What role did Alex Ferguson play in Manchester United's Glazer era?
It was at the baggage carousel at Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport, in August 2005, that supporter unrest against the Glazer family’s takeover of Manchester United went up close and personal against Alex Ferguson.
“You ****** us over,” shouted one fan in the direction of the then-United manager. “You could have spoken out about it.”
The response from the Scot was swift. And blunt.
“I've got a job to do and fifteen staff,” Ferguson said. “They come first. If you don't like it, go and watch Chelsea.”
In the eyes of many United supporters, Ferguson was to blame for the hugely divisive Glazer takeover in May 2005, with the Florida-based owners of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers profiting from a situation purely of Ferguson’s making.
The prevailing view was that, if Ferguson had not become embroiled in a row with the Irish racehorse owners, John Magnier and JP McManus, over his share of stud fees from the Classic-winning Rock of Gibraltar, they in turn would not have slowly stockpiled United shares before selling them to the Glazers.
Budapest was when the Glazer hand-grenade was lobbed onto Ferguson’s toes, but he dealt with it in the forceful, decisive and belligerent style which defined his management of a club which dominated English football for two decades on his watch.
In Ferguson’s eyes, if the fans did not like it, they were free to spend their money elsewhere, be it FC United, the offspring of the anti-Glazer movement, or a Chelsea team recently bankrolled by Roman Abramovich.
The battle lines had been drawn and Ferguson would never waver from his stance or offer any hint of sharing the concerns, and anger, of those supporters who regarded the Glazers as sporting parasites, with every intention fuelled by a desire to make money at the expense of others.
Because while one camp regarded Ferguson as an accomplice of the Glazers, the alternative position was that the firebrand manager was ultimately United’s saviour under the American owners, with the power of his personality the only thing capable of keeping Old Trafford afloat while the Glazers saddled the club with huge debts and turned off the spending tap while Chelsea and Manchester City rewrote the rules of the transfer market.
It has been a tumultuous decade under the Glazers at United and the assessment of Ferguson’s part in it is just one strand of a complex and contradictory period in the club’s history.
Have the Glazers won over their critics? No.
Have the fears expressed by supporters prior to the takeover been borne out? Not really.
Are United in a better place now than when the Glazers arrived? On the pitch, no, but off it, yes.
Does 15 pieces of silverware in 10 years count as success or failure? Success, but how much more could have been achieved without over £700m of the club’s earnings being used to service the debt imposed by the Glazers?
When Ferguson spoke of the need to secure ‘value in the market’ at a time when neighbours City were, in the United manager’s words, embarking on a ‘kamikaze spending’ spree, it coincided with the darkest days of the Glazer era.
The £80m sale of Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid was followed six months later by the birth of the green-and-gold campaign against the owners, whose decision to launch a £500m bond issue in January 2010 in order to refinance the club’s debt hinted at deep financial concerns about United’s future.
United and the Glazers rode the storm, however, despite a period of recruitment which saw the likes of Gabriel Obertan, Bebe and an ageing free transfer in Michael Owen arrive at Old Trafford while City were luring Carlos Tevez, Yaya Toure and David Silva to the blue side of Manchester.
So did Ferguson enable this to happen, did he encourage the ‘value in the market’ policy or were his hands tied by financial restrictions to the point where he became a captain steering his ship through treacherous waters?
The answer depends on your point of view, just as it does when the question is posed as to whether the decade of Glazer rule at Old Trafford has been a success or a betrayal of the club’s history and supporters.
The dire warnings of what the Glazers would do to United prior to the takeover have largely proven to be unfounded.
Old Trafford has not been sold off for naming rights to the highest bidder, United have continued to win trophies and season ticket prices have been frozen for five of the last six seasons.
The money that has gone out of the club to pay the Glazers’ debts is inexcusable, yet their transformation of United’s commercial income has been astounding.
Perhaps it is too early for the Glazer era to be judged dispassionately and with the necessary perspective because, just as with the Ferguson question, there really is no truly clear answer.