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Copyright © John-Paul O’Neill 2017

John-Paul O’Neill has asserted his right to be identified as the author of this Work in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988

First published by Yellow Jersey Press in 2017


A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Extract from Manchester Disunited, by Mihir Bose reprinted with permission of Aurum Press.

Extract from This is the One, by Daniel Taylor reprinted with permission of Aurum Press.

Extract from An Undividable Glow, by Robert Brady reprinted with permission of Robert Brady. The entire cover price for this publication is donated to The Working Class Movement Library.

“Do not imagine, comrades, that leadership is a pleasure! On the contrary, it is a deep and heavy responsibility. No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

—George Orwell, Animal Farm


I don’t recall any conscious decision to become a United fan; it’s probably because my dad was one before me. Where he got it from I’ve never actually asked. One of his older sisters was a big City fan, and used to watch them regularly – even heading down to Wembley for the Cup Final in the ’50s – but my dad evidently had more sense. He’d sometimes tell us about being coached as a kid by Johnny Carey, United’s 1948 FA Cup-winning captain. The family certainly had Red roots geographically – my grandparents met in Cornbrook, Old Trafford, where they’d both lived, before moving out to Wythenshawe after they married.

One of my earliest football-related memories, certainly that I can date, is my dad jumping out of his chair when Norman Whiteside scored the winner against Everton in the 1985 Cup final. The following day we went to Sale to see the team parade the trophy. That was it for a few years as far as football was concerned as my parents then dragged the five of us (all under the age of eight) off to the South Pacific. As you do. My dad had given up his job, having taken a post teaching in the Solomon Islands, and off we went to live in Honiara on Guadalcanal. History buffs might recognise it as the scene of tumultuous battles between the Americans and Japanese in World War Two; or perhaps as the setting for The Thin Red Line, the book centred on that campaign.

In spite of such gallivanting, somewhere along the line I became obsessed with United, with my hero being the captain Bryan Robson. After much pestering, my dad eventually took me and one of my younger brothers to a game at Old Trafford in the midst of a gruesome 11-game run without a league victory. Needless to say, Robson didn’t play, once again being out injured. It didn’t matter though, as the experience was mesmerising: from the seemingly tiny slits that passed for turnstiles to the continual hum of the crowd, the fog of smoke hanging over the terraces to the glare of the floodlights, and the bright, vivid clash of the teams’ colours against the green(ish) pitch.

From then on pretty much all I wanted to do was watch United, and within a year I was going without my dad: being 11 years old on the Stretford End would probably seem a big deal to some parents nowadays; back then it was just how it was. By then I had six siblings, so to pay my way, even with admittance costing only £2.30, I did regular paper rounds – trudging the streets every morning from 7 a.m., delivering the day’s news. For a Saturday game I’d get to Old Trafford for 12:30 p.m., with the gates opening about 1 p.m. When the Stretford End was demolished I kept the same routine, even though the ground didn’t open until probably an hour later. That meant hanging around on Warwick Road, where I quickly learnt who the regular characters and personalities were. From there, I started selling the fanzine United We Stand when I was 14 – away match tickets meant more income was required – and about 18 months later, Red Issue. By then I’d left school, although still only 15. I’d long lost interest in formal education and, as I’d already done my GCSEs having been promoted a year, headed off to find more lucrative work to feed my football habit.

A mate sorted me out with a job as a bike courier for a printing firm in Manchester: £95 cash in hand for cycling round town all day, picking up and dropping off site plans from architects and building companies that they needed copying. After paying my mum rent, it worked out little better than £1 per hour but it saw me through the 1995/96 season, including a summer trip to Milan where United played Inter in a friendly as part of Paul Ince’s transfer. The following autumn, still only 16, I grudgingly headed back to college to do A-Levels. By then I’d known Red Issue contributors like Richard Kurt and Pete Boyle for a few years, and decided to try my hand at writing and, eventually, the editor Chris Robinson was short enough on material to print something I’d produced. He even paid for the honour.

The best part of watching United was undoubtedly the trips abroad. In 1998, for the fourth summer in a row, a few of us headed off overseas to watch the team during pre-season. A fortnight in Scandinavia beckoned and one older Red warned how expensive it was, suggesting that it would probably be cheaper to fly home in between the games than stay out there for the duration. We’d prepared by taking a load of United pin badges to sell to the locals at Scandinavian rates: a working holiday was the only way we could afford to do it.

