I have no qualms at all about Roman Abramovich being kicked out of this country and out of English football. The shame is that it took a war and the death of thousands of innocent people in Ukraine to expose 19 years of Russian money sloshing into the Premier League. No one cared at the time.
I wasn’t calling for Abramovich to be ejected from the game a year ago. Though Chelsea became a pain in my playing days, disrupting Manchester United’s dominance, as a pundit I enjoyed their rise and the journey under Abramovich. Almost all of us were guilty of turning a blind eye and not seeing the danger of what might come.
And here’s the irony. I’d love to say that I wouldn’t have wanted him at Manchester United. But if, in 2003, with the gift of foresight, you were offered the choice of Abramovich or the Glazers as owners, who would you take?
Gary Neville has delivered a damning verdict in the first extracts from his brilliant new book
The Glazers’ takeover at United was as different to Abramovich’s at Chelsea as it was possible to be. They saw something no one else in US sports business could see in 2003, that their world of American football and basketball franchises was limited to North America and that the world was much bigger than that. Football, as the world’s most popular sport, and Manchester United, as arguably the biggest club, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona (clubs that weren’t for sale), was the perfect gateway to the revenues this new era of globalisation would bring.
As someone who is a capitalist and now a businessman, who lives in that world and who has debt in certain areas of his life and mortgages, I don’t think I can look at the Glazers and say they’ve done anything wrong in buying Manchester United. I wish they weren’t the owners. I wish United had better owners who were putting every penny back into the club and not taking dividends out or leveraging the club with debt. But they’ve not done anything that’s outside of the rules. In the last few years I’ve now eventually become convinced they’re not fit to own the club.
As players at the time, we were aware of the JP McManus–John Magnier and Glazer camps building up their stakes to about 29 per cent. But these were different times. We were aware in a passive way. It was very clear to us that we didn’t get involved in the business side of the club and what happens in the boardroom. That was a line you didn’t cross in Sir Alex Ferguson’s club.
Neville has no qualms at all about Roman Abramovich being kicked out of this country
In the year after the Glazers took full control, we signed Patrice Evra, Park Ji-sung, Nemanja Vidic and Edwin van der Sar. The following summer we signed Michael Carrick. We would win three successive Premier League titles from 2007 to 2009 and the Champions League in 2008 with the great Tevez, Ronaldo, Rooney team. We were back in charge of English football and everything seemed fine.
But there were warning signs that this might not be good. David Gill, the chief executive, had initially come out against the Glazers, saying we shouldn’t be putting all that debt on the club. Some fans were outraged and protested vehemently against the family and their model. Looking back, they were right. We’d met the challenge of Chelsea head on, had seen off Arsenal, who were in decline, and were back in charge. How bad could the owners really be?
I can sit here now and wish I had lived in different world, where social media had existed and players spoke up more; that I had paid more attention and not just dismissed it. After all, I had been a United fan since childhood and owners had always been unpopular with the fans, even when we were winning, whether it was Martin Edwards or later the plc board. It didn’t seem new to me or particularly worrisome that the fans didn’t like the owners. I just thought that was football.
Playing under Sir Alex Ferguson, United dominated until the manager’s departure
And the truth is I didn’t have it in me to speak out. Footballers now have much more character and presence about them. We harp back to characters of old. But there’s more to character than playing on with a bloodied bandage around your head.
I maintain that players today are stronger willed and have more personality than players of 25 years ago. They consistently stand up for issues beyond football, as we’ve seen with Marcus Rashford on child poverty, Raheem Sterling and Tyrone Mings on racism. I was a strong-willed footballer, sometimes referred to as Red Nev. I was the union rep and had some basic business understanding at that young age. I was willing to take on the FA and threaten a strike. But at United, you didn’t cross the boundary into off-the-field issues. None of the strong personalities questioned it. And I could justify the Glazers’ game plan in my head. I believe in a free society, in capitalism, that you can buy something, that we have listed companies that can be bought and sold. I believe in debt, borrowing to grow.
I have debts, mortgages and loans. Loans aren’t necessarily bad. My biggest problem is lack of attention to the club and United’s decline under the Glazers’ ownership. I always knew that Sir Alex was a phenomenon, a genius. What I didn’t properly appreciate was that his presence covered up for the ineptitude of the Glazers. When Sir Alex left in 2013, David Gill, the chief executive, left at the same time and Ed Woodward became executive vice chairman with David Moyes as manager.
My first serious doubts about the character of the owners was really in 2014, when they sacked David Moyes after 10 months.
Neville believes the Glazer family should sell the club and need to hand over to new owners
But some personal encounters at that time, I thought, showed the Glazers to be petty and small-minded. I had retired in 2011 and had immediately begun developing some business plans. I was working to open our hotel, Hotel Football, which is opposite Old Trafford and was a project backed by myself, my brother Phil, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt.
