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Manchester Education Committee (MEC)

Manchester Education Committee (MEC)

YEAR ESTABLISHED OR BECAME ACTIVE: 2004

USUAL AREA OF OPERATION: United Kingdom

OVERVIEW

The Manchester Education Committee (MEC) is a group of militant Manchester United soccer fans opposed to the takeover of their club by the American businessman, Malcolm Glazer. Their emergence in 2004–2005 represented a new brand of soccer hooliganism, a blight that has long marred the English game.

HISTORY

In 2004, the U.S.-based businessman and owner of the NFL franchise, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, upped moves to buy the English soccer club, Manchester United. United is the richest club in the world, and by some margin, bestsupported club in Britain. An outstanding run of success in the 1990s also made its trophy room among the most glittering on the planet. Glazer had long held a significant shareholding in United, but through 2004 and early 2005, he increased it until it reached a level at which he could make a formal takeover bid. He succeeded in this in February 2005.

Glazer's bid to buy Manchester United was treated with universal derision by its famously passionate fans. At the root of many complaints was the way the deal had been structured: Glazer possessed only around one-third of the £800 million (US $1.3 billion) needed to buy the club and intended to saddle United with the shortfall, which would be paid off by United's profits over a number of years. Fans feared that it was they who would end up picking up Glazer's tab through increased ticket prices and that the squad would suffer through lack of investment.

Different Manchester United fans reacted in different ways to the impending takeover of their club. One group, believing that the essence of United had been sold, formed a breakaway side, named FC United, which they entered into a minor league the following summer with the intention of it rising through the football pyramid. Other fans took a more direct approach, organizing protests before, after, and even during games.

A more shadowy group also emerged—calling itself the Manchester Education Committee (MEC)—which took a more extremist approach to defending the future of United. From 2004, it threatened and intimidated individuals that had sold shares to Glazer (this included vandalizing a United director's car) and bombarded both Glazer and those even tentatively associated with the family with telephone calls, emails, and faxes. On one occasion, around thirty MEC members wearing balaclavas invaded the pitch during a reserve team match and unfurled anti-Glazer banners.

As the takeover neared and the American made a formal takeover offer for the club, the MEC issued a statement in the sort of language that seemed more rooted in the parlance of a Northern Irish paramilitary than that of a fan club. Warning of "consequences" if Glazer's latest offer was approved, it stated: "Any failure to maintain a rejectionist position in the face of Glazer's overtures will be regarded as an act of treachery—treachery that will place board members in an extremely vulnerable position for years to come … We trust that this is clear enough: offering either due diligence or a bid-recommendation to Glazer will be punished."

Ultimately, Glazer's takeover went through without much of the violence threatened by the MEC materializing, although the group now regard Manchester United's Old Trafford home as "occupied territory."

MEC exemplified the fierce passion aroused by English football, ardor that could quickly teeter over into extremism. Although they were not a conventional hooligan group and did not wage indiscriminate violence, in many ways they represented an age when the sport was beset by fan-instigated violence.

Indeed, football and violence seemed to be intrinsically linked. Even when it assumed its most basic form in the Middle Ages, the game had attracted trouble and was infamously banned outright by James II of Scotland. Even after a proper set of rules was formulated in the 1860s, it did little to improve things. In 1884, a match between Preston and Bolton Wanderers at Deepdale saw the visitors win, which irked the locals: "Orange peel and cinders were thrown at the goalkeeper," noted one eyewitness. "Stones, kicks and blows aimed at players and away spectators at the end of the game, hardly a member of the Wanderers party, i.e. players and spectators got to the station intact." At Everton, there was a riot in 1895 when a match was abandoned; a year later, there was serious trouble at a Scotland v. England match, and so it went on. From 1895–1915, the FA closed grounds on eight occasions and issued seventeen cautions to clubs as to the future conduct of their fans. Between 1921 and 1939, there were eight closures again, but this time sixty-four cautions.

