Silent threat

THE big revelation in last night’s Panorama documentary about football finance – trailed in the papers for a couple of days beforehand – was that the Glazers’ debts extend beyond those at Manchester United, and into their US shopping centre business. But equally intriguing was the list of those who declined to be interviewed for the programme.

Reporter John Sweeney had to explain away the refusals of the FA, the Premier League, Manchester United, the Glazer family and the new sports minister Hugh Robertson to appear on camera.

The time that would have been filled with their insights and/or platitudes was instead taken up with, among other things: Archive footage (which appeared to have been shot with a camcorder) of United chief executive David Gill defending the club’s owners at a press conference; a lengthy interview with Wigan chairman Dave Whelan; and stop-motion animations of seven garden gnomes painted to look like Malcolm Glazer and his six children. (I kid you not.)

Panorama has struggled with football-related investigations before. Four years ago, an attempt to uncover evidence of bungs in football transfers stumbled and foundered, largely because reporter Alex Millar couldn’t get anyone who really mattered to admit to any wrongdoing on camera.

Instead, the viewer got rather too much of Miller wandering around London making calls on his mobile phone. As soon as the programme was broadcast, a raft of denials and threats of legal action followed.

Sweeney fared better than Miller in getting his story to stand up, helped by the amount of information already in the public domain. Then again, this is a man who was once made a documentary attempting to expose the less savoury elements of Scientology, so he certainly doesn’t lack nerve.

But what Sweeney discovered during his football finance documentary was what any sports journalist already knows: If football people don’t want to talk to you, they won’t.

The tale of how the Glazers used a leveraged buyout to take control of United in 2005 – borrowing money to fund the purchase and then loading that debt on to the club – is well known. And the fan opposition to the Glazer regime has been constant, with ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ stickers now as much a part of central Manchester as the trams.

But the information that has come out on United’s finances has pretty much entirely been stuff they have been legally obliged to provide. Much of the details on their current debts came from information which had to be disclosed when the Glazers launched a bond issue to raise £500m in January.

That information contained the revelation that United, despite an increased annual turnover, would have made a loss in the 2008/09 financial year had they not sold Cristiano Ronaldo for a world-record £80m. The fans’ green and gold began soon after that information emerged.

“So how on earth did this happen?” asked Sweeney over a sequence of the stop-motion garden gnomes. “Surely someone somewhere must be regulating English football?”

Well, a lot of people are scrutinising United these days. But it’s not like scrutinising the Government who, as public servants, are obliged to be accountable to us taxpayers.

(That was something sports minister Robertson appeared to have forgotten in refusing to appear on Panorama, his office putting forward the pathetic excuse that he was too busy focusing on England’s 2018 World Cup bid to discuss the financial future of football.)

That’s because in football, unlike in politics, you are judged entirely on results. And unlike in politics, those results are very clear, very quickly. If you’re winning every week, you don’t need to court favourable coverage in The Sun. And if you’re losing every week, a media-friendly image will only delay the inevitable.

That’s why United’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson has been able to go for six years without speaking to the BBC (a ban which came as a consequence of another BBC investigative documentary). Unlike a politician, he doesn’t need to speak to them.

Anna Kessel made this point in an article for the Guardian last month. “Imagine what politicians would give for this kind of reverence,” she wrote.

“The difference is that successful football managers don’t rely on PR campaigns to keep their jobs. Their popularity relies solely on them being good at their jobs. If only we could demand the same criteria from our politicians.”

The flip side of the argument – particularly when it comes to those running the game – is that the refusal to be interviewed denies a chance to scrutinise exactly what is going on. Not that the Glazer family are likely to be too bothered by that kind of accusation.

“Public criticism is like water off a duck’s back to Malcolm Glazer,” said Thomas Ajamie, a former Glazer lawyer, in last night’s documentary. “Will the Glazers just go away? No.

“This is a businessman. And what talks in business is money. Emotions are not the currency, posters are not the currency and campaigns are not the currency.”

As long as United appear to be successful on the pitch, the Glazers will probably be able to hold on. And if the amounts that various family members have taken out in consultancy fees is anything to go by, holding on will be very lucrative for them.

But amid the riches of the Premier League, it is difficult to be successful if you are not spending money. It’s that vicious circle which worries United fans so much. And no amount of smart public relations would then be able to hide a financial meltdown.


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