Why the Glazers are blamed for Manchester United’s decline: Explaining reasons American owners are supporters’ public enemy No. 1

One of popular culture’s most under-appreciated fictional villains, Vaas Montenegro, once asked, “Have I ever told you the definition of insanity?”

“Insanity,” he maniacally monologued, while the video game’s main character is tied to a chair hanging over a cliff, “is doing the exact same thing, over and over again, expecting things to change.”

Nothing seems to be changing for Manchester United under the Glazer family, who have held a controlling interest in Manchester United since 2005. During their 17 years in charge, the club has sunk to its lowest point in its Premier League existence with little evidence that a turnaround is coming anytime soon.

The decline has been precipitous since the 2013 retirement of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson, under whom the Red Devils won countless trophies. The seemingly indestructible Manchester United aura has been tarnished with the piling up of negative results in recent years.

“The embedded failure over a 10-year period to where the club is currently at has to come back to the ownership,” said club legend Gary Neville in his powerful rant following the latest stain: a 4-0 bludgeoning at the hands of London minnows Brentford.

Neville is far from the only one speaking out harshly, with voices joining the call for the Glazers’ departure from the club.

“A fish rots from the head. And the ultimate responsibility for the terrible state of our football club must lie with its owners, the Glazer family,” said the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, a powerful statement from a body of supporters in a precarious position, given ongoing negotiations with the club over a fan-share ownership policy.

So how did the famous Red Devils get here? The Sporting News brings you the full scope of Manchester United’s issues under the Glazers, from their ballooning debts to their disastrous recruitment record.

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Who are the Glazers? When did the Glazers buy Man United?

The Glazers are an American billionaire family that owns Manchester United and the Tampa Buccaneers of the NFL.

The late Malcolm Glazer was the family patriarch, acquiring his wealth in real estate and other business interests. He previously owned a majority stake in motorcycle company Harley-Davidson and oil company Zapata Corporation. That portfolio continued to expand over the years into other industries including food service equipment, media and broadcasting, banking, and many others.

Malcolm’s acquisition of Manchester United occurred over a period of three years between 2003 and 2005, gradually buying out shareholders over that time and completing a £790 million ($980 million) takeover.

In 2006, when Malcolm suffered a stroke, his sons Joel, Avram, and Bryan took over the management of the club. Malcolm passed away later in 2006, leaving his sons in charge and the ownership split among his six children.

Man United debt balloons under the Glazers

The Glazers’ takeover was deeply unpopular from the outset, due to the fact it was a leveraged buyout — most of the capital used to buy up shares came from loans secured against the club’s assets. Fans infamously burned an effigy of Malcolm Glazer outside Old Trafford and there were further protests after the takeover went through in 2005.

It turned out those initial concerns were founded in truth. Popular football business analysis blog Swiss Ramble, estimates that the Glazer family ownership has cost Manchester United over £1 billion.

This figure includes the Glazers taking dividend payments from United’s profits. Manchester United are the only Premier League club to pay its shareholders dividends, having paid nearly £166 million in dividends since 2016.

Glazers Out

But the most costly piece of the £1 billion-plus sum is the aforementioned leveraged buyout which continues to weigh on the club. According to reports, the club has paid a staggering £743 million in interest payments on those loans since the Glazers took over. Their £517 million in interest payments over the last 12 years alone is three times as much as any other English club, nearly amounting to the combined total of every other Premier League club (£536 million).

Despite those figures, the Glazers have not done much to help Man United lower its debt load. The £592 million in debt has hardly changed from the £604 million debt bill the club was saddled with at the time of the Glazer takeover. The debt total was third in the Premier League in 2020/21, but Chelsea’s debt (£1.1 billion) was interest-free from Roman Abramovich and written off in the sale to the Blues’ new owners, while Tottenham’s £854 million funded a new London stadium.

