“I was absolutely disgusted”: Manchester football fans on the European Super League

Last Monday, my flatmate walked in from work looking stressed. “Twenty-two years and I woke up this morning and now I don’t even want to be a United fan.” He was visibly agitated: hoovering and tidying constantly while consuming as much commentary on the proposed European Super League as possible.

The maintenance man who came round the following day to fix our ovens was the same. “Are you into football?” he asked on arrival. I told him I was. He and his friends had decided they weren’t going to renew their Manchester United season tickets; the decision was clearly eating him up. 

Photograph of Manchester City fans in 1991 taken by Richard Davis

The European Super League (ESL) was a proposed tournament organised by twelve ‘founding’ clubs. There were six elite English clubs – including both Manchester teams – along with three Italian sides and two Spanish. The half-baked plan proposed that Europe’s wealthiest clubs would participate in a competition from which they could not be relegated.

In a joint statement released by the clubs, it was announced that: “In exchange for their commitment, Founding Clubs will receive an amount of €3.5 billion solely to support their infrastructure investment plans and to offset the impact of the COVID pandemic.”

The fans were left behind. They weren’t consulted.

But by Wednesday morning the league was in tatters. Manchester City were amongst the first to pull out. It was later announced that Ed Woodward, who had significant input into the ESL plans, had resigned as executive vice-chairman of Manchester United.  

Etihad Airways deal with Manchester City was worth a reported £400m | Photo: Joe Ronan

Jess is 19 years old. She works at a school in Ardwick and has held a season ticket at Manchester City since 2010. But Jess has been going to games since long before then with her dad, brother and grandad. Her late grandma was a regular, too – for Jess, supporting Manchester City is a proper family affair: “I’ve been a City fan since I was born, I don’t think I really had much choice.”   

“It is about the fans,” she tells me over the phone. “And football clubs forgot about them when they made this big decision to join the Super League. The fans were left behind. They weren’t consulted.” 

“Something that has helped me throughout this whole pandemic is the prospect of going back to football, that is the one thing that I’m looking forward to, I didn’t even know if I wanted to go back anymore. I was absolutely disgusted with them.” 

Photograph of two fans in 1991 taken by Richard Davis

Manchester City are a prime example of the transformation that football has undergone. City were founded as St. Mark’s in West Gorton in 1880 by Anna Connell, daughter of the rector at the local St. Mark’s Church. The aim was to provide a community club for the impoverished urban working class. St. Mark’s became Ardwick Association Football Club in 1887, and Manchester City in 1894.  

In 2008, City were bought by Sheikh Mansour, a member of the Abu Dhabi royal family and deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. Forbes estimated in 2019 that the club was the fifth most valuable in the world at $2.69bn. Amnesty International have accused Manchester City’s owners of ‘sportswashing’ – using the glamour of football to distract from human rights offences committed by those that govern the UAE.  

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“Even though we are run by an Abu Dhabi group, and they aren’t the best, they don’t represent City fans, or City,” Jess says. “You just don’t want to be associated with them […] you’ve spent so many years trying to distance yourself from the horrible things that the owners do.” 

The relationship between the fans and ownership is terse at Manchester United too. On Saturday, there was a protest against the Glazers outside Old Trafford. The American family took over the club in 2005, to the dismay of many fans. Growing up I remember seeing ‘Love United, Hate Glazer’ stickers absolutely everywhere: bus stops, lampposts, road signs. 

F.C United of Manchester were formed in 2005 in direct opposition to Malcolm Glazer’s takeover of Manchester United. It is the largest fan-owned club in the UK.

Fans protest against the Glazers | Photos: Joe Ronan & Cal McGoldrick

Documents uncovered in 2010 revealed that Manchester United were over £700m in debt, whilst throughout the last decade the six Glazer siblings have received £15m a year in dividends. United were founded by railway workers as Newton Heath in 1878. In 2012, the Glazers registered the club in the Cayman Islands.

At the protest, a fan is wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘United Against Greed’. It’s green and gold: the old colours of Newton Heath, since taken up by the anti-Glazer fan base as a reminder of what the club used to be. And, I should add, what they want it to become.

Photographs of football fans in 1991 taken by Richard Davis

He and his two friends had come down from Durham. They said they would be back again, if necessary. “You wouldn’t be able to print my thoughts on the Glazers.” 

There’s green and gold everywhere: flares, shirts and scarves, a couple of them draped over the statue of Best, Law and Charlton – United’s ‘Holy Trinity’ – which stands outside Old Trafford. It’s a jovial atmosphere. The sun is shining and football chants break out every so often. 

You wouldn’t be able to print my thoughts on the Glazers

I speak to two young attendees, part of the generation the Super League was supposedly designed to attract.   

“They’ve done nothing for our club, nothing at all,” says Hameen, about the Glazers. “They know nothing about football, they’re just stealing money from us. They don’t care about the fans; all they care about is themselves. United means a lot to me. Since I was a kid, I’ve been supporting this team.”  

Liam agrees: “We want the Glazers out. They’re only interested in money. We want to play football; we need owners that are interested in football and the fans.” 

Manchester United fans Liam (left) and Hameen (right)

In an open letter ‘to all Manchester United supporters’ on the United website, Joel Glazer said: 

“Over the past few days, we have all witnessed the great passion which football generates, and the deep loyalty our fans have for this great club. You made very clear your opposition to the European Super League, and we have listened. We got it wrong, and we want to show that we can put things right.” 

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Football has changed, that is beyond doubt. The sport is not the same sport as it was when Richard Davis was taking photos of fans in the 1980s and 1990s. It is £950 for a season ticket at Manchester United, £900 at City and north of £2,000 at Arsenal. Many of the young people Richard photographed would simply be priced out today.      

Photograph of football fans in 1991 taken by Richard Davis

“Your generation has it got it so much harder than when we were your age. We could do things without it needing much money. Things were cheaper to get in, gigs, football, cinemas”.  

“There is such a disconnect between the big owners and the fans. Traditionally football has been about serving the community, it’s always been about your local area,” Richard says. “Sir Matt Busby’s comment, that football is nothing without fans, is so true.” 

The cover of Richard Davis’s ‘Football Fans 1991’ which is being published this week.

But, in spite of all this, it is clear that fans of both Manchester clubs – young and old – still care about their club’s history and ideals. This week they have shown that they want their football clubs to remember where they are from, who they are meant to be for.  

To outsiders this can seem like a strange form of denial: “of course those billionaire owners don’t care about you.” And yet, this week, fans have shown that they still have the power to shape football’s direction of travel: the European Super League is dead in the water. And that can only be a good thing.     

Richard Davis is a documentary photographer. His book ‘Football Fans 1991’ is to be published by Café Royal Books this week. You can find him on Twitter at @WiredDavis.

Joe has also written about Marcus Rashford and the important work that footballers can do for their communities.