During halftime of one game in Oslo we were sat by the pitch while United’s substitutes warmed up. ‘Come on,’ I said to the others, ‘let’s have a kick around,’ and walked over to David May, one of United’s players at the time. He didn’t look too surprised at the sight of three interlopers and had a chat with us all. Just before the second half we headed over to sit on the team bench but Brian Kidd, Alex Ferguson’s assistant, came out and said: ‘You’d better scarper quick before the boss sees you.’ Although the other two headed back to their places, I remained where I was. The players filed out and took their seats alongside me, with the likes of Teddy Sheringham and Dennis Irwin casting a puzzled glance, clearly wondering who I was. The local kids behind the dugout were soon demanding autographs and, as I was sat on the end, began to pass their programmes and scraps of paper down the line. Eventually the Swedish player Jesper Blomqvist told me ‘No more!’ but I felt bad turning the fans down so started signing them myself.

It was the closest I’d come to turning out for United, and one of the few tales from the foreign jaunts around that time suitable for any respectable publication. With the 1998/99 season imminent I joined the herd being aimlessly funnelled into a university course for which I had no motivation. But it came with access to a student loan, and that would prove useful given the number of games and trips ahead, as United closed in on the Treble. The European Cup final in Barcelona coincided with end of year exams, and I was firmly told that there was no chance of progressing with the course if I didn’t sit them. Oh well. Back into the world of work it was. A job cropped up on site building the new runway at Manchester Airport. £185 for a 45-hour week didn’t sound too bad until I realised I was left with £40 after tax, rent to my mum and the expense of the car the job required. It wasn’t hard to see why some people just didn’t bother working, only the alternative was actually worse: I’d signed on once and vowed to never do so again given the dole payment simply wasn’t worth the exchange of being treated like a complete moron.

As 1999 turned into 2000 I was heading to Rio in Brazil to watch United in the Club World Championship. Somehow I’d scraped together just enough money to afford it. Once back home in the reality of a cold Mancunian January, I insisted I wouldn’t be going back to the drudgery of some pointless job; I just needed some opportunity to pop up. As fate would have it, not long afterwards it did: Red Issue’s editor Chris Robinson had his sights set on doing other things and wanted someone to take over running the magazine. Would I be interested? I didn’t have the first clue how to do it, but yeah, why not. It had to be better than doing slump tests on a building site in the Bollin Valley.

Red Issue always had a caustic, cynical attitude and I had no intention of changing it. Not least because, in time, United and football in general lent itself to being viewed that way. United fans were used to being suspicious about United’s long-term owner Martin Edwards and his eagerness to eke as much money as possible out of the club, and latterly, the plc, but it was another thing altogether when supposed ‘football people’ were doing likewise. When we started hearing rumours about the size of transfer payments being made to agents and their ilk, and calculating them in how many thousands of annual season tickets at Old Trafford that equated to, it became apparent that something was fundamentally wrong. I knew only too well how much young lads had to graft to turn a wage to afford to watch the team, and yet from 2001 onwards it seemed fortunes were being spunked away, while fans were being charged ever higher prices to underwrite them.

In the early 1990s, when the terraces were demolished at Old Trafford, it had the almost immediate impact of freezing out a generation of kids. While a standing area initially remained in the Scoreboard Paddock for another two seasons, its capacity was only a fraction of what the Stretford End had been. United’s success over the ensuing years meant tickets were hard to come by, and so the crowd tended to grow older together, without the new, younger influx that would otherwise have occurred. I noticed it particularly for several seasons in the ’90s because I was often by far the youngest on many away trips, yet I was already a few years older than when I’d first started going.

The people in charge of Manchester United plc seemed solely concerned with profit, and had little or no interest in petitions from the club’s Independent Manchester United Supporters Association to facilitate local youngsters being given preferred access to match tickets. To me, this was akin to a dereliction of their duty to the club and its community. Because it was still a club, however much the ‘business’ side might have been prioritised by those in charge. For better or worse, I often tend to view things very much in black and white. If someone takes on a responsibility to others, be it an MP, a football club official, or even someone running a poxy fanzine, then they ought to act in the interests of that community. There are no excuses for doing otherwise. If you want to, say, pursue self-enrichment through questionable means, then abdicate the responsibility and fill yer boots. Why betray people’s faith in you?

Another thing I’d always had drilled into me, especially being part of a big family, was if you can’t afford something you couldn’t have it. Yet in 2004, the Glazers came along threatening our football club – my football club. They couldn’t afford it and were only interested in squeezing it for all its money. This would inevitably mean ever higher ticket prices, further disenfranchisement of the local youngsters and community, and even more dilution of the intoxicating Old Trafford matchday experience which I, and so many others, had fallen in love with. We might not succeed in fending them off, but there was no way they’d get their hands on it without an almighty fight.


29 June 2005, Old Trafford: 10:30 p.m. on a balmy summer evening and the new owners of Manchester United are under police protection as an angry crowd rains down missiles on a van ferrying them to safety away from the stadium. Officers on foot attempt to clear a path through barricades that supporters have hastily erected a few hours earlier, happily cracking a few heads with their truncheons along the way. The terrace song that has provided a backdrop to so many United games as the takeover battle raged for most of the season – ‘How we kill him I don’t know, cut him up from head to toe, all I know is Glazer’s gonna die!’ – has rung out all evening. The couple of hundred fans present are making it clear that, regardless of any share transactions that took place on the London Stock Exchange the previous month, this 127-year-old football institution still isn’t the Glazers’ to enjoy as they please.