MORE: Contract and salary of new Man United manager Erik ten Hag

Failure to invest in Man United infrastructure

Speaking of stadiums, while the Glazers have lined their pockets with a portion of club profits and kept Man United saddled with enormous debt, the club has failed to reinvest money back into improvements to the infrastructure of the club.

Most importantly, the club’s famous Old Trafford stadium has fallen into increasing disrepair over the last 20 years. Nicknamed the “Theatre of Dreams,” Old Trafford is one of England’s most iconic grounds, but the stadium is no longer one of England’s top facilities.

The ground has shown signs of decay over the past decade. In 2012, a downpour during an Olympic football match saw leaks emerge in the stadium’s roof, while a 2019 storm saw the roof partially give way hours before the Manchester derby against Man City. Reports in 2015 stated the club was dealing with a mice infestation, with the critters making their way into offices and the stadium pitch, leading to criticism of the club by inspectors.

“It’s a very complex engineering challenge to deliver,” then-managing director Richard Arnold told the BBC in 2018 about upgrading the stadium. Yet that hasn’t stopped a club like Barcelona from upgrading their famous Camp Nou venue, with work set to begin in summer 2023 as the team plays at an alternate site during the 2023/24 season. Richard Arnold has since been promoted to Man United CEO.

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Additionally, the Glazers have not added resources to the club’s sporting infrastructure such as the academy, training staff, developmental staff, and recruitment.

The Manchester United academy hasn’t produced near the talent it used to decades ago. Goalkeeper Dean Henderson is currently playing for Nottingham Forest, while the likes of Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay and Jesse Lingard looked promising at first but have faded of late. Adnan Januzaj, Andreas Pereira, and Axel Tuanzebe were flops, while Anthony Elanga and Brandon Williams are still looking to prove themselves.

Shockingly, the club’s Under-23 side finished dead last in the 2017/18 Premier League 2 season, suffering relegation. They have since returned to that league’s 12-team top echelon, but finished 8th in 2020/21 and 6th in 2021/22, and like the senior side, were bottom of the table after the first two games of the new 2022/23 season.

Meanwhile, Manchester City ownership has poured a massive £160 million into the club’s academy after its takeover in 2008. City are now reaping the financial and sporting benefits of such an investment, with Phil Foden the crown jewel of a system that produced transferred talents Brahim Diaz, Angelino, Kelechi Iheanacho, and, current Man United player Jadon Sancho, with several more hoping to break into the Man City first team this season. 

Player recruitment failures under Glazer ownership

One of the calling cards of the Glazer ownership has been an “investment” in new players, in the hope of bolstering results by identifying the world’s best players and bringing them to Old Trafford.

This hasn’t worked out, especially after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. Money has often been fronted to purchase star players at the height of their value, but with little vision on how to effectively build a squad. Significant sums of money were spent on the likes of Paul Pogba, Harry Maguire, Jadon Sancho, Fred, and others, but many have not met expectations in a Man United shirt.

Rivals such as Man City acquired star players, but they also identified talent around Europe for lower transfer fees and developed them into superstars. At Man City alone, key players like Kevin de Bruyne, Bernardo Silva, Ilkay Gundogan, Aymeric Laporte, Ruben Dias, and Ederson came with considerable investment, but nowhere near the fees Man United are pouring into players who have not delivered.

Meanwhile, as City look to generate revenue by transferring players they’ve developed to help offset costs, Man United have generated little in high-level transfer sales. Just this summer alone, City have generated over £220 million in sales, with players like Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, and Oleksandr Zinchenko departing for fellow Premier League sides. Since the summer of 2019, Man City can claim six departures of at least £35 million, while United have just one.

MORE: The numbers behind Man United’s historically bad Premier League form

While individual transfer busts can be blamed on those pulling the strings at Man United at any given time, the long-term recruitment failures fall on ownership as the club repeatedly falls victim to the same mistakes every year.

