On Saturday afternoon, Manchester United chief executive Richard Arnold received a phone call while at his family home in a leafy Cheshire village.
It was, essentially, a polite warning to say that more than a dozen United supporters had organised to meet up and protest at Arnold’s house. The protest, organised by an activist group of fans called “The 1958”, represented the latest flashpoint in a stream of discontent against the club’s continued ownership by the Glazer family and the perceived mismanagement of United since the Americans completed a highly leveraged takeover in 2005.
Before heading to Arnold’s home, however, the group had gathered at a local pub. As such, Arnold was faced with a decision: hunker down indoors as they publicised a protest outside his house or confront the issue head-on.
He decided to be proactive, partly to address the concerns of supporters and because nobody would enjoy their wife and children being exposed to a protest outside their house. Arnold went to the same pub, bought the supporters pints of beer, and discussed their concerns with them. He politely asked that the contents of the conversation be kept private and not be filmed but footage of the meeting soon made its way onto social media. It has created a spate of headlines, most notably about the club’s pursuit of Barcelona midfielder Frenkie de Jong, dressing-room leaks, United’s wastefulness in the transfer market, the Glazers’ ownership and, in Arnold’s own words, the “fucking nightmare” of the past year at the club.
A United spokesperson said: “Richard heard that a group of fans had gathered in a pub near his house. He went to meet them, bought them all a drink, listened to their views, and explained what the club is doing to deliver success on the pitch, improve the stadium, and strengthen engagement with fans.”
United, for their part, are a listed company on the New York Stock Exchange and the sight of a leading executive detailing his plans to strangers is an unusual one.
Then again, the idea of an executive receiving a hostile visit at his private residence is pretty abnormal, too.
The Athletic understands United are relaxed and supportive of Arnold’s decision to address the supporters.
Here, we analyse the motivations behind Saturday’s events and the details Arnold divulged.
Who is Richard Arnold and why are supporters protesting against him?
Arnold, 51, has become the new lightning rod for disgruntled United supporters since he replaced the unpopular Ed Woodward in February. Woodward had tendered his resignation in April 2021, following the collapse of the European Super League, but remained in his post until the end of the calendar year. Arnold is a long-serving executive within the Glazer ownership of United, first joining in 2007 as group commercial director before being promoted to the role of group managing director in 2013.
Arnold’s start to life at United has been hugely challenging on and off the field. Sweeping changes have followed. On the playing side, the club’s football director John Murtough decided to appoint Dutch coach Erik ten Hag as the permanent manager after a dismal season in which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked before Christmas and a failed interim experiment with Ralf Rangnick in interim charge for the remainder of the campaign followed.
Among other numerous personnel changes, United have sought to modernise and strengthen their football structure by hiring Andy O’Boyle as the assistant football director and Dominic Jordan as their first director of data science. The club are also accelerating plans to modernise both their stadium and training ground, by hiring master planners to provide recommendations as to whether Old Trafford should be refurbished, renovated or rebuilt altogether.
On a more corporate level, the club have lost long-serving executives such as chief strategy officer Hemen Tseayo in May and Matt Judge, the director of football negotiations, whose departure was announced in April (although Judge is serving out a notice period). United also confirmed that chief scout Jim Lawlor and head of global scouting Marcel Bout have left, and they have streamlined their scouting operations.
Yet such changes behind the scenes have done little to assuage the concerns of supporters who have not seen their club truly compete in a title race since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in the summer of 2013. Last season, the club recorded their worst points finish of the Premier League era (58, to title-winning neighbours Manchester City’s 93 and 92 for arch-rivals and runners-up Liverpool).
In matches against those two clubs, United lost home and away to both, conceding 15 goals and scoring only once.
Over the first 10 days of the summer transfer window, United supporters have seen Liverpool reinforce by signing Darwin Nunez from Benfica while Manchester City have bought fellow striker Erling Haaland from Borussia Dortmund. The situation for United is more acute, too, because their squad has lost Paul Pogba, Edinson Cavani, Jesse Lingard, Juan Mata and Nemanja Matic, all at the end of their contracts.
