Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 1957

Manchester United — the capitalist’s game

This article is over 18 years, 9 months old
The story of Manchester United is the tale of how big business has its dirty hands on professional football, writes Michael Rosen
Issue 1957
illustration by Tim Sanders
illustration by Tim Sanders

A vicious exaggeration made by some on the left is that the problem with capitalism is that it leads people to think that they could sell their grandmothers into slavery, whereas we know that it’s only grandchildren who are up for sale.

Even so, this train of thought led me to Manchester United.

Let’s start with fun. People like to have a good time and this sometimes involves running about and doing strenuous things. People also like to develop skills involving hand-eye coordination.

I spent hours as a kid throwing stones at tin cans. If the epoch into which I was born in north west London in the 1940s had been hunter-gatherer, this might have contributed to the evolution of society.

In another stage of existence, I guess a tribe of humans somewhere might have been grateful to Wayne Rooney for being very good at aiming very sharp pointy things at tasty animals and hitting them, but I run ahead of myself.

Over several hundred years, people (usually men) devised a way of running about for an hour and a half in such a way as to involve speed, strength, struggle between individuals and teams, and plenty of coordination of eye and body.

At the early stages of the game, this involved villages playing villages and trades playing trades.

Just as society hadn’t developed to the point at which a worker’s body-effort was captured by factories, clocks and foremen, so the game wasn’t at this stage codified into a rule book.

It was a carnivalesque punch-up. On this matter of rules and time-keeping, the world’s richest football club owes its origins to the workers most tied into the minutes of a day.

Newton Heath was the name of a group of railway workers gave themselves in 1878 when they started playing on the small North Road ground on Monsall Road, Newton Heath.

A visit to parks, beaches and playgrounds across the world will see boys and men doing something similar.

I don’t suppose a single one of those workers turning up to play in the 1870s could have imagined the Manchester United football club of 2005.

To do so, they would have had to have imagined a transformation of their little association, the grounds they played on, the kit they played in and that part of their minds and bodies that they thought did not belong to their employers all, every bit of it — haircuts as well — turned into marketable commodities.

Though if one of them had come across a book published in 1848, he would have read that that capitalism “must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere”, or more poetically, “all that’s solid melts into air, all that’s holy must be profaned”. This was the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx.

What’s happened in football gives body to these words. In a way, the following of football is what Marx meant by “holy”.

It often involves worship, shrines, irrational belief, superstition, weekly rituals, gurus, detailed codified practices, fanatical following, idolisation and so on. But none of this has kept it out of the hands of capitalists.

In its first rickety steps to become “professional”, football relied on a local butcher to buy the kit. For the Newton Heath guys it was the brewer — “I get my name up, whenever the lads play, so when people get pissed with my beer, they think they’re supporting their team.”

This self-interested philanthropy marked out the late Victorian period, as many noble chaps with capital marked out their steps to heaven with donations to museums, libraries, housing estates, schools and, of course, churches.

It also did wonders for any sense of guilt that your life was based on driving the people you employed into early graves.

With the help of that brewer, and others, Newton Heath got better, turned into Manchester United, paid better and better managers to run the team. It turned into one of the best clubs in the world which also means that it’s one of the richest clubs in the world.

Now, what if you had discovered that the consequence of people getting excited about sport makes you a pile of dosh? Wouldn’t you be very interested that an outfit that attracts millions of followers could make you millions?

A guy who’s made a packet out of American Football figured that if he could buy United, he would gross even more. But how can you “buy” a football club?

Surely, it’s all tied up as a private company with old families devoted to the name and glory of their local club? Well, that’s how it used to be.

But the top clubs got greedy and went “public”, sold shares and became true modern capitalists in their own right.

So, it was only a matter of time before someone who had no attachment to the holiness of Man U, would gobble it up. He will do what every good capitalist should do — cut costs, sell off “unprofitable” sectors, put up prices.

This could involve anything from higher ticket prices, to fewer facilities for local kids, less money for players and selling off of land. The journey from works team to commodity is complete and all that is “holy is profaned”.


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