When Ferguson rode off triumphantly into the sunset in 2013, David Moyes was appointed as manager on Ferguson’s recommendation but he was sacked before United ended the season in seventh. The diminishing quality of the playing squad was exposed without an all-time great steering the ship.

United’s transfer dealings under Moyes were typified by missing out on key targets such as Thiago Alcantara. Without Ferguson and front-office executive David Gill, United didn’t really seem to have a functioning football operation and that continued throughout the reigns of managers Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho. The Glazers’ refusal to appoint a director of football — John Murtough was only promoted to the role in the summer of 2022 — was one of the reasons United fell behind their rivals.

Commercial interests over football results

The popular view of what is taking place at Old Trafford can be summed up by one fateful Ed Woodward quote from 2018.

With the club stumbling towards an eventual sixth-place finish in 2018/19, the much-maligned CEO was asked about how a poor season would affect the club’s commercial revenue, He famously responded, “playing performance doesn’t really have a meaningful impact on what we can do on the commercial side of the business.”

That point of view provided a glimpse into how the Glazers might view the club based on their track record: The owners are happy to leverage the club’s wide global reach and brand recognition into a profitable venture, while on-field performance continues to suffer.

“The only money that has been spent on players at United is the money that the club has generated or it has borrowed,” said Gary Neville in his rant. “It does not come from the family, so let’s get this out of our heads that the Glazer family is putting money in every year, just like Roman Abramovich did [at Chelsea], like the Saudi Arabians are doing at Newcastle, like Sheikh Mansour has done at Manchester City, who put their hands in their pockets and spend on players.

“They [the Glazers] have not done that. They have borrowed and have used the revenue that the club has generated through its incredible fanbase and great commercial operation. That is what happens.”

In 2012, the Glazers floated 10 percent of the club (estimated 16.6 million shares) on the New York Stock Exchange, but in that case the Glazers reportedly pocketed half of the roughly £150 million raised with the remainder going to pay down some of the debt. 

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Through all the controversy, the Glazers have become famously reclusive, avoiding regular interaction with fans. When they finally met with fans for the first time in 2019 amidst enormous public outcry, they promised that “Our goal is to win every competition we compete in, and we will continue to invest in our academy and in the transfer market to support the manager in an effort to meet the club’s goals.”

But there was also another hint that the Glazers preferred to prioritize the club’s business ventures. “We want this club to always be successful and win trophies,” Joel Glazer said in that 2019 meeting. “To compete for trophies requires significant investment. The commercial growth at the club has helped deliver the revenue which ultimately underpins that investment in a sustainable manner.”

The spending in the transfer market has occurred, and more is set to come, but without a proper strategy on the sporting side — and the absence of someone to implement it — the squad has struggled to stay competitive, finishing with its lowest point total in its Premier League history in 2021/22.

Are the Glazers selling Man United?

On the heels of the chaos of recent seasons and after a poor start to the 2022/23 campaign, reports have surfaced that the Glazers are entertaining bringing on new investors though it’s still unclear whether that’s with a view toward a minority stake or a sale of their entire interest in the club.

The Independent reported that the Glazers may be looking to sell all of their shares for around $6 billion (£4.9b), taking advantage of the recent valuation that saw fellow Premier League club Chelsea sold for $5.25 billion (£4.25 billion).

Manchester native, Man United supporter, and the richest man in the UK, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, has already made clear through a spokesperson that he would be a candidate to take over the club after throwing his hat in the ring for Chelsea when that club was available. Ratcliffe already owns OGC Nice in France and Lausanne-Sport in Switzerland.

The Glazers previously promised in the aforementioned 2019 meeting that they would also initiate “a foundation for supporters to build a meaningful ownership stake and create a new spirit of partnership with the club.”

However, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust remains in negotiations over that fan share policy, with no agreement yet in place three years later.

After experiencing the growing uncertainty and instability at the club and a continued on-field decline over those three years, those same supporters would probably prioritize a new owner over a supporters stake as the heat on the Glazers continues to rise.

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