United, Liverpool fans see red over US owners

MANCHESTER, England (AP): As the Premier League's fiercest foes prepare to battle on the pitch on Sunday, supporters are united in a common hatred: American owners who have turned English football's most successful clubs into the most indebted.

"Yanks Out" is likely to be the common refrain booming around the 76,000-capacity Old Trafford on Sunday when Manchester United and Liverpool meet, while most of the home support will twirl green-and-gold protest scarves.

The protesters have even won government support, with Prime Minister Gordon Brown complaining that in football "debt levels have been at a leverage level that is too high."

But United club secretary Ken Ramsden dismissed protests by both sets of fans, telling The Associated Press: "It's all about the football played on the field, not in the board rooms."

And will supporters be straining their voices in vain against immovable enemies?

Liverpool fans have been directing bile at Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr. almost since the day their leveraged takeover was completed three years ago. The tycoons have defied such hostility to remain in charge at Anfield, even though their stakes will be diluted by an external injection of at least 100 million pounds ($150 million) urgently required to reduce the 237 million-pound debt burden.

Liverpool's cash constraints - and lack of investment in players _ have been brought into sharp focus this season by the dramatic downturn in the team's fortunes.

Runners-up in the Premier League and Champions League quarterfinalists last season, Rafa Benitez's side is fifth domestically and crashed out of Europe's elite competition at the group stage.

How Liverpool fans envy the success - if not the debt - of local rival Man United.

The Red Devils have won a hat trick of league titles - matching Liverpool's record haul of 18 in May - while remaining on course for another and a third straight European final.

But the Glazer family's 2005 takeover saw one of the world's most profitable clubs suddenly burdened by debt that currently stands at 709 million pounds - more than the total of Germany's top 36 clubs.

After initial grumbles, the mutiny lay largely dormant until January.

Concern was voiced last year that only a quarter of the 80-million pound windfall from Cristiano Ronaldo's transfer to Real Madrid had been reinvested, while United threaten to be usurped by the new free-spending regime at Manchester City.

But the spark that reignited the anger was a 320-page prospectus sent to prospective buyers in January of bonds in United, which laid bare the club's financial predicament and how the Glazers could take cash out of the coffers.

The seven-year bond issue did raise 504 million pounds to replace long-term financing and reduce debts to hedge funds, but it also helped dissenting fans' mobilize against the Glazers.

"The reason for the lull in the protests was that the initial campaign was to prevent a takeover and it did appear that the battle was lost," Manchester United Supporters Trust chief executive Duncan Drasdo said. "People felt there was nothing they could immediately do about it. We kept the organization going, but it wasn't growing.

"But when the prospectus came out it made people sit up. It told the story we'd be telling prior - and since takeover - about what the Glazers would do with the financial management."

MUST's membership has soared from 36,000 since January's bond issue to 142,760 by Saturday. - thanks in part to Internet strategy agency Blue State Digital, which helped to rally online support behind Barack Obama's election to the White House in 2008.

But the visual symbol of the protests is the simple scarf. In January, MUST began producing them in green-and-gold - the colors of Newton Heath, the club's original incarnation - rather than the usual red and black.

Supply can barely match demand and they dominate the stands at Old Trafford.

"The fans wear them because they love this club," defender Patrice Evra said. "They have their reasons for doing it and we don't think that they're crazy. They'd like things to change."

Even former United star David Beckham draped himself in one of the scarves as he left the pitch following AC Milan's match here earlier this month, turning him into the poster-boy of the rebellion without speaking out in support.

But on the same Champions League night, a student working in a food and drink kiosk lost his job for donning the protest scarf, reflecting the uneasiness within the hierarchy.

No player has spoken out since Evra earlier this month, with captain Gary Neville repeatedly blanking questions.

Manager Alex Ferguson, though, is alert to the dangers of a mass uprising.

"Some of our fans are clearly unhappy with our financial position, but we mustn't allow the situation to become divisive," said Ferguson, who has been in charge since 1986. "I could see our opponents rubbing their hands with glee at the thought of watching us fall out among ourselves if we don't think carefully about what we are doing."

MUST's campaign is about more than scarves: the fans are trying to collectively buy United. The plan to emulate European champion Barcelona is gathering pace, unlike moves for a fan-led buyout of Liverpool, which have floundered since being unveiled two years ago.

Crucially, the takeover bid being formed in Manchester under the "Red Knights" banner involves not just MUST but leading financiers, including Jim O'Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs.

Japanese investment bank Nomura has been engaged to lead the search to raise around 800 million pounds from both regular supporters and tycoons, with the aim of submitting a bid by the summer.

While United chief executive David Gill has defiantly insisted that the club is not for sale, the Glazers are yet to break five years of silence.

And the Red Knights only have to remember that United's message last year was that Ronaldo was not for sale - until they cashed in on the then-world player of the year in June.

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