LEADERSHIP

NICK TOWLE

The leader of the Manchester Education Committee is unknown, but it is widely assumed that the organization operates as a militant splinter of the more mainstream group, Shareholders United. Nick Towle is Shareholders United's chairman and has acted as one of the leading opponents to the Glazer family's takeover of Manchester United. He has not advocated violence or extremism under his watch, although Shareholders United have in the past pledged that they are willing to "get dirty" with the Glazer family.

It was only in the 1950s and 1960s that the crowd violence increasingly associated with English football crept upon the national consciousness. Trains were wrecked by traveling fans, bottles thrown onto pitches, fighting broke out on the terraces, opposing supporters were ambushed and terrorized, and pubs ransacked. By the 1970s and early 1980s, football hooliganism was all pervasive and largely responsible for a drop in attendances that plunged the game into recession. During this period, the wrong-colored scarf worn in the wrong place would make almost any fan a target, sometimes with appalling consequences. As one fan put it: "If you ran you got caught and were given a good hiding and if you stayed and fought the local police would try and arrest you."

English fans following their clubs overseas in European competition or watching the England national team abroad reinforced the perception that they were the black sheep of world football. A riot in Turin in 1980 while England was playing a European championship match against Belgium led Italian police to fire tear gas at supporters, which then drifted over to the field of play and affected the players. In 1982, England fans fought pitched battles with Denmark supporters in the streets of Copenhagen. The horrific denouement of English football hooliganism came in May 1985 at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels, when a combination of drunken Liverpool fans charging at Juventus supporters and a dilapidated stadium caused a wall to collapse, killing thirty-nine people. Three years later, at the European Championships in West Germany, German and Dutch fans seeking to topple England supporters from their position as the "worst of the worst" provoked large-scale running battles through the streets of Stuttgart and Düsseldorf, which caused £500,000 worth of damage. The events prompted the British Minister for Sport, Colin Moynihan, who had been trying to implement draconian legislation to deal with football fans, to describe England's supporters as "the effluent tendency."

Ironically for Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government, football hooliganism was a guaranteed vote winner. Although crowd violence could be horrific, the problem was exaggerated by the British news media, causing what has been described as a "moral panic." The government gleefully sought to clamp down on the problem with a raft of measures that largely misunderstood the phenomena, but which earned it unstinting support from those sections of the population concerned about the violence.

On April 16, 1989, at an FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest at the Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield, a crush of Liverpool supporters against the high metal fencing designed to keep the hooligans away from the pitch killed ninety-six people. The crush had been due to the failings of the police force in charge rather than hooliganism, but there was only one reason why the fence had been there. The subsequent inquiry into the Hillsborough Disaster by Lord Justice Taylor led to a massive investment in English football stadia, which kick-started the game's return to respectability. Policing improved also.

Violence returned periodically during the 1990s and beyond—for example, an Ireland v. England match in Dublin was abandoned in 1995 because of a riot; fighting between Millwall and Liverpool fans in 2004 saw several prison sentences handed out—but far from being the norm, they proved to be the exception. One of the reasons the MEC attracted so much attention was because they emerged during such a comparatively peaceful stage in English football's history.

PHILOSOPHY AND TACTICS

What prompts football-related violence is the perennial question pondered by a succession of sociologists who have studied the problem. As with the MEC, the motivation boils down to tribalism and the sense that fans are defending the honor and integrity of their team. Some football supporters—arguably a majority—are more ready to identify with their team than their city, nationality, or religion. Minor violence between Everton and Liverpool fans is not uncommon, despite the teams being separated less than a mile geographically, and some families within the city of Liverpool being split along blue and red lines (the respective colors of the two clubs).

At the height of football hooliganism in the 1970s and 1980s, violence was often indiscriminately waged against rival fans. Like soldiers in battle, hooligans would pick off scarves, rosettes, and other souvenirs denoting the allegiance of their victims. Although most clubs had at least one gang whose notoriety was well known—the Chelsea Headhunters; the Inter City Firm (West Ham), the Soul Crew (Cardiff City), and so on—these tended to be comparatively small and loosely affiliated groups of likeminded individuals, who might instigate violence, but would not be responsible for it on a larger scale. Arranging ambushes of rival fans was often the extent of their organized activity.

