In its quest to build a lucrative global brand, has Man United lost touch with its true home fans? Adam Brown reports.
It was the small hours of February 25 2001. A conga line of about 300 Manchester United fans made its way drunkenly around Manchester and then headed south down Oxford Road towards Manchester City's Maine Road ground. There was a sizeable police escort with helicopter back-up. Over and again the delirious, dancing fans kept singing to the tune of the Piranhas' "Tom Hark": "25 years, 25 years, 25 years."
The chant referred to the number of years since City had won a major trophy. The event had been celebrated that night by United fans at a "Silver Anniversary Party" in the city centre, originally, cheekily booked for Maine Road's corporate Silver Suite, but cancelled on the day. The next day Maine Road had had a paint job: a huge "25 years" emblazoned across the gate to the away fans' section and "Guvnors RIP" (a reference to City's hooligan firm of the 1980s) on nearby Kippax Street.
A few weeks later, United was playing City at Old Trafford, with City on the point of relegation. Outside the pubs, heads turned skywards to the drone of a small plane. Behind it flew a banner saying "MCFC - REAL CLUB, REAL FANS" as fans inside the ground taunted United with "Do you come from, do you come from, do you come from Manchester?" - a reference to the club's famously international support.
In an age when football has supposedly become detached from its social roots and its sense of place, when you are as likely to see a David Beckham shirt in Osaka, Japan, as you are in Manchester, England, and where the allegiances of the young are less likely to be forged through kinship or familial bloodlines, these events came as a stark reminder of football's enduring local meanings.
They raise questions about the place of football, and sport generally, in the post-industrial city (especially Manchester, basking in the glow of the Commonwealth Games), collective identity formation, the "authenticity" of football fandom and the endurance of local rivalries within an increasingly globalised sport. They also raise issues about the role of, and relationships among, fans and clubs as football becomes increasingly commodified.
These questions formed part of a one-year qualitative research project, "Sport, Governance and the City", funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and undertaken by myself and my late colleague, Derek Wynne, at the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture. What we found was a series of complex, contradictory and contested social relations.
The classic stereotype of the two clubs contrasts the plucky, former great, City, with its local focus and fan-friendly reputation, against the global, corporate sports brand of United, with its increasingly distant relationship to Manchester and its fans, most of whom are alleged to have little to do with the city. This is central to the identity construction and rivalry between the two sets of fans. On one side, City fans portray themselves as local, northern, loyal, working class and genuine; on the other, they describe their opposite numbers as southern, fickle, middle class and "glory hunters", taunting United as the "pride of Singapore".
In an age when City has been outclassed in terms of football and commercial success, a collective identity that conjures up a supposedly "authentic" and nostalgic notion of local football fandom contrasts them favourably in terms of status with their neighbours in the urban Mancunian milieu.
United fans, stung by criticism that they are less than "real" - itself an acceptance by them of similar notions of an "authentic fandom" - have responded in the 1990s with a remarkable reassertion of their local roots and identities. The events described at the top of this piece are part and parcel of this deliberate process of reidentification of United with the city. United fans' bating of City fans extends to portrayals of them as comic failures, stupid, unsophisticated in the modern urban context and parochial.
In terms of fan location, our statistical analysis of season-ticket data from each club paints a rather different story. This suggests that patterns of support remain remarkably similar, with United having the greater number of season ticket holders within the Manchester (M) postcode, but City having the greater percentage of Manchester-based season-ticket holders. Neither club has any significant numbers of fans living near its grounds, although about three-quarters of both clubs' season-ticket holders live in the Northwest. Despite their hugely contrasting fortunes, both groups of fans live in broadly similar areas. These patterns also reflect to some extent the depopulation of the city centre and the "flight to the suburbs" of working-class and socially mobile populations.
So there may be two realities: one statistical, indicating relatively strong local and regional support for both; the other to do with popular perception and the way living in Manchester has become contested "cultural capital" for fans. This generates its own dynamics and is central to understanding the city's football culture.
"Mancunianness" is a symboliser of legitimacy as a football fan and is a striking reassertion of the local by both sets of fans - a construction of imagined fan communities - in a globalising cultural form, a process described elsewhere as "glocalisation".
There are, however, significant contradictions in both sets of fans'
characterisations of "the other". The emphasis of United fans on their locality is partly a reaction to commercial changes in the club that they view as threatening, but also to challenges to their status in terms of location. Yet to demonstrate United's superiority, fans celebrate the club's size and commercial success, something implicitly supportive of a club hierarchy they criticise.
City fans are keen to highlight their local roots, yet they regard their club as potentially and rightfully as "big" as United, aspiring to the very type of club they attack United for being. The range of different and constantly renegotiated fan constituencies and the variety of new ways in which football is consumed suggest that any fixed fan or club characterisation is problematic.
Those who run the clubs seem to take a very different approach. Chris Bird, City's chief operating officer, talks of the need to "create unity and stability" and says "we're a community-based football club that has strong Manchester roots, that is determined not to become a middle-class football club". United's chief executive, Peter Kenyon, refers to the aim of "developing the brand globally" and "monetising the global fan base".
Yet at both clubs, corporate governance structures have been introduced that are changing the relationship of fan and club to one between customer and company. There has been an uneven development of this, with United recognised as being in a completely different commercial league to other clubs, and certainly to City. However, with City's imminent move to the City of Manchester stadium and a developing commercial strategy, the convergence in approach may continue.
Both clubs have experienced conflict with fans, although this is more pronounced at United, whose development as a global brand has antagonised some local interests. Although City fans have campaigned against individual chairmen, United's local fan base is considerably more "politicised" in a formal sense. This is partly a result of the bitter and successful campaign against BSkyB's proposed takeover of the club in 1998, but also due to the presence of unified, often overtly political fanzines alongside a successful independent supporters' group.
Less formally, almost all supporter groups of both clubs have a critical common sense about the way the game has developed, characterised by a deep sense of exclusion. Fans are excluded from football in different ways: economic exclusion due to hugely increasing costs; barriers to young people in accessing tickets; a perception by older fans that the clubs and game no longer care about them; and the exclusion of forms of behaviour, such as standing at matches. These forms of exclusion occur within a sport and a city that has increasingly expounded an inclusionary agenda and potentially undermines both projects.
There are, however, a number of ways in which collective fan activities represent instances of social cohesion - developing relationships and skills as supporter-club organisers, campaigners or writers, for example. We also saw new communal consumption practices in evidence - such as watching matches in pubs or discussing them on internet sites. This leads us to suggest that any assessment of the social benefits of sport needs to be broadened from just playing sport to other forms of participation.
The clubs have responded to criticism by fans with new consultative structures and some innovations such as a freeze on season-ticket prices at City's new stadium and the creation of a "fanzone" within Old Trafford. However, the consultative structures do little to democratise clubs or empower fans and have been limited in their appeal; and attempts to recreate a ground atmosphere from a bygone age by blunt institutional instruments look unlikely to succeed.
As we have watched and spoken to fans, it has been clear that for a game that has historically been closely tied to its social roots, there is genuine concern that it is becoming part of a broader, more bourgeois leisure experience. Yet, as we approach the final Maine Road derby between the two clubs on November 9, it is difficult not to be struck by the extent to which the old and the new in football coexist and the nature in which fans, collectively, have responded and adapted.
Adam Brown is senior research fellow at the Manchester Institute for Popular Culture at Manchester Metropolitan University.