On their first visit to Manchester, United’s new owners had been all but chased out of the area under a Greater Manchester Police (GMP) escort. If this was what a 200-strong crowd could do in the closed season, what would it be like if they ever tried to attend a game? Former United star Arthur Albiston echoed the thoughts of many when he told the BBC: ‘I can’t see Glazer or his sons actually turning up because the repercussions would be enormous.’ It was an understandable viewpoint, but hopelessly misplaced. To the outside world, the television images of a midsummer riot at Old Trafford suggested as vibrant an opposition as ever; the reality was very different. If the evening’s events had shown anything, it was that, although a hefty portion of United’s following had voiced their opposition to the takeover, only a tiny proportion was sufficiently bothered to show up and demonstrate that dissent.

This was a last hurrah. The Glazers had come for Manchester United’s pot of gold to take back to their Florida mansions and ultimately it had been handed over with barely a murmur. Come August, tickets at Old Trafford would still be sold out, and a team in United’s red would still be playing games of football, regardless of whether its owners now operated it solely as a cash cow.

The Glazers had got away with implementing their leveraged takeover, a ghastly scheme whereby they were allowed to borrow hundreds of millions of pounds to buy out the shareholdings, before flipping the debt onto United and securing it against the club’s assets rather than their own. This meant that Manchester United was now saddled with an enormous bill and crippling interest rates – all for the dubious pleasure of being controlled by this dysfunctional family of weirdo American chancers. How had it ever come to this?



The sequence of events leading up to Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United can be traced back to the Munich air disaster of 6 February 1958. One of the victims of that fateful flight, which crashed trying to take off following a refuelling stop in West Germany, was Willie Satinoff, a supporter of the club and friend of Matt Busby, the team manager. At that time, Satinoff had looked set to become a director of the club, replacing George Whittaker who had suffered a fatal heart attack in London ahead of United’s thrilling 5–4 victory at Highbury the previous weekend. None of the club’s remaining directors had travelled to United’s game in Yugoslavia, opting instead to stay behind for Whittaker’s funeral. Another who cancelled his trip in order to pay his respects was Louis Edwards, also a friend of Busby’s as well as a successful meat trader. He’d had his own hopes of election to the board blocked by Whittaker just two weeks earlier.

The day after the crash, an emergency board meeting was convened at vice-chairman Alan Gibson’s house, and a motion to promote Edwards was put forward again. It was passed unanimously by the three remaining directors: Gibson, William Petherbridge and Harold Hardman. Gibson was the son of James Gibson, a local businessman who had rescued Manchester United from bankruptcy in December 1931, subsequently investing his own money into building the club up and re-establishing it as a First Division side. The stability he’d brought about led to the formation of the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club, which laid the foundations for the club’s policy of developing youngsters into talent good enough to represent a first team that would prove so successful in the 1950s and 60s.

Gibson was also instrumental in persuading the Midland Railway to include stops at Old Trafford station on match days in 1933, making the club far more accessible to people from all across Manchester. After the Luftwaffe had destroyed much of Old Trafford during bombing raids in World War Two, Gibson hosted the club’s operations at a business he owned in Trafford Park. When the Football League started up again in 1946 the team played home games at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground while Old Trafford was reconstructed with funds that Gibson successfully petitioned from the War Damage Commission. However his greatest legacy to the club was the appointment in February 1945 of Matt Busby, who – unusually for the time – was granted total control over team affairs, free from any directorial interference.

Almost immediately, under Busby, Manchester United acquired a reputation for thrilling, attacking football, and his team won the FA Cup in 1948 and League Championship in 1952. Further successes followed with the ‘Busby Babes’, the flock of youth team graduates gradually introduced to the first team from 1952 onwards. Following a second championship triumph in 1956, Busby defied the Football League to lead United into the European Cup. The League dismissed the new competition as a ‘gimmick’, with its powerful secretary Alan Hardaker commenting, ‘I don’t like dealing with Europe. Too many wogs and dagoes.’ The principal objection seemed to be that there was a risk to the integrity of the domestic competition, and it was clear that United would face harsh punishment if delays on their foreign travels caused the postponement of any subsequent league fixtures.

United would face the best teams the continent had to offer and, in April 1957, they reached the semi-finals before losing to the defending champions, Real Madrid. The following year Busby’s team overcame Red Star Belgrade to reach the semi-finals once again, where they would face AC Milan for a place in the final. On the way home from Belgrade, the team’s plane had a refuelling stop in Munich, and bad weather led to two aborted take-off attempts. A third attempt was made, in part so as not to return home late and risk jeopardising the upcoming league game against Wolves. In the crash that followed, 23 people died, including eight Manchester United players and Willie Satinoff. Busby was left fighting for his life and was twice read the last rites; both times he pulled through, eventually making a full recovery. In time, he rebuilt the team, going on to lead the club to one of the unlikeliest of triumphs by winning the European Cup in 1968, only a decade on from Munich. He retired from management the following year and became a club director.

