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Last Updated: Friday, 13 May, 2005, 11:55 GMT 12:55 UK
What options do United fans have?
By Lewis Wiltshire

A Manchester United fan burns a season ticket renewal form
Far from admitting the game is up, pressure group Shareholders United claim it has only just begun.

Despite a long-running campaign by fans to prevent Malcolm Glazer taking over at Manchester United, the American billionnaire is now the majority shareholder, having raised his stake to 70%.

Yet there is no white flag being raised from the fans, who are concerned that Glazer's takeover bid includes millions of pounds of borrowed money, and fearful that the debt will be paid by raising ticket prices and attracting more corporate sponsorship.

That is the reputation Glazer brings with him from Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and his public silence has only fuelled the fears of the fans.

But what action can they take, and how likely are they to succeed?


ORGANISED PROTEST

Shareholders United (SU) has 28,000 members and it is growing all the time.

The leaders of SU would like to get that up to 100,000, and that is to say nothing of all those members of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA).

Combined, those are a lot of voices which means Sunday's game at Southampton and the FA Cup final will see noisy demonstrations, banner-waving and the burning of effigies.

The product of this will be little other than hoarse voices. Malcolm Glazer did not become a billionnaire by being a shrinking violet and that is why United's fans also plan to hit him in the pocket.

BOYCOTT MATCHES

Any large-scale boycott of games by United supporters would hit the club very, very hard.

About 36% of turnover comes from ticket sales, a higher percentage than Glazer would have been used to in America, where television revenue is a good deal higher than the cash made from punters buying their seats.

The importance of ticket sales is such that United has applied for planning permission to extend Old Trafford by a further 7,800 seats, taking it to a capacity of 75,600 and increasing matchday revenues which are already about 2m a game.

Fine in principle, but how likely is that supporters will stay away?

Matt, a caller to Radio Five Live on Thursday evening, claimed there could be a "at least a half-full Old Trafford" for the first home game of the new season.

But even Shareholders United (SU), the highly-organised pressure group, is making the main thrust of its call-to-arms a boycott of merchandising, rather than tickets.

For many, the pilgrimage to Old Trafford is an annual or biannual treat they are unlikely to want to give up. And if some do, there will be more to take their place.

SU's leaders know all too well that their best chance of damaging Glazer's financial plan is to dissuade those fans, once they reach the stadium, from entering the Manchester United Superstore.

BOYCOTT MERCHANDISING

With more than a quarter of United's income coming from what the club calls "commercial" revenue, Glazer would feel the pinch should the flood of shirts leaving the shops emblazoned "Rooney" or "Cantona" suddenly dry up.

Sean Bones, vice-chairman on Shareholders United, said: "The supporters are in effect the customers of the plc and we do affect the income streams that go into that club.

"I think we will start with the merchandising and what will happen is that Glazer is a parasite and won't be able to service those loans and I'm sure in time we will see him off and the supporters will gain control of Manchester United.

Manchester United fans protest outside Old Trafford
We will start with the merchandising ... and I'm sure in time we will see him off
Shareholders United's Sean Bones

"It's a supporters revolution you are seeing here and if we all stand up as individuals and act as one we will win this battle."

Perhaps. But Edward Freedman, director of merchandising at Manchester United during the 1990s, makes the point that the merchandising operation is no longer controlled by the club.

"It amazes me that no-one has picked up the fact that in the 1990s, when I was there, we owned our merchandising rights, apart from the kit on the field and the tracksuits.

"Today Nike completely owns Manchester United's merchandising rights. There isn't a scarf, there is nothing Manchester United can do on the merchandising front.

"It is all down to Nike and that is a disaster."

A disaster for the club maybe, but potentially one for American sportswear firm Nike, which is three years into a 13-year deal with United and would take the major hit in any boycott.

It is understood there is a point where United would suffer financially, but the club would not be the only losers and possibly not even the biggest losers from any merchandise boycott.

Officially Nike are saying only: "We have a great working relationship with Manchester United and look forward to continuing this in the future."

Whether or not the planned merchandise boycott ends up hurting Malcolm Glazer remains to be seen.

United shirts are sold to millions of fans around the globe - not just in the Old Trafford megastore on Saturday afternoons.

The BBC's business editor, Jeff Randall, believes supporters will eventually return to the merchandise outlets.

"My personal view, and it's a bit cynical, is that bit by bit they will drip back," he said.

START A NEW CLUB

Jules Spencer, chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, said: "If Glazer does get control, we will do what we said, up sticks and form a new club which will continue the traditions and heritage and the legacy of 125 years of Manchester United."

It is the most extreme option, but it does have a precedent.

When Wimbledon moved to Milton Keynes to become MK Dons, fans formed a new club called AFC Wimbledon and entered the Combined Counties League.

With crowds of more than 2,800 in a league where the average attendance is 200, AFC Wimbledon have been welcomed with open arms. They have now been promoted as far as the Ryman Premier - three promotions from the Football League.

If United supporters started their own club - FC United is the name being touted - and took even 10% of the supporters who regularly turn up at Old Trafford, most of the leagues they might consider joining would be only too pleased to have them.

As long as they find a stadium which passes the league's grading, and get the green light from the Football Association, they can apply to join the Manchester League or, more likely, the North-West Counties League, which is the equivalent of the point AFC Wimbledon started at.

The North-West Counties League's average attendance is around 100, so it is not hard to imagine that FC United could attract a following big enough to give that competition a major shot-in-the-arm.

FC United could even apply to go into the Unibond League Division One, where they would be four promotions from the Football League.

But a breakaway club remains at this stage a distant dream of the Glazer protesters, with even some United fans deeply unconvinced.

One fan, calling himself Red Onslaught, wrote on the BBC Sport's 606 site: "I think if this happens I will support it (the breakaway) even if it remains at the pits of the conference for the next 10 years or even a non-league side.

"As long as it's not owned by one person that's all that matters."

But another, called Anagram, replied: "If we leave United, some may view it as a show of defiance. I don't. Walking out of the club leaves Glazer free to do what he pleases, without any fan protests."

Perhaps that disagreement proves the problems faced by Shareholders United and the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association.

They are opposed to Malcolm Glazer taking over at Old Trafford, they know their fellow supporters are opposed and they know they have the sympathy of most football fans.

But with 70% of the club in Glazer's pocket, divisions among fans about what to do next and a boycott likely to harm international corporations as much as Manchester United, it is difficult to see what the supporters can do.




WATCH AND LISTEN
Report: BBC News' James Pearce


Interview: Oliver Houston of Shareholders United



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