This month was the 20th anniversary of the formation of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association. Next month it will be time to celebrate a decade since the takeover of the Glazer family at Manchester United. Despite the best efforts of some, and because of the token efforts of many, the organisation and others were unable to prevent Old Trafford from becoming more tourist destination than stadium. The Glazers have got what they want. The formation of IMUSA came from a moment of staggering contempt from Manchester United’s executives – that contempt remains, and has only increased since. There are fans who still resent the lack of an extensive boycott, the only potentially effective protest available in the face of the Glazers.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. There remains, for many, the occasional thrill with Manchester United and, of course, there is FC United of Manchester. They are on the cusp of promotion from the Northern Premier League Premier Division. Soon, they move into a new ground at Broadhurst Park, with a planned friendly against Benfica in May. And, if you were cold hearted, you might also note that the Glazer family is down by one.
The recognised moment for the formation of IMUSA is, superficially, a minor event: Tannoy Woman. During a match against Arsenal at Old Trafford in March 1995, United scored and the home fans dared to express their satisfaction with this moment by celebrating. Not only did they celebrate, but they did so upright, standing up, as was the tradition at the time. There may even have been – whisper it – shouting and swearing in addition to some of the standing. Some of the shouting may even have carried with it a whiff of ABV. Tannoy Woman told supporters to stop their standing up or face ejection, clearly a ludicrous request.
After years of corporate creep, Richard Kurt explains in his United!: Despatches from Old Trafford, “IMUSA had formed precisely because dissatisfaction with MUFC had reached such an uncontainable peak, with the broken promises on ticket prices and the new ban on standing the proverbial final straws.”
The formation of IMUSA can also be traced back to Eric Cantona’s corrective act on a Crystal Palace-supporting loudmouth. A group of supporters who had travelled to stand by Cantona at his court case suddenly found themselves vox-popped by the national media in the wake of his guilty verdict. Much was learned from the value of a group of switched-on United fans being able to react and, where possible, steer the media.
IMUSA was widely credited for having the professionalism, media savvy and experience required to inspire and organise reds in their opposition to the Sky takeover. A week after Tannoy Woman had spoken, a group of supporters, including United We Stand editor Andy Mitten, were sat in a pub in Gorse Hill to get things started.
“I’d been involved in fan politics in ’92 when a group called HOSTAGE rightly complained that season ticket prices were increasing by as much as 30% per year. I was 19 years old and mates of mine were being priced out of going to games by the year. It was something I felt very strongly about and the pages of UWS reflected that. IMUSA was better than dissenting articles in a mag, though. It was a democratic group with strong fan representation and we helped create it and support it from the start.”
It wasn’t just United We Stand which supported IMUSA, there were donations from Red Issue Fanzine (RIP) amongst others.
IMUSA, Mitten says, “gave United fans an informed, legitimate and respected voice under an umbrella group. The people involved were known at the match by fans. They weren’t armchair fans or gobshites who rang up radio stations. There was a degree of accountability because you existed at the match and had to back up what you said. There was none of this spouting off online with no consequences because nobody knows who you are. If you didn’t go to games then you would have had no credibility in a group like IMUSA.
IMUSA had its powers and influence, but given it didn’t have the finances to rival opponents like Murdoch or Glazers, it was always likely that its lack of funds would hold it back. Mitten put its influence in perspective.
“As for exerting an influence on the club’s actions. I think the club realised that if they put ticket prices up by 30% as they had done then there would be well organised resistance against that. I spoke to Martin Edwards about IMUSA. He said that he listened but felt that if he gave them any power then they’d always want more. That would have been the club view at the time, but IMUSA was able to stage big nights in Stretford when the manager and players came along.”
Regardless of Murdoch’s failure, United carried on its open warfare on dignity, and continued to explore new and embarrassing ways with which to raise money. As Ferguson took on Arsenal, and then Chelsea, Ferguson collected Ruud van Nistelrooy, Rio Ferdinand and others. The problems were not on the field as much as they were off them, and Alex Ferguson was starting another relationship, pursuing his interest in horseracing and friendships with JP Magnier, John McManus and Rock of Gibraltar.