Louis Edwards had gradually built up a substantial shareholding in Manchester United and, by early 1964, directors Harold Hardman and Alan Gibson, wary of the danger in any one person gaining too much control, insisted on a deal whereby none of them would buy any more shares. Following Hardman’s death in 1965, Edwards became the club’s chairman, and in 1970 was instrumental in appointing his son, Martin, as a club director. By 1978, with the Edwards family company in trouble, they brought in the business academic Roland Smith to advise on what to do. In Manchester United: The Betrayal Of A Legend (1990), the journalist (and United fan) Michael Crick revealed what happened next: following Smith’s recommendations, Martin Edwards began buying up small shareholdings in the club, aware that there was to be an impending rights issue giving shareholders the chance to buy 208 new shares for every one pound’s worth held. Edwards Jnr managed to persuade Alan Gibson to relinquish his holding, and did the same with the niece of Walter Crickmer, the club secretary who had died at Munich. It was blatant insider trading – albeit then still legal, if unethical, in the UK. Such a transparent way of extracting cash from the club was bitterly opposed by fans, led by local businessman John Fletcher, as well as by Busby, but to no avail.

The following year, dividends rocketed from £312 to £50,419, most of which went straight into the Edwards family’s pockets. The club’s vast support meant its profitability was not hampered by a lack of success on the pitch – United had won just one FA Cup in the decade following the European Cup triumph in 1968, while the team had also suffered the indignity of relegation and a season in the Second Division. Louis Edwards cashed in further, selling the family meat company to Argyll Foods. But, unfortunately for him, the Manchester-based Granada Television’s investigatory programme World In Action had started sniffing around. In January 1980, they broadcast an episode alleging Edwards had supplied contaminated meat to Manchester schools that was unfit for human consumption, and that supply contracts had been won by bribing officials. There were also allegations of corruption linked to his dealings at Old Trafford, with claims of bribes being paid to schoolboys’ parents, and of illegal share dealings involving false documentation.

Greater Manchester Police and the FA opened investigations but a fortnight later Louis Edwards was dead, having suffered a fatal heart attack in the bath. Martin blamed the Granada programme for his father’s death, saying later, ‘If Matt [Busby] had gone along with the rights issue, World In Action would probably not have had a story, but the publicity from Matt opposing it got people interested and they started to dig.’ Edwards Jnr took over as United’s chairman and, when the FA subsequently relaxed its rules around the payment of full-time directors, he appointed himself as chief executive on a salary of £30,000. Being a keen rugby fan, it seemed to many supporters that the younger Edwards had little emotional attachment to Manchester United, beyond the money he could extract from it. In 1984, despite huge opposition from United supporters, he entered into discussions to sell the club to the former MP and businessman Robert Maxwell, though he ultimately refused to pay Edwards’ asking price and bought the Daily Mirror instead. (It was a lucky escape: following Maxwell’s death in 1991, the paper’s parent company was plunged into crisis when banks called in loans. It emerged he had been using hundreds of millions of pounds from the company’s pension fund to stave off bankruptcy.)

Left without a buyer, Edwards decided to shake things up and invited a Manchester solicitor, Maurice Watkins (previously retained as the club’s solicitor by Edwards’ father) onto the board, along with the legendary ex-player Bobby Charlton.

In 1989, Martin Edwards again tried to offload United, this time to the businessman Michael Knighton, in a deal worth £20 million. Half the sum was to go to buying out Edwards, with the other half committed to redeveloping the Stretford End. (This would increase the revenue the club could generate through more executive boxes and seated areas replacing the large terraces. Although the Hillsborough disaster had occurred in April 1989, a requirement for all-seater stadia only came about following the Taylor Report, which was not published until January 1990.) Despite a deal being agreed, Knighton felt obliged to abandon his plans when his backers pulled out. He would still briefly serve on United’s board, before moving on and buying Carlisle United in 1992. There he became notorious for claiming he’d had an encounter with aliens. While Edwards remained deeply unpopular with supporters, it was nevertheless felt that there had to be a better alternative for the club than the likes of Maxwell or Knighton.

An interesting suggestion was put forward in the United fanzine Red Issue in December 1989. The magazine had started up earlier that year and was sold outside Old Trafford on match days. In the wake of Knighton’s failed takeover, Russ Delaney, a financial advisor and friend of the editor Chris Robinson, wrote to readers:

I am writing to you to appeal to raise money to purchase shares in MUFC. The reason is to have a say in the inevitable takeover that is going to happen at the end of this season. The minimum amount for shares to get a seat on the board is £20,000. The more shares that can be bought by genuine supporters, the more difficult it becomes for any potential bidder. I know at this stage it would be virtually impossible to gain a controlling interest in the club; however, this is a realistic long-term objective.

