A first impression is often a good indicator of what is to come, so the evening of June 30, 2005, would have told the Glazer family -- the American businessmen who have owned the Tampa Bay Buccaneers since 1995 -- all they needed to know about the road ahead for their ownership of Manchester United.
Having flown in to visit Old Trafford for the first time as owners, word got out that Joel, Bryan and Avram Glazer were inside the stadium, meeting senior figures and surveying the prize they had recently acquired. They had managed to get in unnoticed, but it was a different story as they attempted to get out. Hundreds of United supporters, chanting "Die, Die, Glazer," tried to enter the stadium, prompting the deployment of riot police and dog handlers. Fans erected barriers to stop the Glazers from leaving Old Trafford, forcing officers to bundle the trio into a police van in order to evacuate them safely.
"Life is not going to be at all easy for them [the Glazers]," Nick Towle, of Shareholders United, a group of fans who held shares in the club, said at the time. "I don't think they realise the full scale of the reception that awaits them. The hard-core fans will not give in this battle."
The message was clear: The Glazers were not welcome at Manchester United, despite club director and legendary former player, Sir Bobby Charlton, apologising to the new owners for the actions of the supporters.
"I apologised to them for what happened," Charlton said. "I tried to explain they couldn't ignore the fans, who are so emotionally involved in the club, but who sometimes do go a bit too far."
Seventeen years on, the United supporters are still protesting against the Glazers, who completed that £790 million takeover of the Premier League's most successful team by investing just £270m of their own money into the deal -- the rest was borrowed against United, instantly plunging the club into more than £500m worth of debt.
Until that point, United had been debt-free. Although listed on the London Stock Exchange with annual dividends for shareholders, profits were put back into the club, allowing Sir Alex Ferguson to sign Wayne Rooney for £27 million in 2004. Between 1992 and 2005, United almost doubled the size of Old Trafford from a 40,000-capacity stadium to one that held 75,000 fans. Success bred success and investment, but under the Glazers, debt repayments and interest charges were added to the mix.
Since 2005, through successful times -- 13 trophies, including a Champions League win -- and otherwise, fans have targeted the club's sponsors, vandalized and protested outside the properties of various club board members. In May 2021, they broke into Old Trafford, successfully forcing the postponement of a Premier League game against Liverpool.
Despite the fury and hatred they generate among the United fan base, the Glazers remain in control, but there is a growing sense of optimism among supporters and that the endgame is about to be played.
Three of the six Glazer siblings -- Avram, Kevin and Edward -- have sold almost £200m worth of shares within the past 12 months. Bloomberg reported in August that the family are considering selling a minority stake in order to fund plans to redevelop Old Trafford, which hasn't been expanded since 2005 and even saw fans soaked when the main stand roof began to leak last season.
Yet, after almost two decades of blanking out the noise, are the walls closing in on the Glazers?
'Love United Hate Glazer'
At Manchester City, there is a banner at the Etihad Stadium thanking owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan for his investment in the club. Until Roman Abramovich was forced to sell his controlling stake in Chelsea earlier this year as a result of sanctions imposed on the Russian oligarch due to his connections to Vladimir Putin, a similar tribute to the "Roman Empire" was draped across one stand at Stamford Bridge.
In and around Old Trafford, walls, seats, lampposts -- essentially anything that doesn't move -- are plastered with stickers bearing the simple slogan, "Love United Hate Glazer."
At the time of the Glazers' takeover, organised groups such as Shareholders United attempted to block the sale, warning of the club being used as a lucrative cash cow to help fund the Glazers' U.S.-based business empire, which included shopping malls across 20 states and the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Many fans vowed to never set foot inside Old Trafford to watch United again while under Glazer ownership; some even left to set up the supporter-backed club FC United of Manchester, which now plays in the seventh tier of English football.
