Martin Edwards: Manchester United's unloved emperor
Written by Ben Dirs — November 6, 2017
IN Martin Edwards’ man cave is a trophy cabinet. In that trophy cabinet are miniature replicas of just about everything Manchester United won during his time in charge of the club. I won’t go into detail, but there are a lot of trophies.
I imagine Edwards creeping into that man cave late at night and pulling out one of them – perhaps the Champions League, or an FA Cup – falling to his knees and raising it above his head, accompanied by imaginary crowd noise. Because that’s about the only applause he’ll get.
Football fans aren’t known for their logic, but the attempt to whitewash Edwards from the most successful period in United’s history is quite peculiar.
During his tenure as chairman and chief executive, United won eight league titles, six FA Cups and the Champions League; Edwards hired arguably the greatest manager in the history of British football; he bought arguably United’s most influential player of the Premier League era, at a snip; he oversaw the rebuilding of Old Trafford and a new training facility; and he transformed United from a club in the doldrums into a corporate juggernaut.
But when Edwards left United in 2003, here’s what the spokesman of the Independent Supporters Association had to say: “I don’t think any of United’s success is down to Martin Edwards.” Even Peter Schmeichel, who wrote the foreword to Edwards’ recently published memoir, admitted: “Many disliked him, even hated him over the years.”
Back upstairs, in the living room of his big old gaff in Alderley Edge, Cheshire, I ask Edwards if United would have been as successful without him at the helm. Spotting a potential trap, he prefers to put things another way.
“I’m not disappointed with what I left behind. When I took over as chairman in 1980, we made £210,000 that year. For a few years after that, we lost money. But when I stepped down as chief exec in 2000, we’d just been named the wealthiest sporting franchise in the world. It’s a nonsense to say I played no part in it. And there’s no point in being bitter about nonsense.
“There was a rumour that I didn’t attend a game at Old Trafford until 1976, which was six years after I joined the board. That’s absolute nonsense. From the age of 12 to 20, I went to almost all the home games, and away games with my father. I joined Wilmslow Rugby Club in 1965, which meant that on certain Saturdays I couldn’t watch United, but I stopped playing rugby in 1971.
“When I took over as chairman, after my father’s death in 1980, some people wanted Matt Busby to take over instead. They said: ‘Why should he be chairman just because his father was chairman before him?’ They just thought I was a lucky bastard. But by then, I’d had 10 years’ experience on the board.
“What people also didn’t know was that I’d worked in my father’s meat business for 16 years, in every department. I started off in the butchery, cutting up carcasses, and eventually became managing director on the retail side of the business. I was responsible for a turnover of £10m, and had over a thousand people working for me. United was a much smaller business.”
Edwards’ father may have been nicknamed ‘Champagne Louis’, but he didn’t make a great deal of money from United. In 1982, there were only two United employees, players included, who were earning more than £50,000 per year. The club had won just won trophy since the 1968 European Cup, the 1977 FA Cup.
Ron Atkinson assembled an attractive team, won a couple of trophies and got United into Europe. But United never came close to winning the league. Things got so desperate that in 1986, Edwards persuaded director Mike Edelson to call Aberdeen FC and pretend to be Gordon Strachan’s accountant. A duped receptionist put Alex Ferguson on the phone and what followed was a clandestine meeting at Ferguson’s sister-in-law’s house on the outskirts of Glasgow and 26 years of unrivalled success. Actually, make that 22 years.
“Alex was very much my choice, but it wasn’t a fairy story from day one,” admits Edwards, now 72. “We always felt our fortunes would turn, but how long could we hang on? Supporters were becoming restless and wanted a change, especially after Manchester City beat us 5-1 at Maine Road [in September 1989].
“That season, when we ended up finishing 13th in the league, was nearly his downfall. There were banners at games, a lot of abusive letters, and it would have been easier to get rid of him. But I never lost faith and he was never threatened by the board. In fact, before that famous FA Cup game against Nottingham Forest [when Mark Robins scored the only goal in a third-round victory], which everybody thinks saved his job, I assured him his position wasn’t reliant on that result. I think he was grateful for that, it relaxed him.”
United went on to win the 1990 FA Cup, but it was the signing of Eric Cantona, in November 1992, that ignited 20 years of domestic dominance.
“Leeds chairman Bill Fotherby phoned and said he was interested in Denis Irwin. I said: ‘Would you be prepared to sell Cantona?’ He said: ‘Well, that’s not as daft as it sounds…’ Eric and [Leeds manager] Howard Wilkinson weren’t getting on particularly well, so I spoke to Alex and said: ‘If we could get Cantona, would you take him?’ And Alex said: ‘Too bloody right I will!’
