Dead hand of the immovable Glazers keeps strangling Manchester United | Jonathan Liew

Dead hand of the immovable Glazers keeps strangling Manchester United | Jonathan Liew

In February, the NFL players’ union carried out its second annual survey of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and let’s just say it wasn’t pleasant reading. Tampa Bay players reported that the changing room was “not clean, constantly smelly and has a persistent bug issue”. The sauna was described as “dirty and/or mouldy”. This barely a decade after an MRSA outbreak infected three Buccaneers players, two of whom never competed again.

In addition, players complained about being forced to pay $90 (£72) for childcare on match days (most teams offer this for free), being charged $1,750 a season for the privilege of having their own hotel room on away trips and being made to sit at the back of the plane while club staff travelled first class. Most of the blame for this state of affairs was laid squarely at the team’s ownership, whom the survey ranked 29th out of the 32 NFL franchise owners, and who go by the name of the Glazer family.

Bear in mind this is how the Glazers – some of the wealthiest people on the planet – treat their most valuable employees, the ones who put their bodies on the line and make the spectacle, people they know and meet. How do you reckon they regard Manchester United fans, a bunch of regular people on the other side of an ocean who they will never encounter in their lives? Perhaps we got a strong indication of this on Sunday afternoon, as the heavens opened and so, in large part, did the Old Trafford roof.

As a piece of pathetic fallacy it was almost too perfect, too cliched, too obvious. And yet much of the subsequent commentary focused on the sodden humiliation of Erik ten Hag, cowering in his tan suit. Or the embarrassment of Sir Jim Ratcliffe on the day he hosted the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, and the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, in an attempt to make the case for a publicly funded redevelopment of the Old  Trafford area.

Ratcliffe, understandably, has attracted most of the attention since securing a minority stake in the club late last year. There have been star hires such as Omar Berrada and Jason Wilcox, as well as the pursuit of Dan Ashworth. There have been stern internal emails about working from home and the cleanliness of club offices. There has been talk of transfer targets and new coaches, an assertive media presence, plenty of friendly interviews and briefings.

Ratcliffe’s 27.7% stake – due to increase to 28.9% by the end of this year – gives him certain levers over footballing matters, as well as a couple of seats on the board. But the Old Trafford deluge was a timely reminder of where the power still resides at United, where it has resided for the past two decades and where it may well reside for the next two decades as well. For all the talk of revolution and reinvention, this is a club still firmly labouring under the dead hand of the Glazers.

In a way, the Ineos deal has entrenched them even more firmly: giving them a handy form of public cover, a lightning rod for the club’s many failings and a huge injection of capital that might otherwise have to come from their own pockets. They are under no obligation to sell any further shares and, indeed, should they wish to offload the club to a new buyer at a future date it is Ratcliffe who would have to forfeit his stake in order to facilitate this.

Manchester United fans display a banner in protest against the ownership of the club saying ‘Glazers out’.View image in fullscreen

Why are the Glazers so intent on retaining control of a club in which they seem so disinclined to invest their money or time and where they are roundly despised? There is a buzz phrase in macroeconomics known as “the asset economy”, which basically holds that in Anglo-capitalist societies, the primary determinant of social class and life chances is no longer your job, but what you already own. With wages stagnating while asset prices continue to rise, a growing societal and political rift has developed between those working to survive and those who can simply live off the inflationary proceeds of their existing assets.

“Nothing changed since I left,” observed Cristiano Ronaldo of his return to Manchester United in 2021. “The pool, the jacuzzi, even the gym. I thought I would see new technology, new infrastructure. I saw things I saw when I was 20.” The former chief executive David Gill remembers that the Old Trafford roof was leaking a decade ago, but because the club were champions no one noticed.

According to the football finance blog Swiss Ramble, in the past decade United have spent less than Fulham and Leicester and barely more than Brighton on infrastructure development. Meanwhile, against a backdrop of chronic underinvestment and net debt of about £773m, the Glazer family has made about £1.3bn from share sales and dividend payments since taking over at United. This is how the asset economy works: the asset itself becomes your paycheque and everyone who needs it essentially works for you.

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It’s easy to see why the Ratcliffe non-takeover takeover has generated such fevered optimism in United circles. It offers the illusion of control in an uncontrollable landscape, the illusion of simplicity in a bewilderingly complex situation, the illusion of renewal when in reality very little has changed. You can’t get the Glazers out. You can’t see or contact them. You can’t afford to buy their shares, and even if you could you can’t force them to sell. And you can’t overturn the culture of parasitic rentier capitalism that allows them to operate or detonate the regulatory structures that render it legal.

But we can froth about the arrival of Wilcox and Graham Potter, and fixate on levels of internal email traffic, like any of this matters. Perhaps, given the torrent of negative publicity this week, we may even be treated to a ceremonial fixing of the Old Trafford roof. I’m thinking photo-ops, I’m thinking North West Tonight, I’m thinking Quinton Fortune in hi-vis holding a golden hammer.

Meanwhile, the turnstiles keep clicking and the assets keep sweating. After all, at a club as lucrative and popular as United, you never need to repair the roof because the sun is always shining.