The two parties fell out, ably putting wanker into rancour. Ferguson and Magnier eventually fell out over the precise nature of the ownership rights, and a court case began, with the manager of Manchester United taking on the club’s major shareholders.
Ferguson had poked Magnier and McManus, and they responded thoughtfully, posing their 99 Questions to Manchester United, raising issues about unconvincing transfers. Now, it is obvious that transfers such as David Bellion, Alan Smith, Liam Miller and Eric Djemba-Djemba were the kind of transfers that needed to be forced through with whatever it took, but clearly other transfers at United had raised suspicion with the two horse-fondlers.
United decided that they would not entertain these questions, and the rift between Ferguson and Coolmore was set. It meant that when the speculative Glazers from Florida came along, there were some obviously motivated sellers. United fans again mobilised, and some of them were ready to show the Glazers how they felt.
“All liberation movements around the world have a separate, clandestine wing.” said Robert Brady, talking about the Manchester Education Committee, in An Undividable Glow, his book about FC United’s formation and first season.
The MEC took a more provocative line when it came to defending Manchester United against the Glazers, reportedly intimidating those who sold shares to Glazer, and vandalised a directors car. It supposedly subjected the family and those associated with it to telephone calls, emails and faxes. There was also the time that about 30 members in balaclavas invaded a reserve match.
Matching what you may expect from a separate clandestine wing, the MEC issued a statement warning : “Any failure to maintain a rejectionist position in the face of Glazer’s overtures will be regarded as an act of treachery—treachery that will place board members in an extremely vulnerable position for years to come… We trust that this is clear enough: offering either due diligence or a bid-recommendation to Glazer will be punished.”
For all the access that had been previously granted IMUSA, when Ferguson decided that he wasn’t – for whatever reason – going to speak out vehemently against the Glazers, he would not be moved by supporters groups, and the last possible obstacle to the takeover was removed. Mitten is clear on the effect Ferguson could have had. “I think he could have stopped it happening but chose not to. Without his support, I don’t think the Glazers would have pushed on.”
Without Ferguson’s support, United were doomed by the success the Glazers eventually had in raising enough cash through loans to buy the club. United fans groups were not able to buy enough shares to resist the Glazer approach, and the club was duly saddled with debt. Debt that has caused half a billion quid to exit the club, for no other business reason than to keep the owners balance sheet sweet. There is no clear commercial advantage for United having been taken over, regardless of any dubious, at best, claims that journalists may make on behalf of the owners.
After, and indeed before the takeover, there were those who were prepared to walk away from Old Trafford. JP O’Neill of the now departed Red Issue was the man to come up with the original idea of FC United. It wasn’t a consensus decision, as Mitten attests “The Glazer takeover was still burning strongly in the news every day. I saw JP have a big argument with a United fan who disagreed with the FC concept and still does. Some opinions were formed them and have only hardened since.” Nevertheless FC United remains, of and for its community, and disinterested in naked commercialism.
For some United fans, it was time to walk away completely. The football was not enough to keep them. The resentment of what the Glazers had done to United, and those who tolerated them was too much. One, who didn’t want to be named because of the sheer hassle of dealing with fans who continue to oppose FC, or disagree with various forms of ongoing or past resistance, soon abandoned even watching United on telly.
“United’s support, much like ‘the United way’ on the pitch, was shown to be a myth. Nothing special, collectively spineless and compliant; almost to a man placing their own weekly jolly ahead of the thing they professed to love.
“Let’s face it, if you knock City out of the cup as underdogs on the day, away from home, and your primary feeling is ‘those cunts upstairs are off the hook again and look at all those cunts in your colours celebrating it,’ well you know the game is up.”
20 years of IMUSA, and almost 10 years of the Glazers. Fortunately for supporters, IMUSA will probably be around for at least another decade. Sadly, the same can be said for the Glazers.
You can follow Alexander Netherton on Twitter (@lxndrnthrtn)
Have IMUSA got it wrong? Are the Glazers actually quite good for Manchester United? After all, they have won a lot of shiny things since they arrived. And that’s what counts, right? No? Email us: [email protected]