It was a hostile takeover, too, with the Glazers slowly buying up shares, despite public misgivings from the United board. David Gill, the chief executive who would go on to retain his position under the Glazers until 2013, warned that "debt is the road to ruin and Manchester United will never go down that road," but by May 2005, the Glazers won control of the club after securing the 28.7% stake of Irish racing tycoons, JP McManus and John Magnier.
There are no positive tributes in and around Old Trafford to United's owners who, despite Joel Glazer promising in 2005 that the family would "day in, day out, reach out to supporters," said nothing publicly to the fans until apologising for their involvement in the failed European Super League plans in 2021. They are largely absentee owners, rarely attending games, with Joel overseeing club business in his role as co-chairman from his office in Washington.
But to those unfamiliar with the backstory, United fans' opposition to the Glazers can seem bewildering. Since being taken over by the Glazers, only Chelsea (18) and City (14) have won more major trophies than United (13) in England. The Glazer haul includes five Premier League titles and a Champions League win in 2008, plus two losing finals, both against Barcelona, in 2009 and 2011.
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They have spent £1.7 billion on new players since 2005, including star names such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba, Angel di Maria, as well as highly paid free transfers like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Edinson Cavani and Alexis Sanchez. This summer alone, United have spent £210m on new players -- their biggest single transfer window outlay under the Glazers -- with Antony arriving from Ajax for a fee of £84.9m.
And under the Glazers, United's commercial earnings have almost trebled, from an initial £210m per year in 2006 to a high of £615m in 2019.
But all is not as it may seem. The Glazer trophy collection has ground to a halt since Jose Mourinho delivered the Europa League in 2017, with United winning just three trophies since Ferguson stepped down as manager in 2013. United haven't come close to winning the Premier League without Ferguson in charge, and have managed just two unsuccessful quarterfinal appearances in the Champions League since last reaching the final in 2011. And while the money spent on new players has kept pace with the outlays of City, Chelsea and Paris Saint-Germain, it is the money going from United to the Glazers that really focuses the anger of fans.
"Attention might ebb and flow, but for a hard core of supporters, they have never forgotten or forgiven [the Glazers]," Barney Chilton, editor of the Red News fanzine since 1987, told ESPN. "The financial figures under scrutiny are staggering -- a legal, if immoral, takeover where pointless debts and its costs have seen an incomprehensible amount of money go out of the club rather than on it."
"And for what? To profit a family who treat United like a hostile acquisition. It keeps me up at night; the cost in terms of finances, obviously, but to the club and most importantly, its supporters. They should never have been allowed to lump a heavy debt burden that still remains."
In 2018, Sheikh Mansour's investment in City broke the £1bn barrier, but in the same year, the Glazers passed a far less appealing milestone, as the total amount spent to finance their ownership of United, with interest and debt repayments and dividends, also went beyond £1bn. These payments have averaged out to around £70m a year in total. Put another way, that's the transfer fee for a world-class signing every summer.
And that is the crux of the issue for United's supporters -- being owned by the Glazers has cost the club more than £1bn since 2005, money that could have been invested in the team or Old Trafford, as has been the case at the Etihad with City and Sheikh Mansour.
"They have been disaster as owners," Towle, who predicted the years of turbulence in 2005, told ESPN. "Sir Alex took care of everything when he was manager, but since he retired, the Glazers have been found out and our predictions from 2005 have unfortunately been borne out."
"To their credit, the Glazers saw how football clubs would become a huge source of revenue and they got in on the ground floor, but United have paid a heavy price for that."
A recent turnaround on the pitch, with four successive wins after the Premier League season began with two straight defeats, has lifted the mood at Old Trafford and brought a new sense of optimism, but the anti-Glazer protests continued before, during and after Sunday's 3-1 win against Arsenal, and high-profile figures say the time has come for the owners to sell.
"Everything now has to point towards the Glazer family," former United captain Gary Neville told The Overlap podcast. "If there is embedded rot over many years -- failure in performance -- then eventually it comes to the owners. You can't start having a go at people in the business if the owners aren't making the right decisions at the top."