The idea I have is to pool donations into a fund and buy shares as and when they become available. Once we have gained a significant shareholding, we can elect someone from those who have donated onto the board. This way we can represent the views of the grassroots supporters. I am prepared to donate a sum of money to get things moving if people are interested in this proposition.

It was a visionary idea. But owning stocks and shares was not something with which many fans on the Stretford End were familiar. Edwards remained desperate to cash in, and once again turned to Roland Smith, who advised him to float the club on the stock market. (Smith would be knighted, despite being embroiled in a political scandal that forced his resignation as the chair of British Aerospace. It emerged that his company’s purchase of the Rover car company had been facilitated by a £44 million government sweetener. A House of Commons Trade and Industry Select Committee accused Smith of ‘asset stripping’.) Smith would become the chairman of Manchester United plc.

The 1991 prospectus for the flotation revealed its intention: to raise £6.7m to redevelop the Stretford End; to widen ownership of the club by giving employees and supporters the chance to invest; and to provide increased liquidity to current shareholders. Many fans suspected which might be the most important to Edwards. With the UK in the grip of a crippling recession and unemployment rocketing, the idea that large numbers of working class supporters would have the £194 necessary to meet the minimum investment was absurd – not least given that the application deadline fell when season ticket renewals were also due, and just after tens of thousands of fans had undertaken an expensive trip to watch the team in the European Cup Winners’ Cup final in the Netherlands. Many fans were also turned off the idea of buying shares simply to line Edwards’ pockets.

The flotation immediately valued the club at £47 million – more than double the price Knighton had been set to pay less than two years earlier. Edwards kept three million shares while offloading another 1.7 million, netting himself around £6.4 million. Over the next seven years, the club would pay out around £23 million in dividends – almost four times the amount raised to bring the Stretford End in line with post-Hillsborough requirements. The following season, supporters were incensed when it was announced that ticket prices would shoot up to compensate the club – i.e. its shareholders – for the revenue lost while the rebuilding work was undertaken. Edwards sought to justify it by saying, ‘We were losing something like 12,000 or 13,000 spaces. We sat down with a calculator and a pencil and said, “What do we need to make up that lost income? What do we need to charge?” And that is exactly how we arrived at the [prices] for this season.’

The cost of a League Match Ticket Book on the terraces doubled from £76 in 1990 to £152 in 1992. A fan moving from the terrace in the 1991/92 season to a seat in 1992/93 would see the price jump from £108 to £266. Fans were outraged, and the protest group HOSTAGE (Holders Of Season Tickets Against Gross Exploitation) was set up, led by long-standing fan Jonny Flacks. The group staged a public meeting at Old Trafford Cricket Ground to discuss what action to try and take but, ultimately, it was all to no avail, beyond planting a seed in some fans’ minds that they needed to get organised.

The phasing-out of the terraces resulted in a decline in the quality of the match-day experience for many supporters, forced into ever more expensive seats after a lifetime of cheap terracing. But Old Trafford’s capacity shrank by several thousand at the same time as the club broke its 26-year-long championship drought. Increased demand for reduced supply meant the club was not immediately concerned about any adverse economic effect of alienating long-standing fans, especially since Alex Ferguson had just led United to its first Championship since 1967, and the likes of Eric Cantona, Mark Hughes, Peter Schmeichel, Ryan Giggs and Paul Ince were helping the team to dominate the fledgling Premier League era.

The imposition of behavioural strictures that accompanied this tightening supply began to exacerbate fan-club relations. The pages of Red Issue and other fanzines regularly bemoaned the club’s heavy-handed treatment. The ‘offences’ for which ‘troublesome’ supporters were targeted by the club’s stewards and security team became increasingly petty. Those wanting to stand in the newly seated areas were singled out for special attention. In March 1995, with the team stuttering in its bid for a third successive league title, United played Arsenal at Old Trafford. Despite regular appeals from Alex Ferguson for increased vocal support, an announcement was made during the match by an employee who Red Issue subsequently named ‘Tannoy Woman’, which instructed supporters to remain seated or else be thrown out. In response, the section known as K-Stand rose virtually as one, challenging security to do their worst, and the rest of the ground followed suit. The fans won that battle but the war with the stewards would continue throughout the rest of the season. Even Alex Ferguson was eventually roped in to perform a startling reverse-ferret. Rather than side with the supporters, he did his masters’ bidding, and pleaded for people to stay seated. (Though terracing was phased out, standing was never actually illegal. The impossibility of making it so meant it was permitted by MUFC within seated areas but only in dubiously defined ‘moments of high excitement’.) The incident had marked a turning point; and after the game, a dozen or so fans met up in the Gorse Hill pub in Stretford to discuss how to proceed. HOSTAGE may have failed in 1992, but its 1995 offspring would learn the lessons well.

