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Manchester United match postponed after fans invade Old Trafford in protest of American owners

Supporters protest Manchester United's owners inside Old Trafford stadium. (Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

Manchester United’s match Sunday against visiting Liverpool was postponed after fans invaded Old Trafford in protest of the team’s American ownership.

The match was initially delayed by the Premier League as police worked to clear protesters off the pitch and elsewhere at Old Trafford, Manchester United’s 111-year-old stadium. Players for both sides reportedly remained at the hotel where they had been staying rather than travel by bus through hundreds of protesters, who had also gathered at the hotel and in front of the stadium.

“Following discussion between the Police, The Premier League, Trafford Council and the clubs, our match against Liverpool has been postponed due to safety and security considerations around the protest today,” Manchester United said in a statement. “Discussions will now take place with the Premier League on a revised date for the fixture.

“Our fans are passionate about Manchester United, and we completely acknowledge the right to free expression and peaceful protest. However, we regret the disruption to the team and actions which put other fans, staff, and the police in danger. We thank the police for their support and will assist them in any subsequent investigations.”

As news of the postponement spread, some fans chanted, “We’ll decide when you can play.”

There were also protests last week outside Old Trafford before Manchester United played a road game at Leeds United, but Sunday’s stunning scene marked the first time fans gained illegal access to the stadium and paraded onto the field.

Fans have not been able to attend Premier League matches since last year, when coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions were enacted. The invasion quickly raised questions of whether areas were breached that are meant to be completely free of the virus.

Manchester United fans have never fully embraced the Florida-based Glazer family, which also owns the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and which took control of the storied Premier League club in 2005. That antipathy reached an unprecedented boiling point last month in the wake of an announcement by Manchester United and 11 other clubs of their intention to form an exclusive Super League. That venture promised to earn the clubs much more money but also threatened to badly damage the Champions League and upend much of the culture of European soccer, in which top club teams are connected through promotion and relegation to all the rungs of their respective domestic structures.

Amid strong condemnation from fans, prominent soccer governing bodies and European leaders such as British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron, the Super League quickly fell apart.

The Super League crashed on takeoff. English soccer fans are taking credit.

“You made very clear your opposition to the European Super League, and we have listened,” Manchester United co-owner Joel Glazer said in an April 21 statement. “We got it wrong, and we want to show that we can put things right. … This is the world’s greatest football club and we apologise unreservedly for the unrest caused during these past few days.”

In a team-organized forum with fans Friday, Manchester United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward sought to assure them that “we have learned our lesson from the events of the past week and we do not seek any revival of the Super League plans.” However, the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust called for a change in ownership structure.

“Joel Glazer’s subsequent apology is not accepted,” the trust said in a statement issued at the forum. “Actions speak louder than words and he and his family have shown time and again that their sole motivation is personal profit at the expense of our football club.”

During last week’s game at Leeds United, Manchester United fans flew a plane over that team’s stadium with a banner bearing an anti-Glazer message, and Sunday’s protests featured signs and chants calling for the ouster of the owners. Clashes with police were also reported outside Old Trafford.

Greater Manchester Police said two officers were injured Sunday, including one who required emergency treatment after getting slashed in the face with a bottle.

“The behaviour displayed today by those at both Old Trafford and The Lowry Hotel was reckless and dangerous,” a GMP official said in a statement. “We understand the passion many supporters have for their team and we fully respect the right for peaceful protest. Plans were in place to ensure this could happen safely, but it soon became clear that many present had no intention of doing so peacefully.”

Manchester United fans have long been unhappy with the Glazers for loading the club with debt during the family’s highly leveraged takeover, and the family has also been perceived by some as unresponsive to fans’ concerns and disengaged from the culture of British soccer. Fans are calling for a 51 percent controlling stake in the club to be held by supporters, as is common in Germany’s top-tier Bundesliga.

“It’s important that the fans’ views are listened to and that we communicate better,” United Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said Friday. “My job is to focus on the football side and that we have the best possible team. As I’ve said before, I’ve been backed, I’ve had great support from the club and the owners and I’m sure I will get the backing again to go one step further. But I’m so happy that all the clubs agreed that this shouldn’t be the way of moving forward.

“Then again, when the protests are on, it’s important that they go in a good fashion and that we keep it peaceful.”

Liverpool also was among the 12 clubs that would have formed the backbone of the Super League. Liverpool also has American ownership via Fenway Sports Group and principal owner John Henry, and its fans also have staged protests, as have fans of similarly American-owned and Super League-minded Arsenal.

“Liverpool Football Club was in full agreement with the decision to postpone today’s fixture as a result of ongoing events at Old Trafford and the surrounding area,” the club said in a statement. “It is our position that public safety must be the number one factor in any such decision, with the ability to provide a secure environment for the participants, staff and officials being a particular priority.

“It was clearly not possible for this to be guaranteed today due to a situation which escalated rapidly.”

“The security and safety of everyone at Old Trafford remains of paramount importance,” the Premier League said in a statement. “We understand and respect the strength of feeling but condemn all acts of violence, criminal damage and trespass, especially given the associated COVID-19 breaches. Fans have many channels by which to make their views known, but the actions of a minority seen today have no justification. We sympathise with the police and stewards who had to deal with a dangerous situation that should have no place in football.”