United fans have protested regularly against the Glazer family’s management of the club and the family’s role in the conception of the Super League last April renewed hostilities between the support and the boardroom. The following month, a Premier League fixture between United and Liverpool at Old Trafford was eventually called off due to protests outside and inside Old Trafford.
There have also been demonstrations at the club’s training ground and, during one particularly poor run of form in January 2020, then executive vice-chairman Woodward had his home attacked by supporters.
In the stands at matches, some supporters have chanted songs such as “Ed Woodward, he’s gonna die”.
On social media, The 1958 wing of United supporters has emerged in recent times.
The group’s Twitter bio describes it as “an underground group of reds intent on upholding the values of Manchester United, its culture and traditions”. This group is separate from the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust and the newly formed fan advisory board that has an ongoing behind-the-scenes dialogue with United personnel, including Arnold, via meetings and fan forums. This has contributed to an 11th consecutive year of flat season ticket prices and the development of a fan share scheme.
The 1958, however, want the Glazers to sell the club, and there are plenty of supporters who share that view. They have previously targeted club sponsors in the hope partners will stop working with United, which they believe in turn could encourage the Glazers to sell up. The 1958 followed the guerrilla approach of direct action and this reaped dividends when they met Arnold on Saturday. Arnold was disappointed when footage of the conversation was subsequently leaked but he was aware that was always a risk. He had taken the supporters at their word that the meeting would remain private.
As a result of the leaks, United supporters globally have seen and heard the real views of their new chief executive.
Woodward’s exit was not mourned by supporters and those familiar with Arnold’s work and personality say he is seeking to empower different departments within the club, rather than micromanaging aspects that are not his field of expertise (this was one of the frequent criticisms made of Woodward).
He has also kept his head down, from a public and media perspective, since taking on the job. For example, when Ten Hag was announced as the new manager, the club’s announcement was accompanied by quotes from football director Murtough, rather than by Arnold.
On Saturday, however, he broke cover…
What did Arnold say about the club’s performance in the transfer market?
In one clip posted on social media, Arnold appears to be discussing United’s approach to acquiring players. This followed a question from a supporter essentially asking why the club are not backing new manager Ten Hag or moving faster in this summer’s transfer market.
According to a study by the Football Observatory published in February this year, United had recorded (at that point) a higher net spend than any other club in Europe during the past 10 seasons. They had paid €1.3 billion in transfer fees and brought in only €395 million from sales. This is the essence of a point Arnold made to the supporters.
Speaking at the pub, Arnold said: “We spent a billion pounds on players, we spent more than anyone in Europe. I am not thrilled where we are, right? It doesn’t sit easy. I worry. We have to get this sorted for the future but what’s happened is we fucking burned through cash. You can’t go to our training ground and say, ‘By the way, show me where that billion pounds is here’. I don’t think we’ve done well with the money we have spent historically.”
It is rare to hear executives of a listed company speak with such candour about a company’s poor performance and United fans may be reassured to hear recognition of the mistakes that have occurred at the club, as well as an admission that this must improve.
United’s approach to recruitment has long attracted criticism, as they are perceived to have either excessively backed a head coach/manager on transfers (perhaps against the best interests of the club in the long term) or, in some cases, failing to sufficiently support a coach in the market.
This was exemplified when they did not recruit a centre-back for Jose Mourinho in the summer of 2018, only six months after handing the Portuguese coach a new contract.
What about this summer and Frenkie de Jong?
Manchester United are engaged in continuing conversations with Barcelona over the signing of Netherlands international Frenkie de Jong. There is, however, disagreement between the clubs about the price.
Barcelona want more than £80 million for the midfielder, but United believe that is excessive. They believe they can negotiate the Catalan club down. United know Barcelona’s financial situation remains grave and they do not see a need to rush the deal through purely to satisfy supporters who may be growing impatient.