“The next day I phoned Bill and said: ‘We’re not prepared to sell Denis, but we’ll do you a favour and take Cantona off your hands.’ He said: ‘OK, we’ll do it, but we need to do it very quickly, because if our fans find out, we’ll get slaughtered. They absolutely love him up here.’ They wanted £1.6m, I offered £1m, we argued and argued and argued, and in the end he said: ‘Look, can we at least say we sold him for £1.6m?’ I said: ‘You can say what you like…’”
For Edwards, seeing Ferguson’s side win that first ever Premier League in 1993 - United’s first league title since 1967 – meant vindication. “Falling down against Leeds the season before was heart-wrenching. I was beginning to wonder if we were doomed. So it was a huge relief.”
As well as transfer hits, there were also big misses. Edwards claims Paul Gascoigne was “almost calling Alex boss” in 1988, before Tottenham nicked him from under United’s noses. Edwards also reveals Alan Shearer didn’t sign for United out of loyalty to Blackburn owner Jack Walker. “Shearer had agreed personal terms and told Alex he was coming, but Jack treated him almost like a son and put a lot of pressure on him – ‘promise me you’ll not sign for United’.”
Ferguson wrote in his autobiography: “Conversations with Martin Edwards are usually pleasant and straightforward until you ask him for money. Then you have a problem.” But it should be remembered that Edwards wasn’t even nearly a billionaire, like so many of the men who run football clubs today.
“When Alex arrived, money was tight, so when it came to transfers and wages, I had to watch the pennies. From time to time, the press tried to make out our relationship had broken down, but that wasn’t true. Alex probably thought all the money should go into the team, but he knew I was doing the best I could. If he ever accuses me of being tight with money, I take it as a compliment.”
What Ferguson didn’t take as a compliment was Edwards sending him a letter in 1998 suggesting the Scotsman had “lost his focus”, United having led the Premier League by 11 points in March before losing the title to Arsenal.
“Alex became interested in horseracing and I had the suspicion he had taken his eye off the ball. Arsenal did the Double and we were worried that if we didn’t stay focused, they could take over from us as the leading British club.
“I thought there might be a reaction. We had a meeting and Alex said something along the lines of: ‘If that’s what you think of me after everything I’ve achieved, you can stick your job.’ A few hours later, he rang up to say he was withdrawing his resignation. I didn’t want him to go anyway.”
A year later, United won an unprecedented treble of FA Cup, Premier League and Champions League. However, Edwards concedes that Ferguson’s trophy haul in Europe (he also led United to the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1991) “was a bit disappointing”, and is no doubt right when he says that most big European clubs would have sacked him years earlier.
But while Ferguson was always loved by the Old Trafford faithful after that first Premier League title, Edwards was always viewed with scepticism. Various attempts to sell his controlling interest in United didn’t help. But Edwards is keen to point out that it was always others who approached him with a deal, and that he always had the club’s best interests at heart.
Edwards seems most proud of his part in the formation of the Premier League, which meant bigger TV and sponsorship deals and coincided with the emergence of a slew of rare talent from the United youth set-up, including Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and David Beckham. United spent the next 25 years riding the crest of a financial tsunami.
Having made £210,000 in his first year in charge, the club made almost £40m in 2003, the year Edwards left the board. During the same period, Manchester’s United’s value increased from £2m to £800m. Today, it is valued at £2.23bn. What ‘Champagne Louis’, who paid between £30-£40,000 for just over half of United in 1964, would have made of today’s numbers is anybody’s guess. But Edwards certainly felt no shame when he pocketed something in the region of £100m, having sold most of his shares before the Glazers took over in 2008.
“Those shares had become that valuable because of what the club had achieved. In those early years, I was gambling with my money, I was in hock to the bank. But 20-odd years of hard work paid off through the stock exchange.”
Even he seems slightly aghast at the numbers being bandied about today though, at the insatiable financial appetites of modern owners – invariably from far-flung places – and the fact that fans are being stiffed. For all his money, he was always a local boy, albeit one who went to public school and liked playing the odd game of rugger.
“What disappointed me about the recent £5.1bn TV deal was that they didn’t do anything for the supporters. Why didn’t they freeze prices for the length of the contract? Instead, all the money goes in one door and out the other, in the form of transfer fees and wages. And now the top six clubs want an even bigger slice of the overseas money. But will they then want a bigger slice of sponsorship and everything else? If my father came back today and saw the numbers, I don’t think he’d be appalled by it, he just wouldn’t understand it.”
Most mornings, Edwards can be found in his local Costa Coffee, discussing the state of the modern game with other local businessmen – “the City fans are a bit annoying at the moment…” The Glazers have never popped in. Sometimes Edwards bumps into Schmeichel or Andy Cole or Dwight Yorke and they shake his hand and say a polite hello. But not many old players say thank you.
“I’d like to be remembered for taking Manchester United from a well-known British club to a world-wide brand, and to be associated with the success on the field. Eight league titles in 11 years, two doubles and a treble. Not bad."
Red Glory: Manchester United and Me by Martin Edwards is published by Michael O'Mara Books.