By David Conn in the Guardian
Manchester United's players ended their lap of honour with the Premiership trophy on Sunday at the stand formerly known as the Stretford End, where the fans waited to pledge a devotional "We love you United / We do". Only then, as the players disappeared down the tunnel, did the Glazer brothers finally leave the Old Trafford directors' box, smiling, although for
After the furious fans' battle against their 2005 takeover the Glazers are now the great unspoken. In the strangely subdued atmosphere at that match against West Ham, nobody chanted for them or against them. The fans concentrated on the football, as they have all season, singing only of Rooney, Giggs and Ronaldo. Sir Alex Ferguson thanked "everybody, all these players, all my staff" in his headmasterly speech at the end but did not mention the directors or owners. "Come back next season for more," he smiled to the fans.
Despite the brilliance of his team, more fans will be hesitating about whether to accept Fergie's invitation, given that there will be up to 14% rises in season-ticket prices for 2007-08. On top of that, season-ticket holders will have to buy a ticket for every cup match, a possible extra £300.
All the talk in early spring, encouraged by the sports minister, Richard Caborn, that next season's bumper £2.7bn Premier League TV deal should enable clubs to reduce ticket prices, has wilted. There is no collective Premier League will for football to be more affordable; every club has apparently come to its own commercial decision. Those that struggled to fill their grounds this season, such as
The Glazers may sensibly be keeping their personal profile low and letting the team do United's talking but these price rises are connected to their takeover and the need to pay off the massive £660m debt with which it has saddled United. The Glazers moved last summer to repay those original borrowings with other loans at less stinging interest and to attract the banks they promoted the current season's 14% price increase. In refinancing documents circulated in the City, which I have seen, the club promised that with the extra money from fans, along with increased TV income, boosted sponsorship deals with AIG and others and the drive to make more money from United's estimated 75m fans globally, the club would be able to repay the debts.
The documents show that the Glazers paid a total of £831m for United - £790m for the club and £41.3m in fees to banks and other professional firms. The family paid only £272m of their own money, borrowing the other £559m. Of the latter, £284m was arranged by the merchant bank JP Morgan and £275m came in much riskier "preferred securities" from three hedge funds, Citadel, Och-Ziff and Perry Capital, charging eye-wateringly high interest.
When the Glazers refinanced, after only a year, those hedge funds had accumulated a further £79.1m in interest and other payments, meaning the total owed to them had swollen to £354.1m. The family managed last summer to negotiate £525m in new loans at lower interest - still over 8%, about £42m a year. That replaced the money they originally borrowed to finance the takeover, except for £138m still owed to the hedge funds. The interest on that is running at 14.25% - £19.66m a year. That makes the total borrowed by the Glazers £663m, more than six times the loans which have proved the ruin of Leeds United. The annual interest alone adds up to £62m.
The warning by the supporter groups about this kind of "leveraged" takeover turned out to be true: the debt borrowed was then loaded on to United itself. The legendary football club, previously - famously - the only English club free of debt, now has to service £663m borrowings and annual interest of £62m. The season-ticket price increase now being charged to fans will go, partly, to service that, the cost of a takeover none of them wanted.
United's spokesman, Phil Townsend, accepted that the debt and interest formed part of United's costs but defended the season-ticket price increase and the cup charges. United's tickets, the lowest still effectively £25, or £10 to under-16s, compare favourably with other clubs', he said. "We know it's a chunky increase but all clubs need to compete and we still offer great entertainment at affordable prices."
The Glazers' refinancing documents, although promising to raise prices overall, did say that it was considered important to keep tickets affordable at the lower end to maintain the "quality of the Old Trafford experience". Presumably that recognises that the less wealthy fans create most of the atmosphere.
Townsend said of the debt repayments that they were "bearable" given United's record-breaking attendances - the highest in
The Glazers' plans showed that they wanted United to be clear to spend £25m on players every season, with a further one-off £25m available to splash out on a star. The summer will demonstrate the robustness of that budget and, with the inflation about to hit English football given the increased TV deals, how far it will go to strengthen
Old Trafford may have gone quiet but the dissenters are still around in some numbers. Shareholders United, now renamed the Manchester United Supporters' Trust, has 9,000 paying members and 23,000 signed up to receive information. Those remain enormous figures for any football supporters' group. The Independent Manchester United Supporters Association is still campaigning - its representatives protested bitterly at the season-ticket announcement and warned that many fans would finally be priced out.
Still, their financial plan relies on continuing top-three finishes, reaching the last 16 of the Champions League - and retaining the fans' loyalty. On all these fronts they will have to be careful.