One reason is that the player is now on holiday after this month’s international fixtures and is not scheduled to return to club training – wherever this may be – until the second week of July. As such, United intend to carry on negotiating for a player Murtough and Ten Hag both wish to sign, but insist they will do so only at the right price.
In one clip from Saturday, Arnold pushed back on suggestions that United are not backing their manager.
He said: “We’ve blown through an enormous amount of money. This summer, the money that the manager and director of football want is there.
He was also filmed saying: ”Money is not a consideration in who we want. It’s if the manager wants him, that they’ve actually done the work on looking if he’s a great player. Is it (the budget) 100 or is it 200 (million)?
“‘Here’s the money, right. John… you are the fucking director of football’. ‘Erik, you are the manager. Who d’you want?’
“Do you want me buying the players? Doesn’t that ring a bell?”
Arnold would almost certainly have phrased these lines more delicately had he known they would have ended up on the internet but the basic point he makes here is that as the chief executive, with a background in commercial, he is delegating the job of recruitment to his football director, Murtough, and first-team manager, Ten Hag.
He also makes clear that the club are giving money to the manager but have allocated a finite budget for this summer’s transfer window and Arnold wishes to empower the experts in their fields to spend that money how they choose.
As such, if Murtough and Ten Hag conclude that De Jong is so important to the rebuild that they wish to spend £80 million on the 25-year-old, who played under Ten Hag for 18 months at Dutch club Ajax before a summer 2019 move to Barcelona, then Arnold would be supportive. Equally, he would be comfortable with Murtough’s position that the club have their own value for De Jong and are not prepared to overpay on that deal, as they still wish to spend money on other areas of the squad.
Fans aked is De Jong done:
Richard Arnold: pic.twitter.com/WH5NJQb63B
— Paul, Manc Bald and Bred (@MufcWonItAll) June 18, 2022
In the final line of the above quotes, Arnold says, “Do you want me buying the players? Doesn’t that ring a bell?”
This has been interpreted as an insight into his view of the previous executive vice-chairman Woodward, who took a more hands-on approach to player trading and received a huge amount of criticism during his near-decade in the top job at United.
On Sunday, sources close to Arnold insisted he did not intend this as a knock on his predecessor and also underlined that Woodward himself recognised the club’s structure needed to change following years of poor recruitment.
It was, for example, Woodward who appointed Murtough as football director but the empowerment of specialists at the club and delegation has certainly increased under Arnold.
This is the case not only in the football side of the club but also across commercial and the management of the stadium.
What did Arnold say about the supporters targeting the club’s sponsors?
In March last year, United signed a £47 million-per-year deal with the global technology company TeamViewer to be the main sponsor on the chests of the players’ match-day shirts. After the Super League debacle, the 1958 group set about encouraging fans to target the firm online.
On Trustpilot, an online review platform where consumers can provide feedback about a company, United fans posted negatively about TeamViewer. At one point, it left 86 per cent of the company’s visible reviews on the platform judged as “bad” and an overall rating of 1.3 out of 5 for TeamViewer.
One poster went under the name of “Paul Pogba”, writing: “Terrible software, gave my PC malware. Definitely do not recommend.”
Another read: “Immoral company that will act as accomplices to horrible acts against things you hold dear.”
Addressing the targeting of sponsors, Arnold told the group at the pub: “The protests: OK, protest to me, it’s my job I should take it. Protest to the owners. The sponsors have put money into our club, they shouldn’t get punished — what have they done wrong?”
Arnold on the Glazers and sponsors:
“They’re rock hard, They’re not frightened.” pic.twitter.com/bI3Iz0NMWC
— Paul, Manc Bald and Bred (@MufcWonItAll) June 18, 2022
Arnold also made the argument that it is in the interest of United supporters to protect the club’s relationships with partners and sponsors, as the money is crucial to aspirations to renovate the stadium and training ground. United’s cash reserves have been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and the sustained underperformance of the team over several years.
He told the fans: “I am not here to defend Joel (Glazer) or the shareholders. They can speak for themselves. I wanted to talk to you. You’ve taken the time and energy to come here today and make your views known. I respect that.
“For the future, for investing in a new stadium and that sort of stuff — to do a latest and greatest £250 million training ground, OK, we have got to do something.
“We have to get investors in and, again, I need that to do what I want for the club. I have got to have more cash than we have now because (building) a new stadium… no club in the world has the money to do a new stadium without getting it from someone. Nobody generates that. You either borrow or someone invests it, right? Spurs got a £1 billion mortgage.
“The money has got to come from somewhere and you may not like our current owners. OK, I can’t help that. But if you want someone else to come in, they have to look and say, ‘OK, the fans love the club they love the team. It’s positive’.”
Arnold’s admission that United require investment will trigger speculation as to how the club intends to raise the money.
This could, speaking theoretically, be funded via a rights issue or a strategic external investor or by raising debt, but there is no suggestion United are considering these options as they remain at the consultancy stage with the master planners.
One supporter continued his debate with Arnold, moving the conversation back to sponsors. The fan said that their logic is that if sponsors pull out, it will put pressure on the Glazers to sell United.
Arnold responded: “Does it really? You know what it was like in 2005. Pressure was put on the owners not to buy the club and they bought the club anyway. If you want to think of them that way, they’re rock hard.”
The fan interjected: “They don’t care, I understand that.”
Arnold said: “‘Don’t care’ is the wrong word, they’re not frightened of people.”
The fan continued: “When you look at how they are with the clubs in America, though. They treat them totally different to how they have this club.” (The Glazers own the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl last year after signing Tom Brady, arguably the sport’s greatest current player, the previous off-season.)
Arnold responded: “This is the bit where, ‘What’s my role as CEO?’, right? Make sure John (Murtough) does his job on football, OK? ‘The money is there. Get on with it, John’.”
In this exchange, Arnold is attempting to make clear to supporters that the Glazers will not be spooked by the chants against them or the pressure applied to partners.
A balanced counter-view would be that it is obviously in Arnold’s interests to make that point, to discourage fans from continuing to target sponsors.
What did Arnold have to say about the mood around the club and the dressing room?
At one point in the conversation, Arnold is asked about the negative stories that emanated from the United dressing room during last season, according to the fans’ account of the meeting. He apparently told the supporters that he believes two of the main sources of leaks have now left the club, but he did not specify who they are.
The Athletic has not seen a clip of this part of the conversation, but this aspect of it has not been contested by United.
Arnold makes a plea for unity and sets out his ambition to bring the club, the players and the fans back together. Arnold describes last season as a “fucking nightmare”. He says: “I was hating every game.”
A United source insisted to The Athletic on Sunday that Arnold is a genuinely passionate supporter, to the extent that there were newspaper reports that he irritated rival directors during the pandemic when football was played behind closed doors in near silence and he was felt to be a little too vocal.
Arnold told the supporters on Saturday: “I haven’t promised anything I haven’t done. I don’t tell lies and I front the issues as they are. I do respect your passion and how you have dealt with it. But I need some help from you, to be honest, because I can’t do it all. This sounds self-serving but we have not bottled you protesting, I love the passion that the fans have.
“The other thing we did, we said any team in the country that doesn’t give our away fans our 3,000 (allocation), we are going to reciprocate. We got full allocations at every stadium. You know what our away fans are like, they are lively. My kids go to away games, they are lively in there. Best fans in the world.”
He outlined the impact of the club’s malaise and picked out young forwards Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho as examples of players who need support and encouragement under the new regime.
Arnold reflected: “It’s just been horrible. You look at it, a lot of our players are young. They are young lads, they came back from a torrid time… Rashford, Sancho (after last summer’s European Championship, where both missed penalties as England lost the final to Italy in a shootout). The abuse they got after the Euros, they came back and had a difficult season. The crowd were on them. I’m not surprised their confidence is shot.
“I want to put us back together as a club, so we are all together. We are all pulling to be successful.
“I’m going to do my bit with John (Murtough) to make sure the money is there. That’s all I can do. I’m going to talk to any fan and answer any email.”
(Top photo: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)