We had planning permission to build offices, but it didn’t make sense so we decided to make it a hospitality venue, namely a hotel, and applied to have the planning permission changed. I always attend planning meetings to present my case and when I turned up on this day in 2012, Manchester United were at the meeting. Not just an official, but Michael Bolingbroke, the chief operating officer, the second most important executive, who had been sent along to object. At the time Ryan and Paul were still playing for the club and Nicky was on the coaching staff. I thought that was incredible.
Asking someone of Michael’s status to attend a planning meeting where they were always going to fail with their objection was cowardly and unimpressive.
The decision to object must have been sanctioned from the top and, at United, that is Joel Glazer. Their argument was that our hotel didn’t fit their vision for the area. Which, judging by what they have achieved in the 10 years since, seems to have been to maintain the environment as an industrial wasteland.
His first serious doubts about the character of the owners came when David Moyes got sacked
Despite the fans having been against the Glazers for 10 years previously, it only really sank in around 2014 just how bad the situation was. Even so, I never called for their heads. I would criticise their football decision making. But I kept my personal issues with them quiet.
The final straw was when they seemed willing to destroy English football with the Super League. That’s when I knew I couldn’t hold back any longer. Their greed and poverty of vision was just scandalous to me.
The idea that you could just cut off the rest of English football and create something that, while it may suit America, is an act of cultural vandalism appeared an extraordinary testament to how little they have learned about England in the 19 years they have been invested in the club. There are many things I don’t especially criticise them for. I understand business far better now than I did then. And there has been investment in the team.
They have trebled the income since they took over. According to Kieran Maguire, who lectures in football finance at Liverpool University, they have spent £830million paying interest loans. And yet, since 2016, the club have paid annual dividends to shareholders, worth £154m. Another £11m was paid out in dividends in June 2022, most of which goes to the Glazer family, and that’s after the club lost £23m in 2020 and £92m in 2021 and won no trophies.
The Glazer family objected planning permission for Hotel Football back in 2012
This might well be allowable under company law but as Jim O’Neill, a lifelong United fan and former partner in Goldman Sachs, says, it seems that, basically, Manchester United has been reduced to being a cash machine for the Glazer family. There are directors on the board, such as Edward Glazer, Darcie Glazer Kassewitz and Kevin Glazer, who appear to have zero interest in the club but sit there anyway and are paid for the trouble. Avram, and especially Joel, might be more involved as co-chairmen, but essentially it’s seemingly all about taking money out. No other major European club is run this way; not Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich. Not even Liverpool, who have American owners. And we’re told Todd Boehly at Chelsea won’t run things this way.
I have no problem with dividends being paid out by clubs that are successful, in great shape, with a plan and a stadium in fantastic condition and a training ground as good as it can be, with the team going well and investment set aside for the future. If all that is in place and there is spare cash, then there is no problem with owners, who put the money in and took the risk, benefiting. Clubs like Burnley did that for years under their previous owners and no one batted an eyelid because they were well run. But United aren’t in my view.
What should never happen is that the owner is creaming off money, even if it’s allowed under the rules, while staff are struggling and the club needs investment. You can’t take millions a year out when the ground is rusting, the training ground needs refurbishing and the team is in disarray.
My problem with dividends is when the stands aren’t painted, the facilities are below par, the hospitality is second rate. Equally, not all debt is bad but imagine if that £830m in interest payments could have been spent on building a stadium like Tottenham’s?
Manchester United fans have been calling on the Glazer family to sell the club for over 10 years
Not only would the club be in a much better state, but it would be worth more money. So the Glazers would get their money eventually. It could be a win-win for everyone. Instead, the only people winning are the Glazers. The team certainly aren’t.
It’s clear to me they should sell the club. They need to hand it over to new owners and to do so responsibly, making sure the club passes into good hands, debt-free. But if they’re going to keep the club, I would say the following are essential:
They stop taking dividends out for an initial period and they rebuild or refurbish Old Trafford to become the best stadium in the world.
They pay off the debt by selling shares in the club to fans and make the club debt free.
They rebuild the stadium.
They redevelop the training ground into a world-class facility.
They present a new sporting plan for the next five years and allow it to be scrutinised.
If the Glazers are to keep the club, they must do a number of things like rebuilding Old Trafford
I may be completely wide of the mark, as this is just a gut feeling. However, I do feel that the Glazers are either going to have to sell for a huge profit or dilute by a significant percentage by bringing investment in, in the next year or two.
The cost of the five points above that I’ve listed are, if done properly, substantial. There is no way I can see them raising further debt at the level required. They’ve committed to a new plan and stadium redevelopment.
The timing, I feel, is right with the significant spend needed, revenues dipping, lending becoming increasingly more difficult with the economy and Chelsea having set a precedent for a bumper price.
I personally feel the window is quite narrow for the Glazer family to sell. Fingers crossed that we are seeing the end of the Glazer reign at Manchester United. The only question then is, where is the suitable successor with the money, vision and sporting principles that United require.
Extracts taken from The People’s Game: A View From A Front Seat in Football by Gary Neville which is published on Thurs, Sept 15 (Hodder & Stoughton). Neither Gary Neville nor the publisher has been paid for these extracts.