The following Saturday the local Piccadilly Radio station held a football phone-in, inviting onto the airwaves Red Issue’s Chris Robinson and United We Stand editor Andy Mitten. I knew both of the guests, and called the programme to suggest that fans needed to get together and form some sort of group to oppose the increasingly draconian actions of the club’s powers-that-be. It turned out that both Mitten and Robinson had been part of the Gorse Hill meeting a few nights earlier, at which the very same idea had been proposed. The pair announced their intention to each put up £500 to start just such an organisation, which would be wholly independent of the club and represent match-going supporters. With Jonny Flacks also involved, the fanzines organised a meeting at Old Trafford Cricket Ground to gauge support, and Kevin Miles from an established Newcastle United independent fan group was invited along to give advice on the best way to proceed. After a positive initial reaction, on 22 April, the inaugural meeting of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association (IMUSA) was held at the Free Trade Hall in the city centre. It was an important moment in United’s recent history: finally match-going fans had representation and, over the coming years, the group’s activism and determination would ensure that the club had to start taking their concerns seriously, rather than dismissing or ignoring them as they had in the past.

Elected to leading roles were Flacks, Robinson and the politically astute Andy Walsh, who had been invited along to the Gorse Hill meeting by Peter Boyle, a well-known United fan and friend of the fanzines. Walsh had previously been the chairman of the Greater Manchester Anti Poll Tax Federation, at one point even being imprisoned for his principled refusal to pay, and he was well versed in political protest. The football writer Richard Kurt was friends with both Boyle and Walsh, and had helped introduce Walsh into the world of football politicking a couple of months earlier:

Boylie and I had set up an ad hoc group called the Cantona Defence Campaign that January, after Eric’s kung-fu kick and the hysteria which followed. We organised stunts, TV appearances, supportive newspaper articles, courtroom mobs and so forth. (We even released a single – top ten in the indie charts, as Boylie will eagerly remind anyone.) At that time, it was rather unusual to see fans playing “the media game” in the way that we were doing, and I think we all got the taste for it – not to mention the fact that we all learned some tricks of the trade that would later prove useful in bigger causes.

‘Pete had suggested Andy might fancy helping out because his previous political activism had inculcated certain gifts; I quickly concluded he was a born leader, and also someone who would be good with the media. I think we all enjoyed working together on Eric’s behalf, and Andy’s was certainly the first name I always thought of when we were all discussing the creation of IMUSA, and who might form its leadership.

Over the next few years, IMUSA would gain a great reputation for its work on behalf of both United supporters and football fans more generally, with one of the most notable incidences of its activism coming when the Labour government’s Football Task Force turned up at Manchester Town Hall in early 1998. The task force was a populist move, having been set up in the wake of Labour’s 1997 election victory with a brief to investigate football’s problems and propose solutions.

Unfortunately, its narrow remit didn’t seem to extend to anything that actually mattered to fans. With Hillsborough still fresh in the memory, there was no appetite amongst politicians for discussion of the introduction of ‘safe standing’, of which IMUSA was strongly in favour. Adam Brown, an IMUSA member, was a researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute for Popular Culture and had been appointed as a member of the Task Force. He quietly urged IMUSA members not to let government mandarins set the agenda. As a result, United supporters turned up for the meeting en masse with Brown barely able to conceal his glee as speaker after speaker got up to talk, initially about an issue that was on the Task Force’s approved list, before quickly diverting the matter: ‘… but of course, we wouldn’t have this problem if safe standing was to be introduced.’ As the majority of the floor roared its support, the meeting’s chairman – the ridiculously snooty Lord Faulkner, who was clearly unused to dealing with such oiks – desperately tried to get things back on track. ‘They hijacked the whole meeting,’ moaned one Task Force member afterwards.

In September 1998, IMUSA began involving itself in the national news agenda after the Sunday Telegraph broke a sensational story: Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB wanted to buy Manchester United for £575 million. Red Issue’s contributors exchanged knowing nods. One of them had been tipped off six months earlier by well-connected London snouts that Murdoch was planning this move. At subsequent IMUSA meetings, Red Issue representatives, including writer Richard Kurt, raised the Murdoch issue on more than one occasion, urging that leadership mindsets be readied for such an assault. ‘To be fair, IMUSA had such a lot on its plate at the time that I don’t think it could have been expected to start drawing up battle plans on spec,’ remembers Kurt. ‘After all, it was simply one tip in one publication. You don’t gear up a war machine on so flimsy a basis.’ In any event, IMUSA’s organisational reaction to the news soon compensated for the effects of being caught short, as Kurt recalls. ‘It was a very English-at-war scene: for a few hours, we were all running around like Corporal Jones, until suddenly a total calm set in, and improvisational flair took over.’

The main reason for the opposition to BSkyB’s bid could probably be concisely summed up as: Rupert Murdoch. Andy Walsh later expanded on IMUSA’s motivation for their campaigning:

‘There was a belief that this was the last stand. The game may have been heading down this road for some time, but this next disastrous step was not going to have the fans’ acquiescence. A United takeover would open the floodgates with other clubs being targeted by media companies and commercial concerns. Football would become a battleground for TV and sponsorship rights and the interests of supporters would be further trampled in the rush. The fact that it was Murdoch did harden opinion, but the belief that a TV company owning Manchester United was wrong would have been there regardless. Above all, there was a recognition that once again fundamental decisions were being made without any input from supporters.’

This latter point was one of the main factors in the politicisation of many fans at Old Trafford: as more and more money flooded into football, the voice of the average supporter became ever more irrelevant to those running the game and clubs like Manchester United. It seemed that decisions were consistently being taken with the viewpoint of supporters – the game’s biggest stakeholders – simply ignored (at best). This was in contrast to some of the giants of European football, such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, where fans had and have a direct say in who runs their club, with members able to vote accordingly. While the Spanish model wasn’t necessarily perfect, with electioneering by prospective club presidents tending to be linked to promises of star signings, it provided a democratic model that was unheard of in English football.

A key early planning meeting took place under Adam Brown’s auspices at Manchester Metropolitan University, which Kurt attended along with various IMUSA heads.

‘Adam and I shared a similar analysis of the situation. But he was able to express it in that meeting in a way that didn’t minimise how difficult a task we faced, yet also offered a crystal clear and cogent way forward. I remember bouncing out of that room in delight, happy to have discovered someone who could think strategically. We had plenty of tacticians in our squad, but Adam could also see the bigger picture.’

Media contacts began to rely on IMUSA representatives for their reaction and guidance; and with everyone at the organisation instinctively and implacably opposed to the takeover, IMUSA’s narrative took hold. The story created a massive stir, not least because BSkyB owned the broadcasting rights to Premier League matches – by owning United, the company would have influence on both sides of the negotiating table. With Murdoch’s Sun newspaper headlines screaming ‘GOLD TRAFFORD’, imagining all the extra millions the club would supposedly have to buy players, few people believed there was anything that could be done to stop it. Nearly all of the defiant were in two small groups of United fans: IMUSA, led by Andy Walsh in Manchester, and the newly-formed SUAM (Shareholders United Against Murdoch), under Michael Crick’s direction in London.

Crick’s position as a BBC reporter led to great controversy when, having stated his opposition to Murdoch, Sky complained about his lack of objectivity when he subsequently covered the story for Newsnight. Crick later admitted that the BBC ‘weren’t very pleased’ with his involvement. Crick and Walsh formed a somewhat unlikely alliance: the latter a former Trotskyist and ‘Full-Timer’ in Militant Tendency; Crick the man who, in 1984, had written the book Militant, an exposé of the radical socialist group’s infiltration of, and attempt to take over, the Labour Party in the 1970s and 80s. The pair devoted much of the next seven months to fighting the BSkyB bid, as the deal was referred in turn to the Office of Fair Trading and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission (MMC). Neither referral would be predicted by the conventional wisdom which suggested that the deal would be waved through; both would require tireless lobbying and activism to achieve. The scale and imagination of the campaign mobilised by both IMUSA and SUAM was phenomenal.

Perhaps the most important event during the campaign was the forced resignation in December 1998 of the Murdoch-friendly Peter Mandelson. He had been Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, which oversaw the MMC. It was feared that Mandelson would have ruled in favour of Murdoch, whatever the MMC eventually reported, but with his replacement by Stephen Byers, there was hope of the bid being blocked. A friendly United fan at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport regularly risked his job to feed information to IMUSA as to how things were progressing. It therefore didn’t come as that much of a surprise when, on 9 April 1999, it was announced that the bid had been blocked on competition grounds. It was a stunning victory for people power, and Martin Edwards petulantly hit out, echoing Richard Nixon by claiming the bid had the support of a ‘silent majority’ of United fans.

For several years, one of the untold stories of the campaign was of Alex Ferguson’s involvement. Publicly, he maintained silence throughout, with not even Walsh and Brown’s 1999 published account of the takeover battle, Not For Sale, indicating otherwise. In it, they excused Ferguson’s refusal to get involved, referring to his need ‘to look after his own interests’, even though he did, in fact, privately encourage Walsh, urging him to help keep the club out of Murdoch’s clutches. In 2015, Walsh spoke about it in an interview with the Red News fanzine:

‘We heard that Alex Ferguson wasn’t happy about the takeover. Jonny Flacks made contact with Ferguson and passed on his details to me. I was given Alex Ferguson’s direct line … we used to have regular chats when I would update him about where we were up to with the campaign.

Michael Crick would also go on to reveal in The Boss (2002), his magisterial biography of United’s manager, that Ferguson had been secretly seeking to pull together a rival consortium to snatch the club from Murdoch’s grasp. Ferguson’s son Mark, then a fund manager with Schroders in the City of London, was instrumental in the subterfuge. Though it didn’t come to fruition, it was an indication of Ferguson’s ambition, connections and ready access to people in high finance, all of which would have been enhanced when Mark later moved to Goldman Sachs, where he was named the City’s ‘Fund Manager of the Year’.

With Murdoch seen off, SUAM renamed itself Shareholders United (SU), stating its aim was to, ‘campaign both to preserve United’s independence, and to maintain one of the aims of the 1991 flotation: “to allow as many fans and employees as possible to own shares in Manchester United”.’ Echoing Russ Delaney’s letter in Red Issue a decade earlier, it reminded people, ‘The best way to keep United out of the clutches of people like Murdoch is for every ordinary fan to buy as many shares as they can.’ It was a call far too few would heed.

IMUSA reverted to campaigning on the week-to-week issues affecting match-going fans and, although he remained involved, Andy Walsh stood down as chairman. The organisation owed him well over £10,000 in expenses that had been racked up during the takeover battle, yet had no funds to pay him. This was incredible, given the amount of donations made by United supporters and people all over the world during the fight against Murdoch. I got a well-sourced tip that an IMUSA official had been pocketing large sums of the money and passed the information on to Walsh. However, weeks later, it became evident that the person in question had managed to fob off all requests for further information. It seemed that the allegation wasn’t being treated very seriously, so I pushed for answers. It transpired that the official had, over a long period, been forging the other two signatures required to authorise withdrawals from IMUSA’s account. The lack of proper oversight from the rest of IMUSA’s committee was shocking. Walsh didn’t publicly discuss the matter until 2015, when he admitted in the Red News fanzine:

I was in quite a bit of debt at the end of the Murdoch campaign. Later on, we found out that IMUSA did have more money, but it had been stolen from us. We estimated that something in excess of £20,000 had been taken. Signatures had been forged on cheques and the bank had allowed other cheques to be drawn in contravention of our bank mandate.

[The bank] tried to argue that it was our fault because we didn’t look after our account properly. We successfully countered that. We had direct evidence of over £20,000 of fraud and estimated that there was probably more as well but we couldn’t prove it. In the end, after a long hard slog, NatWest refunded £20,000 back to IMUSA.

As an officer of IMUSA, I felt a great deal of responsibility. We should have been tighter on our finances but we naively trusted those who we worked alongside, and did not believe that one of our own would rip us off.

By this time, the writer Richard Kurt and I were running Red Issue magazine’s news and gossip column, and also overseeing the website’s popular news service. Ever more supporters were devouring content about United online, and the website’s forum grew, which in turn helped cultivate more sources and networks for further tips. It was in this way, for example, that Red Issue exposed Alison Ryan, appointed in 2000 as Manchester United’s first head of PR until it was revealed that she had falsified her CV. The Financial Times journalist Paddy Harverson subsequently got the job instead. Richard Kurt reveals that Red Issue had an extra motivation in ensuring Ryan’s exposure:

‘Of course, we enjoyed showing up United’s headhunters, and highlighting the board’s incompetence, as a matter of ideological taste. But we had also wanted Harverson to get the job from the moment the shortlist was compiled. A Red Issue reader working high up at the Financial Times had contacted us to sing Paddy’s praises, and assure us he’d do a sound job for the club – while also respecting the likes of us, complaining from the cheap seats. Paddy lived up to that billing. He was fairly “hard”, but that strong personality could handle Fergie’s idiosyncrasies. Plus he treated Red Issue properly; no unfair favours, but always answering our queries fully, without trying to mislead us.’

Harverson’s star would rise to such an extent that he would eventually move on to represent Prince Charles, playing a key role in the success of William and Kate’s wedding in 2011 – Red Issue’s invitation evidently getting lost in the post.

In late 2002, a much more interesting story would be plucked from the grapevine. Trot forward ‘Rock Of Gibraltar’, the horse which won an unprecedented seven consecutive Group One races, and which Ferguson was said to part-own with the wife of the Irish billionaire John Magnier. Red Issue reported, with a knowing wink:

‘Much has been made in the Press about Fergie’s foresight in investing in such a promising prospect but could it be right he only bought into a share of the steed’s prize winnings and not its stud rights, where potentially the real millions are? If true, then even if Fergie has already seen a return on Gibraltar, the deal would be reminiscent of the OT [Old Trafford] contract wrangle when he rejected plc share options, instead holding out for a bigger increase in hard cash.