"I have come to the conclusion now that it needs ownership change for the club to succeed in the future."
Mark Ogden reports from outside Old Trafford as fans invade the pitch ahead of Manchester United's match against Liverpool.
What is the Glazers' endgame?
The Glazers have received and rejected several offers to sell Manchester United since 2005. In late 2009, sources told ESPN that the Americans dismissed a £1.5 billion Middle East-based offer, believed to be from Qatar, for their entire stake in the club; a year later, attempts by a supporter-led group of wealthy individuals called the Red Knights to force the Glazers into a sale were also ignored.
At that point, the Green and Gold protest -- United fans adopted the green-and-gold colours of Newton Heath, the club which became United in 1902 -- had grown into a noisy and visible campaign of defiance against the Glazers. Fans' groups enlisted the help of Blue State Digital, the U.S. tech company used by then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign, to help project their campaign and message to a global audience through social media, and former United star David Beckham wore a green-and-gold scarf at the end of a Champions League game at Old Trafford with AC Milan in March 2010.
But the Glazers were unmoved. They had successfully turned the club into a commercial powerhouse -- the peak being a £750m, 10-year shirt deal with Adidas in 2014 -- and even when the trophies dried up, the money kept rolling in.
"You should never underestimate just how much the Glazers enjoy being United's owners," a source who worked with the Glazers told ESPN. "They own one of sport's biggest global brands, so they get an incredible amount of kudos from that."
Others have a different view. Another source who has had business dealings with the Glazers said, "They are business people and Manchester United is simply part of their business empire. They don't have an emotional attachment to the club. If the right offer comes along, they will sell.
"The Chelsea sale has set a benchmark and they will have noted that. If Chelsea is worth £4.25bn, (Chelsea was sold for £2.5bn in May with the buyers committing to a further £1.75bn of investment), then they won't be selling Manchester United for anything less than £5bn."
A source connected to one of the unsuccessful groups in the race to buy Chelsea told ESPN that the same individuals and private equity funds that were interested in buying out Roman Abramovich would be "falling over themselves to buy United."
"With all due respect to Chelsea," the source said, "the difference between buying Chelsea and Manchester United would be like sealing a deal for the Denver Broncos and then being told you could have had the Dallas Cowboys."
United's public position on the Glazers has been that they remain "committed long-term owners" and that description has not changed during the recent weeks of protest, but sources have told ESPN that the owners do face significant financial challenges in the months and years ahead.
United have appointed architect firm Populous to draw up plans to redevelop Old Trafford, with initial estimates that an upgrade of the stadium will cost around £200m. The summer spending spree exceeded £210m, and the most recent financial accounts showed that the club owed £184m in purchase obligations -- outstanding transfer payments.
Year-end accounts are due to be published before the end of September, but the most recent figure for the club's net debt, as of May 2022, was £495.7m. In September 2019, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the debt was as low as £203.6m. The Glazer business model has taken a battering, which is why financial experts believe the next 12 months will be decisive if the Glazers are to continue as United's owners.
Richard Arnold, United's chief executive, shed light on the club's financial pressures when he was secretly recorded in June telling fans at a pub that United had "f---ing burned through cash" and that, to rebuild the stadium and training ground, "I've got to have more cash than I have now."
Andy Green, head of investment at Rockpool Investment, has previously analysed United's finances in his blog, Andersred, and he has told ESPN that the Glazers are faced with big decisions.
"They have reached a crossroads now," Green said. "If they want to sell, they will only do so for a massive price and, despite the NYSE share price giving the club a valuation of around $2bn (£1.73m), the reality is that Manchester United will command a much higher sale price because of its status as one of the world's premier sporting brands. They are worth a lot more than Chelsea.
