Manchester United protests - Disruption is the start, but where next for football fans' resistance?
Manchester United fans could have given a blueprint to other clubs' supporters about the best way to protest their dissatisfaction with the current designs on club ownership. However, while postponing one game is a huge moment, there will have to be more constructive talks later down the line to increase fans' influence.
Fans have shown that they can stop clubs playing or joining the European Super League, but whether they can effect positive change is less clear.
Such a statement is no criticism of fans’ recent actions. The demonstrations outside various football grounds was part of a groundswell of protest for the plans for the Big Six to take themselves out of the Champions League and install themselves in a cartel organisation, with no relegation and therefore no jeopardy when it comes to playing well. The rewards were for simply taking part, which goes against one of the biggest motivations of elite sport - to prove you and your team are the best.
To stand against the plans demanded immediate action, because the self-reinforcing riches on offer would have prevented any real competition to their dominance of football, across the globe and in their own domestic leagues. If the plans had been established or allowed to gain momentum, then it may have been impossible to force the plans to collapse. The strength of feeling was enough to interrupt the confidence the various billionaires had in their plans to take football even further away from its respective communities.
The demonstration against Manchester United and its owners gave notice that the spirit of insurrection and obstruction has not gone away. Florentino Perez has made it clear that he still wants to establish an ESL, so he will make the plans come back in one form or another. The financial trouble for Juve chairman Andrea Agnelli has not disappeared and so he will embrace the first chance he is given to cut and run for more cash. John Henry’s FSG was at the heart of the brutally cynical Big Picture plans, designed to exploit the vulnerability of clubs beneath him. As for Chelsea’s Roman Abramovich, the way in which he made his fortune is instructive, and the Glazer family arrived with little intention of giving back and have not changed their ways at all.
Indeed, the Glazers could scarcely be bothered to come up with even the half-hearted appearance of contrition when they felt compelled to issue a rare statement to supporters. Perhaps that spurred United fans to lay down another marker.
They had always impressed upon the club that they were going to offer more direct action than many other fans. Turning up outside Ed Woodward’s home address last year was just an appetiser, and the chief executive is now on his way. Then from Woodward’s home to the club’s training ground, which was recently visited with fans making a declaration that ultimately became a fact: “We decide when you play”.
With the exposed nature of team buses, the coronavirus and the evidently slack security on offer at the club, fans now know this can be repeated in one manner or another at will. Rival fans will know that this is something they can copy. It could, if they wanted it to, snowball. It could be a demonstration of power. The question is how far can that power be taken.
Supporters protest against Manchester United's owners, inside English Premier League club Manchester United's Old Trafford stadium in Manchester, north west England on May 2, 2021, ahead of their English Premier League fixture against Liverpool
Image credit: Getty Images
England might in theory have a plurality of political parties to choose from, but the only ones who have been elected in the past forty years have been staunchly subservient to capital. When it was floated in the 2019 Labour manifesto that fans should retain some control over their clubs, it was given short shrift by the commentariat - and indeed, many football fans. But the current government is far from friendly to the idea of giving control to the people. They have indeed spent most of the last two years removing freedoms under one guise or another, and whatever your political bent, it is fair to say they have been largely welcoming to the asset-controlling classes.
It’s against that backdrop that fans will ultimately have to move forward. Direct action seems to work, and it can't be dismissed. All resistance movements that were successful have often taken part in the grey area of legality, and morality only inconsistently goes against them. Perhaps what will force those with legislative and financial power into making concessions will be a consistent ability to interrupt their profit while keeping public opinion on their side - it remains to be seen if the establishment will tolerate such a thing.