Search icon


19th Oct 2018

House of Glazer: How Manchester United Fell to Earth

Dion Fanning

When Alex Ferguson announced his plans to retire as manager of Manchester United in 2001, a family intervention at Christmas persuaded him to change his mind.

“In the kitchen a mutiny was brewing,” he wrote in his autobiography, published in 2013.

The kitchen mutiny ensured that Manchester United was held together. In an interview he gave in 2003, a year after he was scheduled to retire, Ferguson offered his opinion on how things might have unfolded under his potential successor, Sven-Goran Eriksson.

“I think he would have been a nice choice in terms of nothing really happens, does it?” he said. “He doesn’t change anything. He sails along, nobody falls out with him. He comes out and says ‘the first half we were good, the second half we were not so good. I’m pleased with the result’.”

This was the future for Manchester United if Alex Ferguson had retired in 2002 as he saw it. The years that followed his change of mind were certainly not uninteresting. The banal and inert parallel existence he imagined would have brought its own dangers and may not have been as banal as he anticipated. 

Since his retirement in 2013, the opposite has provided the drama and the chaos: too much has happened, a club that paradoxically achieved stability under one of the great volatile figures of the age has found the post-Ferguson years a bewildering re-entry into a confusing new world. Manchester United, like post-Tito Yugoslavia, has fragmented into factions and the challenge now is not if they will succeed with Jose Mourinho, but how much damage will be done before he goes.

Every attempt to move on just leads to greater fragmentation and now they are helpless as they wait to see what is in store during the final days of his regime.

The club which dominated for 25 years has discovered that, if anything, they may have underestimated the omnipotence of a man whose powers were never questioned.

“I’m outliving death,” Ferguson said when he unveiled a statue to him at Old Trafford in 2012 and while events of the summer offered a reminder that this is not true for any human being, Ferguson gave the impression while he was in charge of Manchester United that if anyone could, he could.

Since he did retire in 2013, everything has changed, but not in the sense of the renewal that Ferguson brought to everything he did. Ferguson provided the counter-point to everything that has, since his retirement, overwhelmed Manchester United. Ferguson could banish agents who upset him; Ferguson could charm those he needed; and Ferguson, as an astute a politician as any in the country, knew the line to walk between the executives and the people.

Nobody is bigger than the club is one of football’s most comforting bromides, but in the case of Ferguson and United, it turned out to be untrue in significant detail. No man had done more to shape a club. No man had achieved so much by force of will and, critically, no man had made the outside world believe he had so much control. “I tapped my watch in games to spook the other team, no encourage mine,” he wrote.

Who wouldn’t believe in the everlasting power of a man like this? Perhaps this is why Manchester United seemed to be caught off-guard by the retirement of a 71-year-old. Perhaps this was why it all went wrong. Perhaps this is why, in the years since 2013, it is Manchester United itself which has appeared mortal.

‘Rock Of Gibraltar, the horse in which [Sir Alex Ferguson] holds a 50 per cent stake, won the Prix du Moulin at Longchamp last weekend to break Mill Reef’s 30-year-old record by claiming a seventh successive victory in group one races. After the Breeders’ Cup at Arlington next month, the colt will be retired and his value at stud has been estimated at £20 million. That comfort will not have been of immediate help to Ferguson after his side’s 1-0 defeat at home to Bolton Wanderers on Wednesday.’ – The Times, September, 2002.

‘Among those to benefit will be Sir Alex Ferguson, who acquired a share in the colt last summer. “As a relative newcomer into ownership, I cannot adequately express the pleasure I derived from association with such a great horse,” the Manchester United manager said yesterday. “I owe an eternal debt to everyone associated with Ballydoyle. While I will be saddened not to see him on the racecourse, I have every confidence he will transmit his amazing talent and courage to his offspring.”’ – The Times, November, 2002.

“He was just a mascot for them. Walking around with this Rock of Gibraltar – ‘Look at me, how big I am’ – and he didn’t even own the bloody thing.” – Roy Keane, The Second Half.

Roy Keane was said to be alert to the dangers. He was said to have responded cooly when Alex Ferguson brought him over to introduce him to John Magnier and JP McManus before United played Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 Champions League semi-final. Nobody should launch a flotilla on the basis of a Roy Keane response to a chance encounter but his wariness anticipated much of the unfolding years for Manchester United.