Usually football hooliganism was spontaneous and indiscriminate, never more so than at the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985, when drunken Liverpool supporters took advantage of a poorly segregated and dilapidated stadium to attack Juventus fans of Turin, Italy. Thirty-nine people were crushed to death when a wall collapsed under the weight of fleeing supporters—something none of the instigators could have envisaged or intended.

Violence has almost never been directed at players. One exception was when the Manchester United midfielder, Nobby Stiles, had a dart thrown at him by a Liverpool supporter in the late 1960s. That incident virtually stands alone in the history of the English game.

Unlike Italian Ultras or South American Barras Barras, English football hooliganism has seldom had an overtly political side. Sometimes it bubbled over into racist chanting, although this was often spontaneous. The supporters of some clubs, particularly London-based sides like Chelsea, West Ham, and Millwall, have had links to the British far right, most notoriously Combat 18. It has been alleged that Combat 18 instigated the riot at an Ireland v. England match in Dublin in February 1995, which caused the game's abandonment. Previously, the National Front would occasionally use football grounds to pass out leaflets and recruit members. It has also been suggested that they infiltrated supporters groups to spread their racist invective. In 1984, England's Jamaican born winger, John Barnes, scored what is commonly credited as one of the greatest goals of all time, as England recorded an unlikely 2-0 victory over Brazil in the Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro. A section of the England support refused to recognize the 2-0 victory because a black man had scored one of the goals and at the airport they berated Football Association officials for picking Barnes. As the social commentator, James Walvin, put the widely reported attack: "A political organisation which could never expect more than a minimal coverage by the media at home—and a mere handful of votes at national elections—had secured massive, albeit notorious, coverage by the simple tactic of racial abuse."

KEY EVENTS

1950s–1960s:
Emergence of football hooliganism as an acknowledged social problem. Trains wrecked, bottles thrown on pitches, fighting between rival fans.
1970s:
English football becomes slowly dominated by a hooliganism problem.
1980:
Rioting between England and Belgian fans in Turin leads to tear gas fired by Italian police.
1984:
In a widely publicized incident, some England "fans" refuse to recognize John Barnes' goal v. Brazil on account of the color of his skin.
1985:
Heysel Stadium disaster: rioting Liverpool fans murder thirty-nine Juventus supporters.
1989:
Hillsborough Disaster: Ninety-six Liverpool supporters crushed to death; the recommendations made by the subsequent report into the disaster by Lord Justice Taylor revolutionize English football and virtually eradicate domestic hooliganism.
1998:
England fans involved in serious clashes with Algerian youths in Marseilles.
2004:
Emergence of Manchester Education Committee in wake of Malcolm Glazer's proposed takeover of Manchester United.

Since the Hillsborough Disaster, improved policing and better-equipped stadia have led to an inexorable decline in English football hooliganism. That which still occurs is usually carried out away from the grounds and is less indiscriminate, instigated as it often is by small, highly organized hardcore groups that arrange to meet like-minded groups from other teams. When it does occur on a larger scale, it tends to be overseas where the reputation gained in the 1970s and 1980s precedes English fans. Often, this is instigated by locals seeking to prove something against the so-called "kings" of football hooliganism and is usually responded to in kind. Most notably, this occurred in Marseilles at the 1998 World Cup when local Algerian youths attacked England supporters, leading to running battles throughout the city. It also occurs on a smaller scale in Eastern Europe, where football faces hooliganism problems of the kind experienced in England a generation ago.

