At the Lowry Hotel, Manchester United players could only sit and watch. Hundreds of fans had gathered outside and blocked the buses that were supposed to take them on the short trip to Old Trafford. You should leave at 3 p.m. local time. It came and went. The crowd did not disperse. Then the clock ticked past 4 p.m. Still no movement.
A few miles further what had started as an organized protest against the team’s property – the irrevocably unpopular and by most definition parasitic Glazer family – had swelled and turned into something much more chaotic, much wilder.
Hundreds of fans broke through the security forces and made it onto the field. There was evidence that some had found their way into the bowels of the stadium and reached the Sanctum Sanctorum at Old Trafford, the home team’s dressing room. A small number of people still outside the stadium collided with the police. Two officers were injured.
United players were still confined to their hotel rooms at 4:30 p.m. as the Premier League marquee should have started. Manchester United v Liverpool is the greatest rivalry in English football, the meeting of the two most successful clubs. That edition even had a title on the line, albeit indirectly: a Liverpool win would have earned Manchester City the championship.
For a while, the Premier League refused to bow to the inevitable. The game would be delayed, but it would continue as soon as the safety of the players could be ensured. At 5.30 p.m. – what should have been the start of the second half – the scales had fallen. The league released a brief statement confirming that the game had been postponed.
“We understand and respect the strength of the feeling, but condemn all acts of violence, criminal damage and violations, especially in view of the associated violations of Covid-19,” it says. “Fans have many channels through which to express their views, but the minority actions that can be seen today have no justification.”
There are two routes that the league, the clubs involved, and all of football can take from here. One is to focus on the method. Needless to say, the violence outside the stadium, although limited, should be condemned. It cannot and should not be justified. The same applies to the lesser offenses “criminal harm and violation”.
These crimes open a door. They make it possible to portray everyone involved in the protests in both Old Trafford and the Lowry Hotel as hooligans and troublemakers, and above all as yobs, the epithet when football fans have to be demonized.
They refuse to deal with the feelings behind the protests and make it easy to view the events of Sunday as nothing but thoughtlessness and lawlessness. They transform emotions, sincerely and deeply, into nothing but selfish revanchism: fans protest because their team is not the top of the league.
They offer a simple solution, the panacea that football always turns to in the end. Win the Europa League later this month and all of this will be forgotten, nothing more than a few million more social media engagements that the club will have to brightly quote at the next quarterly financial review.
The second is to avoid this slight danger and instead focus on the message. The glasses were never popular at Old Trafford. There were protests when they completed their heavily indebted takeover of a club in 2005 that they knew little to nothing about. At the end of that decade there was more, with fans adorning themselves with the club’s first colors – green and gold – instead of the more famous red to signal their dissatisfaction.
That hostility never went away. But it was dormant for much of the last decade. Not because of United’s success – the past eight years have been disappointing by its own standards – but because of the obvious futility of the protest.
Manchester United, like all football teams, could feel like a social and community institution. It could line up as one all the time. It might even seem like that on occasion. But it’s a business in the most real and relevant sense, and it’s a business owned by the glaziers, and because the glaziers didn’t flinch, no matter how violent the protests, the energy went away.
And then, two weeks ago, Joel Glazer, a co-chair of the club, suggested his name create a European super league and the anger broke out. Fans of the other English teams affected by the project’s connection have taken to the streets – a protest from Chelsea fans has accelerated the league’s decline; A few days later, their counterparts at Arsenal came out by the thousands – but none have gone as far as United. Nobody brought the league, which calls itself the biggest in the world, to a standstill on one of its Red Letter days.
This is partly due to the unpopularity of the glasses. The reaction in each of the clubs involved in some ways reflected the relationship the fans had with the owners.
Arsenal are dying to get rid of another unloved American, Stan Kroenke: It has come into effect. Liverpool, where the Fenway Sports Group still has some admiration, was a little more prudent. Manchester City did not see any mass gatherings, testament to the gratitude its fans owe to their supporters in Abu Dhabi. At United, the hatred of the glasses is deep.
The message their protest sent goes well beyond parochial concerns or tribal affiliations. It’s not just what it may seem that fans don’t want a Super League. That was unequivocally established a few weeks ago. It’s not just that fans don’t want their clubs to be used as toys by owners who care less about the names on the roster than the bottom line numbers.
After years of fear that their teams had been kidnapped by the billionaire class and their game had been stolen from them by television deals, rampant commerce, and unstoppable globalization, fans have learned over the past two weeks that they are not quite so powerless as they once thought.
If they don’t want a super league, they can stop them. It follows that if they don’t want the game they have now, they can do something about it. As one of the chants United players will have heard as they walked into their rooms at Lowry from the street below, it said, “We’ll decide when you will play.”
This hasn’t felt right in a while, but suddenly it’s possible to believe it. It’s been left unsaid for too long, but the entire cash-soaked building of modern football was built on fans: the playing cards and the television subscriptions, and the merchandise and demographic advertising in captivity.
All the money spent on sky-high salaries, excessive transfer fees, and inexplicable brokerage commissions: it all comes from the fans in the end. Fans do everything together. Fans keep the show on the street.
And now it’s the fans who have realized that they can do it too: a failed league idea here, so why not a big game there? You suddenly rediscovered your power.
The irony of all of this will of course be lost with the glasses, and all owners like them. It was the easy-to-monetize fanaticism of football that primarily drew her to the game and eventually convinced her that her mind-boggling Superleague program could work. They assumed the fans would go with them. They have not.
And now the same force is directed against them. The methods chosen cannot always be tolerated. But the message is clear and it is one that football would do well to heed.