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24 April 2021

The European Super League

Tag(s): Sport, Business
Last Sunday I was watching my beloved Manchester United beat Burnley 3-1 to keep alive their improbable bid to regain the premiership title for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired as manager in 2013. During the match the news broke that the club, together with Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur, had signed up to form a new European Super League together with three top Spanish clubs and three top Italian clubs. This League had negotiated new funding from JP Morgan, which has had a long-term relationship with the Glazer family who own Manchester United, and was proposing that the new competition would be joined by other clubs on an annual basis but that the founding clubs would have permanent membership of the competition and not be threatened by relegation. This breaks one of the eternal principles of football competitions throughout the world based on the model developed in England at the end of the 19th century that there is no such thing as permanent membership of the league and those clubs at the bottom of the Premiership, or indeed any other division, face relegation to a lower division from which the top clubs will be promoted to take their place. It is an almost universal rule in sport as otherwise there may actually be no penalty for losing.

Even during the match the reaction was violent. Sky’s football pundit, and former Manchester United and England full-back Gary Neville was so incensed that he thought the six clubs should lose points and thus position in the league table even though one of the clubs is his own. Losing points would amount to a very severe financial penalty. It was notable that one of the best clubs in the world, Bayern Munich, was not part of the plan. There is a very clear difference between Bayern Munich and the other clubs involved and that is ownership. The six English clubs are owned by foreign billionaires from the USA, Russia and the Middle East. Bayern Munich is owned by its supporters just as English clubs used to be. These foreign owners have clearly demonstrated that they do not have the interest of the fans at heart.

Within a relatively short time some of the clubs started to realise how bad the reaction was going to be. On the Tuesday evening Chelsea were playing Brighton behind closed doors but outside the stadium hundreds, maybe thousands of fans were protesting against the new regime. In less than 72 hours the six English clubs, AC Milan, Inter Milan and Atletico Madrid had all withdrawn and the European Super League was no more. How was this achieved?

We did it. We stopped the breakaway. The Super League is dead. Based on the overwhelming reaction from fans, politicians, the media, pundits, players and managers, it’s hard to imagine anyone being stupid enough to bring such an idea back again. When I say we did it I mean we, the fans. The reaction from supporters across football, whether from clubs who were destined for this competition, or from fans whose clubs were nothing to do with it, the reaction was so united and so overwhelming that no one could ignore us.

I have been a member of the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST)[i] ever since it was founded as a reaction against the takeover of the club by the Glazer family.  I was previously a shareholder of Manchester United when it was a publicly quoted company and was possibly the best run sports organisation in the world. It is still a successful sports organisation in one sense and that is it makes lots of money for the Glazer family. The MUST held meetings with both Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer and made the case for why they needed to get involved. They did countless media interviews. And they worked with other fan groups to issue statements and plan protests for the future. Some of these won’t need to see the light of day now but they can be proud of the work they put in.

The Manchester United co-chairman Joel Glazer said the club “apologise unreservedly for the unrest” caused by the proposed European Super League. This is the only the second time that Mr Glazer has made a comment in public about the club despite many years of concerns about ticket prices and other issues for fans. Liverpool owner John W Henry and Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich also apologised to supporters. In an open letter to fans Glazer said “we failed to show enough respect for its deep-rooted traditions. He admitted that efforts “in seeking to create a more stable foundation for the game did not honour the conventions of promotion and relegation within the wider football pyramid. For that we are sorry. This is the world’s greatest football club and we apologise unreservedly for the unrest caused during these past few days.  Manchester United has a rich heritage and we recognise our responsibility to live up to its great traditions and values.” Glazer said they will work to “rebuild relationships across football with a view to working together on solutions to long-term challenges facing the football pyramid. We also realise that we need to better communicate with you, our fans, because you will always be at the heart of the club.”

The Duke of Cambridge who is president of the Football Association said in a tweet that he is pleased that football supporters’ opposition to the ESL had been “heard and listened to”.

But we now need to make this a turning point - both for United and for football as a whole. We have shown the power fans have, and we have to build on the amazing energy and momentum this short but noisy campaign against the ESL has had.

The government has announced that despite the collapse of the Super League plans, they’re going to go ahead with the fan-led review of football they announced this week. This is important. MUST has spent over 15 years saying the law needs to be changed to give supporters more power over their football clubs, and now we have a government review looking at just that. It is no time for the fans’ organisations to rest on their laurels, pat themselves on the back and then wait for another similar plan in a different guise to emerge down the line. We certainly don’t want the Glazers selling the club off to the highest bidder, perhaps from a country that wants to use the opportunity to somehow untarnish its reputation as Saudi Arabia tried to do with Newcastle United. Now we need the Glazers to open the door to supporter shareholding with full voting rights. That could be put in place now to allow supporters time to start building a stake.

Football is a business of massive dimension but it has responsibilities that are unlike other businesses. My loyalty to Manchester United is lifelong, in a sense tribal. If Coca-Cola does something I don’t like then I can buy Pepsi-Cola or for that matter supermarket own brand cola. But if Manchester United does something I don’t like I have nowhere else to go. I’m not going to suddenly start supporting Manchester City and of course they were doing the same thing anyway. Even the self-selection of the six clubs was arrogant. It may well be that the six clubs largely dominate the English Premier league today but not completely. Tottenham Hotspur, one of the six, has not won the Premier League since it started in 1992 and last won the former First Division in 1961, 60 years ago. Since then the First Division or the Premier League has been won by Ipswich Town, Everton, Leeds United, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers and Leicester City won the Premier League just five years ago and are third in the current table.

During the time I’m talking about, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have all spent time in the old Second Division before regaining their place in the top division. That is the richness of the history of the game. The English competition is the most open in the world. One of the reasons why Real Madrid were behind this European Super League is that the Spanish league is nothing like so open and so Real Madrid complain that too many of their games are against boring opposition but the answer to that is not to start a new league at the European level but to make the Spanish League fairer. Too much of the television rights go straight to Barcelona and Real Madrid whereas in England they are shared around more fairly. Football like any competitive market needs a degree of regulation and governance of the sport has been a disgrace for many years and the ownership of the clubs needs a thorough change. The Football Association is only supposed to approve the ownership of the club by a new owner if that owner meets a proper standard. Clearly many of them fail to meet that standard and the Football Association has failed to police its sport.

[i] MUST has over 200,000 members and is the largest such fans' organisation in the world.

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