its end in September. But the conditions are there for a summer of protest and discontent, not least because—at the moment—street gatherings are one of the few social activities permissible.
There were still those on Sunday pointing out that Man United has the second-highest net transfer spend in Europe over the past decade, that the club sits second in the Premier League table and that it has one foot in the Europa League final. But while it probably is true that United fans would be less frustrated if it was still enjoying the success of a decade ago, that is far from the only issue.
And whatever the spending on players, as Gary Neville has pointed out, Old Trafford itself is shabby, the fan experience far from what might be anticipated at a club of United’s stature. Recruitment, the training ground and the academy are all underfunded. But the specifics of Man United and Sunday’s protests are only the top layer of a far more complex picture.
More Soccer Coverage: