KEEP UP AT THE BACK
Beckham to LA and the possibility of a United “franchise” in the States, RI 187 in November:
One explanation for the thawing of relations between the Glazers and MLS could be that both parties are interested in having a Manchester United franchise compete in the States. Both parties will have seen the success Mexican club Chivas have made of their own franchise, which was set up with the intention of tapping into California's Hispanic community, and will undoubtedly be salivating at the prospect of the dollars to be made from a similar United clone. And who better to lead such a team and market it to the American public than David Beckham?
Only last week, with speculation rife linking Beckham to LA Galaxy (an AEG outfit) the MLS implemented what is already being referred to by the New York Times as “the Beckham rule”, allowing teams to employ one player on terms outside the salary cap which restricts players' earning capacity. Taking effect from 2007, this is expected to attract bigger name stars from Europe into the league.
Beckham already has business dealings with AEG of course, as his North American soccer schools are run by the company, whilst numerous sources are stressing the importance the Glazers place on Beckham's marketability - one United board member has even recently been overheard talking of the excitement a return by Beckham would generate.
Given AEG's expertise, the Glazers' desperation for outside investment, MLS's desire for expansion and profile, and Beckham seeking a rapid exit from Madrid, it's not beyond fantasy to see that it could all conceivably lead to LA Galaxy becoming “Manchester United USA” sometime in the near future.
A small part of our story on United legend and PFA founder Billy Meredith, RI 188 in December:
Imported firebrands such as Turnbull and Meredith found their spiritual home at United, at least in terms of political morality. Their new captain Charlie Roberts was not only a born leader whose men would follow him anywhere but a fellow activist – he'd tried to launch a players' union in 1903 himself.
In the middle of United's title season, they took the lead in launching a heroic breakout. Together with players from fourteen other clubs, they founded the new Players' Union in Manchester on 2 December 1907 with three simple demands – an end to wage restraint, the introduction of freedom of contract, and the end of the FA's de facto legal immunity which prevented players going to court to settle disputes. These were fundamental human rights of the kind being granted to all workers in the land, bar football's. And Manchester United as a club stepped forward at this critical moment to offer moral and tangible support, sending a message to every other club that the time had come to abandon the brown envelope underworld and take on the FA's prima donnas. Club chairman J H Davies was to be the Union's president – there could be no greater indication of United's collective rebellion.
Panic and anger blazed through football's establishment. What the hell were these mad Mancs playing at? One FA Council member, ranting against the new upstarts for their “contemptible” claptrap”, rather gave the game away by characterising this new struggle as one that was between “masters and servants”. In one clipped phrase, he encapsulated the absurd feudalism of football and engendered even more within the game for the ‘serfs' at United. Football's governing bodies, as the rest of the century has confirmed, never look more ridiculous than when they set their faces against economic and political reality, trying to stem the power of free market forces like King Canute in blazers.
Meredith's zeal and appetite for battle was something to behold. He'd only just come through 18 months of constant controversy and legal action at City; now, after a ten-month break, he was back in the saddle for a further 18 months of bitter fighting and struggle. What stamina, what strength of mind and purpose – and all the while, he continued to turn in dazzling, trophy-wining performances for the Reds.
The day Meredith, Turnbull, Burgess and Bannister came out of the City suspensions to make their United debuts in January 1907 was a public event on a par with Cantona's comeback or Barcelona '84. Ecstatic Mancunians on the terraces awed watching journos with the delirium of their celebrations for the winning goal – a Meredith-Turnbull one-two, naturally. They couldn't have known that they were witnessing a seismic shift in Mancunian football's tectonic plates but they acted as if they did.
With a classic half-back line of Duckworth, Roberts and Bell in place, supporting unbeatable forwards such as the two Turnbulls, Meredith and Wall, United romped to the 1908 championship, the city's first, and collected the club's first FA Cup the season after. Sandy scored the winner in the Final, and top-scored in the title year. If Meredith was the Red king, then Sandy was at least his heir and prince.
By the summer of 1909, as United basked in FA Cup glory, the FA was ready to play its end-game. With the contempt for morality, justice and decency that is the hallmark of every corrupt ruling class – bringing to mind the worst excesses of Thatcherism, indeed – the FA placed a devil's bargain in front of the clubs. If they inserted a clause in every player's contract which barred them from unionisation and forced them to accept, in effect, the primacy of football's law over Parliament's, the FA would declare an amnesty covering every financial and administrative misdemeanour ever perpetrated by the clubs. So much for the FA's “noble fight” to keep the game clean over the past decade – every principle they'd ever espoused was to be jettisoned in order to protect their oily over-privileged hides. The clubs, by majority binding decision, submitted and cast the players to their fate.
Much in the same way that Thatcher's government used prison to persecute poll tax refuseniks – a criminal punishment for a civil transgression – the players faced an impossible dilemma. They would lose their livelihoods if they did not sign the new contracts, contracts which demanded they forfeit their legal, political and economic human rights. United players, incredibly, stuck to their beliefs under the leadership of Meredith and Roberts. 1909/10 would begin with the FA Cup winners and championship favourites banned sine die (without a date being given for their return, ostensibly a ban until they agreed to surrender on the League's terms).
British football had never seen anything like it. United's players had been catapulted into the vanguard of the Labour movement, cited by the Left as fellow strugglers for justice alongside the miners and shipyard workers. They were truly, now, The Reds. Support for United's ‘Outcasts' – a term coined by Roberts – gathered momentum and Meredith et al were eventually joined by players from Liverpool, Everton, Newcastle and Sunderland amongst others.
Sadly, not every player across the nation had the guts of the United lads. As Sandy Turnbull led his boys into United's offices to remove items that they could sell to compensate for their stopped wages (which they had gone without throughout the summer, as well as being forced to train alone), other clubs' players were looking for a way out. On the eve of the new season the FA saw their chance and played the divide and rule card, offering a new watered-down version of unionisation as a sop to those who signed the new contracts. A nationwide players' ballot ended 3-1 in favour of taking the deal, which moderates hailed as a victory and tried to argue would be an incremental step on the way to full rights.
It was nothing of the kind, of course: by preventing the players' union from affiliating to the GFTU (the TUC as was), the FA essentially postponed players' emancipation for another half-century. For the FA crisis had been averted and the season started on schedule. Meredith conceded that, en masse, the other clubs' players had not quite lived up to their billing as fighters to rank alongside the miners. But then, no other dressing room had a leadership quite like that of Meredith, Turnbull and Roberts. I daresay the miners' strike would never have been lost if every mine had had a Scargill at the pithead. Leadership matters so much, as United were to discover after Meredith and Turnbull had gone.
Classic English poets often summon up the idyllic images of the two or three years before the mechanised carnage of the Great War descended: the last age of innocence, some have called it. As 1910-11 opened, how beautiful the future must have seemed. We had a new 80,000-capacity luxury stadium, a team playing the cultured, quick-passing game on the deck which became known as the United style for the rest of the century, and a brand new centre forward, Enoch “Knocker” West, whose cannonball shot broke scoring records wherever he went. We stormed to the title, indisputable cocks of the walk in Manchester, Lancashire and the nation.