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10 September 1998

Why I don't hate Murdoch United

Duleep Allirajah explains why Manchester United fans are the last people who should oppose Rupert Murdoch's proposed takeover of the club

Media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's takeover of Manchester United has resulted in an unprecedented domination of the front, back and financial pages of every national newspaper. Moreover the deal has provoked an outbreak of hand-wringing hysteria from an eclectic anti-Murdoch coalition which embraces politicians, United fans, and every non-Murdoch newspapers. Murdoch, we are told, is not really interested in football, but in profits. United will buy the best players and dominate the Premiership. Murdoch will force through a pay-per-view TV deal and traditional fans will be priced out of the game. Before long a European Super League will usurp domestic competition. Football, it seems, has sold its soul to the devil.

Or has it? Well the most remarkable aspect of the takeover is that it has taken so long in coming, given that the new commercialisation of football is probably more advanced in Britain than any other country. (And immediately after the United deal, it emerged that another English football giant, Arsenal, was involved in takeover talks with media group Carlton Communications.) United was a very profitable business long before Murdoch came along. The club led the way in floating on the stock market and tapping the commercial potential of merchandising. Last year United made GBP30 million from gate receipts and GBP27 million from merchandising. Italian clubs, despite the patronage of Fiat at Juventus and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi at AC Milan are positively primitive by comparison.

Murdoch is obviously not a football fan, but so what? Are the pension fund managers who currently control the majority of the United's shares any more interested in football? Probably not, but that fact has not harmed United's fortunes as a football club thus far. Football clubs have never belonged to their fans, they have always been run by businessmen motivated by self-interest - usually local prestige and a fair share of turnstile receipts to boot. Today football is a much bigger business than it ever was before. The massive investment from Murdoch's money has seen to that. And no bad thing it is either. Sky has transformed television coverage of football, forcing terrestrial coverage to drag itself out the dark ages (can you remember how bad Match of the Day used to be?). Rather than price fans out of the game, attendances have increased. Seasonal aggregates had slumped to historically low levels of around 20 million in the bad old days of the late 1980s, but have climbed to 24 million today. Sky money has enabled clubs to build modern stadia, improve the quality of pitches, and attract foreign stars to the Premiership. The Murdoch pound has helped revitalise a sport which was nearly moribund a decade ago.

Of course a Murdoch-run Manchester United is bad news for those of us who support other teams. The prospect of United, and perhaps a handful of super teams who will also attract large corporate backers, dominating the domestic league indefinitely is nothing to savour. But what's new about that? A coterie of wealthy clubs already dominates the Premiership, monopolises European places and buys the best players from smaller clubs. The nearest my team, Crystal Palace, have ever got to European competition is a brief and ill-fated campaign in this year's Inter-Toto Cup (the what? - ed). United's dominance upsets me, but only because I want the same for Palace. What I find completely bizarre is the reaction from United fans themselves. The Manchester United Independent Supporters Association has demonstrated in opposition to the deal. What exactly do they think Murdoch will do to United? Change the club's name to Murdoch United and force them to wear Australian football kits? Of course not. Murdoch will probably invest more money into the club than the existing shareholders ever could, enabling them to buy the world's best players and, potentially, win the European Champions Cup. Do they still want Andy Cole fluffing chances? Don't they want to have the best players? Don't they want to be the champions of Europe? Moan about the referee by all means, but please stop bleating about your good fortune!

Some claim ordinary fans will be excluded from watching United. The opposite will prove to be true. If you hear opponents of Murdoch talk you would be forgiven for believing that United's support was still exclusively comprised of flat-capped working men from Salford. But United has long since transcended the parochial local support of Greater Manchester. A pay-per-view arrangement (which would have happened without Murdoch anyway) will enable hundreds of thousands of United fans, from Surrey to Seoul, to watch their team. It will enable United members, who only get tickets now by means of a lottery draw, to see every United game. It would enable thousands of United's season ticket holders to see away matches, which they are currently unable to do due to restricted ticket allocations. Of course, watching football on television is not the same as watching from the stands. But those days are long gone along with lace-up leather balls and wooden rattles. The audience for football is primarily television based and there's no turning back.

The irony is that, despite complaints that Murdoch is not interested in football, the opposition to the takeover has very little to do with football either. It is not difficult to fathom out why rival newspaper The Mirror portrayed Murdoch as the devil on its front page. However, the takeover has struck a deeper nerve than pure business rivalry. As Hunter Davies wrote, Murdoch "is already the Most Hated Man in Britain....Now he is buying the Most Hated Club in Britain" (Independent 09-07-98). Hatred of both Murdoch and Manchester United is symptomatic of a society in which success, power and self-interest are held in deep suspicion (except if you support another team when it is completely acceptable). Murdoch is the original big bad power hungry tycoon who will stop at nothing in his quest for world domination. Manchester United has achieved a similar status in the sphere of football as a result of its domination (until last year) of British football throughout the 1990s. The marriage of "Britain's most hated couple", as Davies calls them, was bound to provoke an emotional reaction. But when the wailing and gnashing of teeth has died down we will probably see more money, world class players and consequently better football in this country as a result of the Murdoch takeover. Stand up if you hate Man U? No thanks, I'm sitting down to enjoy the football.

Duleep Allirajah writes for Offence, the journal of the Libero! fans network

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