Out of reach, not out of mind: the Glazer-fan dynamic at Manchester United

No trophy since 2017 and no league title for eight years: the Glazers’ divisive ownership of Manchester United provoked Sunday’s protest at Old Trafford and the Americans are considered (by some) solely responsible for a flatlining of success on the pitch.

A debt that stands at £487m and the £1bn-plus in interest payments servicing this since the Glazers bought United in 2005 have a corollary, the charge goes, in a four-year silverware drought and only three trophies since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped away in 2013, none of which have been league title No 21.

Ferguson was responsible for 13 of these titles. The Scot was manager plus de facto chief scout and director of football and his departure was a major factor in United’s downturn. The evidence is in the success Ferguson achieved working under the Glazers – however maligned their ownership. From 2005-13 he claimed five championships, a Champions League-Premier League double, three League Cups, and the Fifa Club World Cup.

Put simply: how could United hope to replace a genius like Ferguson? The first answer was David Moyes, who was handed a six-year contract and lasted 34 league matches. The second Louis van Gaal, whose two seasons featured hodgepodge recruitment, an FA Cup victory, and being sacked the day after the latter for missing out on Champions League qualification. The next was José Mourinho, who oversaw a fractious two and a half terms which included League Cup and Europa League wins, and Ed Woodward removing him before Christmas 2018 when the executive vice-chairman finally lost patience.

When Ole Gunnar Solskjær was called for as a caretaker replacement (initially) United were five years into a post-Ferguson world in which power had shifted across town to Manchester City, with Liverpool enjoying a resurgence that featured Champions League and Premier League triumphs in consecutive campaigns (2018-19 and 2019-20).

Common denominators in these underwhelming years for United are Woodward and his paymasters, the Glazers. The former had his Cheshire house attacked, was ridiculed on social media and will leave at the end of the year following the fiasco of United signing up to the now defunct European Super League. Yet the Glazers’ Florida base means they are out of reach from their fiercest critics so ire aimed at their loading of debt on the club and lack of engagement falls short.

Avram and Joel Glazer with Ole Gunnar Solskjær before Manchester United’s Champions League game at Barcelona in April 2019. Photograph: NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Beyond the nuclear option – that the Glazers should sell up and become history – is a consistent lament that none of them has ever engaged fans directly, Joel Glazer’s apology for the ESL farrago being the first break from cover since an interview when taking over.

Here, the owners surely missed a trick. Despite the anger there remains a willingness from fans to work alongside them. On Monday Manchester United Supporters Trust underlined this in an open letter which said: “We have felt ever more sidelined and ignored.”

The Glazers have a perfect mode to change this – through the club’s fan forum that features 11 representatives from match attendees. Woodward often addresses it and takes questions, so surely one of Joel or Avram, the other co-chairman, could spare an hour once or twice a year. This would appease (some) supporters and make good on Joel’s promise to listen properly.

Maybe then, for example, the very valid fact that a €200m net investment on players in the past two years is the highest of any European club might be acknowledged as an attempt to end the long wait for the championship. The Glazers would also point to the substantial growth in commercial revenues under their and Woodward’s watch.

The explanation from the club is that the Glazers keep a low profile to avoid distractions. Yet the near-blanket silence has been interpreted (many would say correctly) as disdain.

The owners addressing the fan forum (or any other meeting) could also allow them to voice how they accept mistakes have been made, that supporters are right to feel disenfranchised, and that replacing Ferguson was so hard it required three attempts before they landed on Solskjær.

Yet the Glazer-fan dynamic is nuanced. There were those who protested in 2010 when United were in the middle of Ferguson’s eight-year purple patch under them, and those who did not give a fig and still do not. And, as Woodward prepares to depart, United home in on second place and another tilt at claiming the Europa League, holding a 6-2 advantage over Roma before Thursday’s semi-final second leg in Italy.

Under Solskjær the team are on the up and even some individuals who entered the stadium on Sunday accept a period of serial success again may ease the mood. A basic truth is this: the longer there is no upturn the more the Glazers will be blamed for United’s decline – fair or not.