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Act of desperation is ultimate expression of fan powerlessness 

A lone saxophonist was playing in the sunshine outside Old Trafford on Sunday evening. This was after the tumult, after the crowds had been pushed back, after the police had regained control of the concourse outside the megastore, before the inevitable 0-0 draw between Manchester United and Liverpool had finally been called off. And on another surreal and poignant day in English football, it was possible to hear in those breezy notes a lament for something that had been lost, something that even now might never be recovered.

Earlier in the day, by all accounts, the mood had been mutinous, bordering on euphoric. We knew on some level that the few dozen United fans who managed to infiltrate the Old Trafford pitch must have been motivated by some intense and bottled anger. But as they cavorted on the famous turf, grabbing souvenirs, hurling tripods, gurning at the deserted directors’ box, they didn’t look particularly angry. They, like those protesting outside, looked giddy with excitement.

To understand the wave of protest currently engulfing some of the biggest clubs in the game, you need to grasp that emotional binary. Who said wrestling back our national game from the oligarchs and private equity funds couldn’t also be a top day out with the lads? In the coming days there will doubtless be a good deal of focus on the tangible grievances that have brought football fans on to the streets: malignant owners, inequitable power structures, unfit governance. But underpinning it all is something far less tangible: a deep yearning among disconnected, locked-out supporters simply to feel something again.

And so they gathered in early afternoon outside Old Trafford, a giant merchandise stall with a football stadium attached, to turn the air green and gold. “We decide when you will play,” they chanted at the players blockaded inside the Lowry hotel. “We want Glazers out,” they sang at their absentee owners an ocean away, who probably weren’t even listening. There was a banner reading: “Free Cardboard Protest Sign When You Spend Over £50 In The Megastore – J Glazer.”

All good clean fun, in the most part. But then of course there were the few who managed to breach the barricades, set off flares, break glass. Again, in the coming days you will see the actions of this tiny minority grossly amplified in an attempt to recast the protest as some sort of violent riot.

You will hear lots of mealy‑mouthed moralising about trespass, damage to property, Covid breaches. “A dangerous situation that should have no place in football,” was how the Premier League reacted, and without wishing to downplay the public safety element let’s not pretend this was the main story here.

Fans protest on the Old Trafford concourse in what felt like the last refuge of people whose every last avenue had been closed to them. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In fact, the Premier League’s reaction to the protests encapsulated the sense of alienation and disenfranchisement that engendered them in the first place. By firmly siding with its rights-holders and property‑owning class, it simply reminded us where the power in the game currently resides and has arguably always resided. For all the lip service English football pays to fan culture and the importance of its supporter base, days such as this are when the mask slips, when you understand why so many of its powerbrokers yearn to move these games to Dubai or Jeddah, where the threat of direct action is – shall we say – somewhat sparser.

And so the overwhelming reaction here is not exhilaration but sadness. As tempting as it was to get swept up in the insurgent thrill, what really unfolded at Old Trafford on Sunday was an act of pure desperation: the last refuge of a group of men and women whose every last avenue had been closed to them. Fan power? Alas, no. It was, in many ways, the ultimate expression of fan powerlessness.

How did we reach this point? How has one the world’s richest and most successful clubs let it come to this? As with any popular uprising, the wounds are many. Clearly the aborted breakaway European Super League, coming hot on the heels of Project Big Picture, was the short-term trigger. But really the breach in trust has been years in the making.

It began with the blithe arrogance of that initial leveraged buyout in 2005 (a move that as late as March 2004 the late Malcolm Glazer insisted he had “no intention” of making), and has bubbled along ever since, fuelled by a steady stream of new indignities. The increasingly haggard appearance of Old Trafford. The priorities of a board more concerned about partnering with global brands than with its own supporters. And let’s not forget the atrophy on the pitch as well: the embarrassing surrenders, the limp reactive football, the numerous unwanted Europa League campaigns, Marouane Fellaini in general.

Where do we go from here? In truth, the full spectrum of scenarios remains open at this point. The Glazers cannot be forced to sell, and it’s hard to imagine that even a sustained protest movement would toxify the brand sufficiently to persuade them. And yet, the events of the last few weeks have shown that the ground on which English football stands is less firm than we once believed.

A pessimist might observe that it’s probably a stretch to expect a few guys with songs and banners to change the world for the better. An optimist would counter that it’s possibly the only thing that ever has.

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