John Magnier fell out with Ferguson over a horse and he, along with McManus, would acquire a massive stake in the club through their company Cubic Expression and in doing so ask questions of the manager who thought the friendships were firm and everlasting.

Ferguson had been bewitched by the prospect. One of the reasons he gave for retiring in 2001 was that Martin Edwards had said that the club didn’t want another Matt Busby situation on their hands when Ferguson retired.

Ferguson had been wounded by this comment, he had no intention but it was a reminder that at Manchester United, like at every club, no matter how far you rose as a manager, there would always be separation between staff and directors.

When Magnier and McManus first came along, it promised to be different. His friends were assuming positions of power within the club. Ferguson had become a wealthy man, but Rock of Gibraltar promised a different kind of wealth.

Ferguson was never going to be Busby, stung that a promise of a directorship for his family was not fulfilled. He was never going to be Shankly, mourning the loss of a career and the realisation that he wasn’t valued by the directors as he should have been valued. But Alex Ferguson – Sir Alex Ferguson – was still going to be hired help, he was still dependent on the whim of others but now, with his friends, his racing buddies and business partners on board, that would change.

If 2002 had demonstrated Ferguson’s power of renewal – “Once I had decided I would be stepping down, I stopped planning. The minute I reversed it, I started plotting again” – the years from 2003 to 2006 would test them.

English football was changing, the stars who had led United to prominence in the 1990s were fading and Ferguson had different problems.

Keane might have transferred his sceptical eye from Magnier and McManus to his team-mates, one of whom was “shaking like a leaf” as they lined up for the Champions League semi-final, but while his rage would remain, soon he would not be able to harness it to the same physical power.

Ferguson’s problems were bigger than that. The horse he thought he held a 50 per cent stake in was now expected to bring in income of more than £200 million as it retired to stud. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was disputed if Ferguson owned it at all.

When Ferguson called the manager of the Coolmore Stud, where Rock of Gibraltar’s retirement and siring would be managed, towards the end of 2002 to talk about the establishment of a trust fund to manage the money he anticipated would soon be coming his way, it became clear that there was a misunderstanding.

Ferguson believed he had, as joint owner, been promised 50 per cent of the prize money won by Rock of Gibraltar or 50 per cent of stallion earnings. He had opted for the latter.

Magnier saw it differently. He said Ferguson had been awarded 5 per cent of the prize money or one stud nomination – worth £40,000 – a year. A trust fund would not be necessary.

There was no written agreement and no money had changed hands in granting Ferguson a half share which made Ferguson’s position weaker.

“Because of the absence of a written contract between him and Magnier, Ferguson will have everything weighted against him. I don’t believe the judge will award him half the horse’s stud fees as compensation,” a lawyer told the Observer at the time. “I think he’ll lose and if I were advising him, I’d tell him not to proceed.”

Meanwhile Cubic Expression were buying shares in United, something which had a different complexion now that there was a dispute between the manager, Alex Ferguson, and Magnier.

In January 2004, Cubic Expression, which, by that stage, owned 25.49 per cent of the club, sent a list of 99 questions to Roy Gardner, the chairman of the plc, and David Gill.

These centred on 13 transfers, but United say they were not obliged to answer all of the 99 questions and said their accounting practices were excellent.

United’s supporters were enraged. In February of that year, they protested at Hereford races, where Magnier had a horse running, as part of a campaign against the shareholders.

While Cubic Expression made this challenge, another group was also buying shares in the plc. Malcolm Glazer owned Tampa Bay Buccaneers and he began to acquire an interest in the publicly listed company that was Manchester United.

In March, 2004, Ferguson reached a settlement with Magnier which was reported as a compromise deal worth £2.5 million.

“It is understood,” the Telegraph reported at the time, “that Ferguson has staged a significant climbdown on his original plan to sue for £110 million from Magnier – an amount detailed in the claim he posted at Dublin’s High Court almost a year ago. In that claim, Ferguson, who maintained he was told by Magnier that he was a half-owner of ‘The Rock’, asked for half the value of the former racehorse, which was estimated at £200 million, as well as £10 million in legal fees and lost income.”