"The Chelsea sale showed just how much money and interest is out there, particularly in the United States, so they won't struggle to find a buyer. Yet if they decide to limp on as owners, they simply have to find some finance from somewhere, either through borrowing or selling a portion of their holding. The problem is, nobody is going to want to invest millions in United and leave the Glazers with 100% control.
"But they have to pay for the Old Trafford redevelopment and this summer's spending spree somehow, and revenue is down because of COVID and the lack of regular Champions League football. Suggestions that they will follow the Barcelona route and borrow against broadcast deals would be so short-sighted, but they have done the equivalent of building the squad with a credit card, and may end up doing similar to fund the stadium rebuild."
To some within the financial world, it makes little sense for the Glazers to hold on to United, drawing down dividends of around £20m per year, when they could at least quadruple that annual payment by selling the club.
"You can park your money in 10-year U.S. government bonds right now and get 3.1% interest," a source told ESPN. "So even if the Glazers sold United and walked away with as little as £3bn, they would earn £90m per year with zero risk. Unless they can foresee another attempt at a Super League or a way to sell their own TV rights, rather than collectively within the Premier League, it's increasingly difficult to see why they wouldn't start to think about cashing in their chips."
A perfect storm brewing
The Glazers could now be in the midst of a perfect storm as Manchester United owners. Supporters are becoming increasingly organised in their protests, led by a group called The 1958 -- a reference to when the club had to rebuild after the 1958 Munich Air Disaster that claimed the lives of eight first-team players. Britain's richest man, Jim Ratcliffe, has announced his interest in buying the club.
Ratcliffe, a lifelong United supporter, was born fewer than 10 miles from Old Trafford in the Manchester satellite town of Failsworth and has since accumulated a fortune, according to Forbes.com, of £10.2bn by building the chemicals company Ineos. Ratcliffe already owns French club Nice, Swiss team FC Lausanne-Sport and, in May, attempted to buy Chelsea.
With interest rates escalating across the globe, the Glazers must either contemplate expensive borrowing, further adding to United's debt, to rebuild Old Trafford and retain control of the club, or face a prolonged campaign of fan unrest and the prospect of Ratcliffe maintaining his interest and energising the supporters' battle to force the Glazers out.
The 1958 group organised the mass protest ahead of the Liverpool game at Old Trafford when fans marched outside the stadium before kick-off, and while reluctant to speak to the media, they told Red News that their only goal is to remove the Glazers.
"The 1958 are all about fit and proper ownership for our great club," they said. "We won't stand back and watch the club we love rot away to nothing. We are in this for the long haul and will mount sustained pressure on this ownership, sponsors, government bodies and other avenues. We will do everything it takes that falls within being legal and peaceful."
For fanzine editor Chilton, the latest movement against the Glazers is one that has to succeed if United are to return to the top of the game in England and Europe.
"I think it's a now or never moment," he said. "The Richard Arnold pub meeting was interesting because he said there isn't the money the club needs and the club needs investors. It was a startling revelation."
"Pressure has to be maintained. Even better if we're winning as it will shine a light on why we want rid of them. The world is changing, so their grip on the club might not be what it once was."
Yearlong conversations between the club and the Manchester United Supporters' Trust (MUST) about a fans' share scheme are, according to sources, close to coming to fruition with the intention of supporters being able to buy shares and have a significant voice in the running of the club.
The scheme would not affect the Glazers' majority holding, however, and former United director Michael Knighton, who failed in an attempt to buy the club for just £20m in 1989, recently described the proposal as a "smokescreen."
But for all the talk of a share scheme and the eventual outlay on new players this summer, nothing has changed for the Glazers at United since day one. The fans wanted them out then, and it remains the case 17 years later. The hostility is as fierce as ever, and even when beating Liverpool and Arsenal at Old Trafford this season, the stadium reverberated to chants of "We want Glazers out."
With potential buyers waiting to make their move and the cost of holding on to the club increasing with every interest rate hike, maybe the final chapter of the Glazer era is about to be written.