Groups like the MEC, which proffer intimidation toward executives involved in the running of the sport, are generally exceptional. MEC's campaign came as part of a wider initiative to stop Malcolm Glazer from taking over Manchester United. Tactics included fans buying up shares, "flash" protests, and symbolic gestures, such as wearing black at a match to commemorate the "death" of United. Elsewhere, there have been reports of other club chairpersons and directors being targeted by disgruntled fans, although seldom on a basis that could be described as organized.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

The Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985, when rioting Liverpool fans were responsible for the deaths of thirty-nine Juventus supporters, marked the nadir of English football hooliganism. Andrew Hussey, Contributing Editor of the Observer Sports Monthly and a Liverpool supporter, has spent twenty years trying to make sense of what happened that evening. In 2005, he wrote: "Since the early 1970s English fans had been wreaking havoc in Europe and, at home, on each other. Their behaviour was received with platitudes and inertia from the media and the government. Those who ran the game, those who could do something about the bad grounds, the lousy security, the climate of hate and the racism, invariably looked away. Everybody who attended a match during this period knew that something was deeply wrong. Heysel changed everything about the culture of English football, much of it ultimately for the better …

"For a variety of reasons, it has not been quite expunged from memory. Perhaps it never will be. The hard line of Uefa has had far-reaching consequences for the game in England and there are still those who talk regretfully about lost opportunities and a lost generation of English players … The truth is that the collapsed wall at Heysel was a deadly metaphor for the gathering destructive forces that brought English football culture to its knees. Most significantly, Heysel marked the culmination of a long trajectory of violence and neglect in England's football culture, which, despite the success of its clubs in Europe, was heading inexorably for self-destruction. Looking back, it is a miracle that anyone has made it out of the wreckage."

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Harry Mount noted how well simple crowd-control methods—"all-seater stadiums, body searches, tight stewarding, no alcohol or bottles on the terraces"—had worked in the twenty years since Heysel, but also how football authorities in other countries could learn from the English example. "England was once the world-beater when it came to football violence," he wrote. "Violence has now, to all intents and purposes, been wiped out in this country … The violence has gone because the violent people who are still drawn to football have been effectively penned into the little square foot marked out by their plastic, moulded bucket seats.

"While the violent English are reined in on the terraces, if not on the pitch or the dance floor, violent Italians can go on behaving as appallingly as they did last week … [At] the badly designed Stadio delle Alpi, Juventus supporters were able to rain bottles down on the heads of Liverpool supporters conveniently gathered beneath them in a low tier. Meanwhile, in Milan, where AC Milan were playing Inter Milan, there was mayhem. It was hard to spot the ball for all the flares, bottles and keys thrown at the pitch. One flare hit the AC Milan goalkeeper, and the match was abandoned. So, twenty years after the pariahs of Europe—the English clubs—were banned from European competitions for five years (and Liverpool for seven years), the English are the choirboys, and their erstwhile Italian victims are allowed to run wild.

"And not because the Italians are naturally any more violent than English fans. Quite the opposite. When I went to Fiorentina games in Florence a decade ago, the elegant, trim fans wore green, padded husky jackets and sipped espresso rather than lager before the game. The banners around the stadium, overlooking the Duomo, advertised a Salvador Dali exhibition in the centre of town. But even these civilised men had a taste for violence, a taste that has been allowed to remain unchecked. The pockets of the padded jackets were openly stuffed with flares. It is time for a rare thing: for the English to teach the Italians how to behave."

SUMMARY

Football-related violence in England has gone into a dramatic decline in the last fifteen years. Although it still resurfaces from time to time—primarily at matches played overseas—improved policing, all-seater stadia, and a shift in mentality post-Heysel and post-Hillsborough have seen hooliganism confined to all but a small and closely knit minority, who tend to keep their violence among themselves. The emergence of the Manchester Education Committee represented a new breed of football "extremists," although their brand of intimidation and minor violence shared few of the characteristics commonly associated with football hooliganism.

SOURCES

Books

Corbett, James. England Expects. London: Aurum, 2006.

Walvin, James. Football and the Decline of Britain. London and New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Murphy, Patrick, et al. Football on Trial: Spectator Violence and Development in the Football World. Oxford: Routledge, 1990.

Web sites

Observer Sports Monthly. "Lost Lives That Saved A Sport." 〈http://football.guardian.co.uk/News_Story/0,1563,1448505,00.html〉 (accessed October 20, 2005).

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