By the end of that year, the Glazer family shareholding in United had nearly doubled and in May 2005, Glazer purchased Cubic Expression’s shares taking them above the threshold where they would have to make a bid.

All of this was done in the face of opposition from the supporters who were alarmed at the idea that this takeover could be done by saddling debt on to the club. Chief Executive David Gill had described the Glazer plan as aggressive and unworkable, but as they moved to take control he returned from a meeting in Florida with the family to reports saying Gill had agreed to stay on indefinitely.

Ferguson also remained, offering stability when so much was uncertain. United had ended that season 18 points behind champions Chelsea.

In the Glazers’ first season, United went out of the Champions League in the group stages and were second behind Chelsea.

A year later, they were champions again. The era of Eric Djemba-Djemba, David Bellion and Kleberson appeared to be behind them. The Glazers remained and the ambition was there to grow the club commercially, but with Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo driving United on, there was more to come in an extraordinary period of success.

United went on to win three titles in a row, a European Cup in 2008, before reaching two more finals where they lost to one of the greatest sides football has ever seen.

And in the middle of it all was Ferguson. When the green and gold protest began, Ferguson backed the supporters’ right to protest as long as it didn’t affect the team, but he defended the owners as well.

When Rooney looked likely to leave in 2010, Ferguson said it would be nipped in the bud and it was. By the end of that season, United were champions again.

When they lost 6-1 at home to Manchester City, Ferguson had to listen to people saying it was the worst Manchester United side in recent history. A year later, they were champions again and a year after that, it was clear that the worst Manchester United side in recent history would be the Manchester United side which had to get by without Alex Ferguson.

The protests faded away and United appeared to weather every storm. In an interview in 2010 in which he gave his backing to the Glazers and supported the refinancing which had triggered the green and gold protests, Gill discussed one of the risks referenced in the document.

“Anyone who has worked in the City knows that when you are trying to raise money externally you have to be pretty clear about the risks. Alex Ferguson retiring is clearly something that would be a major sea change at United and that is a risk.”

But that major sea change would be anticipated surely? As long as Ferguson was there, all these disparate forces would be held together.

“I would never, ever go to a meeting with Sir Alex with a pair of jeans on.” – David Moyes, July 2013.

The way David Moyes told it, he was almost an observer in the next stage of the Manchester United story, the chapter which began with him receiving a six-year contract.

Moyes had received a gift from his wife of a new watch for his 50th birthday and he needed to have a link taken out. He went to Altrincham to do this when a call came. It was Sir Alex.

“Where are you?” Sir Alex asked before wondering if Moyes could come over to the house.

Moyes turned to his wife and said, “Oh no, what is it he wants? It’s either he wants me to take somebody on loan, or he’s come to buy one of my players.”

Ferguson wanted something else. “The first thing he said to me was, ‘I’m retiring next week’. And his next words were, ‘You’re the next Manchester United manager’, so I didn’t get the chance to say yes or no. I was told that I was the next manager and that was enough. It was incredible.”

Moyes told this story on the day he was unveiled so he may have exaggerated it for comic purposes, but as we stood in a room at Old Trafford and listened to him on that July day, it was hard to see a man who was comfortable with his destiny as imagined by Alex Ferguson.

But the destiny might have had as much to do with Ferguson as Moyes. In his autobiography, Ferguson highlighted what he considered to be typical Scottish traits.

“A lot of Scots have a dourness about them: a strong will. When they leave Scotland, it tends to be for one reason only. To be successful. Scots don’t leave to escape the past…The Scotsman abroad doesn’t lack humour. David Moyes is not short of wit. In their jobs, though, the Scots are serious about their labours, an invaluable quality. People often said to me, ‘I never see you smile during a game’. I would reply, ‘I’m not there to smile, I’m there to win the match.’ David had some of these traits.”

Later in the same year, Ferguson would give an interview about his favourite teacher, who was Elizabeth Thomson and, he said, the belt she used to beat him with during school in Govan, was now in his study. “Six from that belt and you were in agony.”

The anecdote revealed Ferguson’s reverence for his own story, the self-mythologising which may be almost inevitable when you achieve all that he did. Moyes was expected to follow in this tradition but he was his own man with all that entailed.

Moyes was given a six-year contract and, armed with this, talk about the long-term and the mutterings about the Manchester United Way, he set about a characteristically painstaking job of rebuilding.

Maybe he shouldn’t have needed to be alerted that this was not how it worked. “You really need to win all the time,” Ferguson said towards the end of his time at United. With all the talk of the Manchester United Way, what it stands for and what a manager can expect, this was overlooked. You really need to win all the time. That was the Manchester United Way. And that was the thing David Moyes failed to understand.

From the moment Moyes was appointed, Manchester United have been trying to find a way of making sense of it all. The retirement of Ferguson and departure of David Gill in the same summer should have been the point when the club was reimagined, but since then there have been different pressures and more varied metrics than simply having to win all the time.

“Angel Di Maria saw a 12-times increase on Google searches on the day of his transfer from Real Madrid and Falcao saw a 10-times increase in searches compared with the day he signed from Atletico.” – Ed Woodward’s message to investors, November, 2014.

The Ed Woodward era may have begun when Alex Ferguson and Gill retired but it took the departure of Moyes for it to be seen as something other than a doomed attempt at continuing the Ferguson era.

In the summer of 2014, Louis Van Gaal arrived and so did the type of signing that would announce Manchester United’s intention to return to the very top. Angel Di Maria was signed for £60 million, joining Juan Mata whose signing the previous January had been accompanied by the kind of breathless reporting of this coup which suggested someone at Manchester United was very excited at how Manchester United were doing their business.

But there were other ambitions too. United, according to Richard Arnold, the Group Managing Director at the club, United saw themselves as a “mobile-first media organisation, focused on consumable chunks of content fans can engage with on the go”.

Arnold saw Manchester United as entertainment, the “biggest TV show in the world” and perhaps he was aware of the concept that happiness writes white. Drama makes for good television, even if Van Gaal’s time didn’t make for particular good football.

But there was drama of sorts until the end as Van Gaal’s United won the FA Cup with news breaking that he was about to be fired as manager.

He left to stories detailing players’ unhappiness with him. In search of ratings, and with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Manchester United made the obvious appointment as his successor. But in appointing Jose Mourinho, they made the obvious mistake and appointed the memory of Jose Mourinho, as if people hadn’t noticed what had happened to him.

Mourinho’s football is as far away from the idea of what the Manchester United way could be as it is possible to be. A belief that you really have to win all the time has been replaced, on this spin of the roulette wheel, by a manager who now believes you really have to not lose all the time. If you do lose – and Manchester United do lose – at least win the battle in the press conference room.

On the day in September when Manchester United played Derby County in the Carabao Cup, Arnold was on a conference call with investors and gave them the cheering news that the Manchester United app has a 4.9 rating on the App Store. United got knocked out that evening.

But those rating haven’t been enough, and what has happened in the last five years with Jose Mourinho is happening again. Mourinho is entering his familiar endgame and if Richard Arnold wants entertainment, he’d better prepare for a slasher movie. “In a crisis, you’re better off calming people down,” Ferguson used to say. But that isn’t the Mourinho way. When Mourinho goes down, nobody gets out alive.

And it will be his way – not the Manchester United way – until he leaves.

What happens to Manchester United then is hard to say. They will look to appoint a sporting director (although that appointment has been reportedly delayed while Mourinho remains in charge), who may bring more logic to their recruitment, but will the Glazers stay and will their departure lead to better times? This is unlikely if the rumoured links to Saudi Arabia turn out to have any validity.

More than five years after Ferguson retired, Manchester United are still trying to adjust to this world which is so much more hostile now.

Whatever plans were in place for the sea change have been altered and will have to be changed again.

They will still be shaped by what happened during Ferguson’s time, by the wistfulness that has already attached itself to that era, and by the owners who came in at his weakest moment and allowed him to re-establish his powers.

But those powers only dimmed briefly. They seem even more remarkable now in their focus and intensity. They never lost sight of the Manchester United way which, for 26 years, was the Alex Ferguson way. You really have to win all the time. That’s entertainment.