- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 7, 2006

Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer and his three sons no doubt will be focused on the NFL clash with the Washington Redskins today, but tomorrow the Glazers will have their eyes on their other prized asset — Manchester United.

The Red Devils, who attract more than 67,000 fans for their home games in Manchester, England, travel to tiny Burton Albion’s 6,000-seat venue for a third-round FA Cup match.

If United should somehow lose to Burton, a small town famous for Bass Ale and Marmite, it would be one of the biggest upsets in soccer history. The FA Cup, now in its 125th year, is the world’s oldest soccer tournament, open to all clubs in England. The big teams join the knockout event in the third round.

After paying a whopping $1.47 billion for the famous soccer club in May, the Glazers hardly can afford another misstep. A Tampa Bay loss to the Redskins would be tough, but it could be digested. However, a United loss to Burton, a team located 104 positions and four divisions below the Red Devils in the soccer pyramid, would reverberate around the world. Indeed, the curse that some believe Glazer has brought upon United surely would be confirmed.

Since the Glazers took over United, the family has faced nothing but headaches. Many United fans were unhappy about the American takeover of the jewel of English soccer, and the 77-year-old Glazer was burnt in effigy more than once at massive demonstrations. Glazer’s “soccer-nut” son, Joel, along with his brothers Avram and Bryan, had to be protected from an angry mob chanting “Die, Glazer, die” when they arrived at United’s venue, Old Trafford, for a board meeting in June.

In November, captain Roy Keane, who had led United to numerous titles, suddenly left the team. Then cell phone giant Vodafone decided to end its $16 million-a-year shirt sponsorship deal two years early. Maybe it sensed something.

The worst was yet to come. Last month, United crashed out of Europe’s lucrative Champions League with a loss at Portuguese club Benfica, failing to make the knockout stage for the first time in a decade. The early exit from Europe probably cost the team $20 million in potential earnings.

Glazer, who had to borrow $490 million to buy United, now finds his team in a delicate financial situation. United, which has won the English championship 15 times, seems to have conceded this season’s title to Chelsea, which has a 13-point lead in the Premier League.

Still, the game against Burton does conjure up some spectacular possibilities. Tiny non-league Burton is coached by Nigel Clough, the son of legendary coach Brian Clough, who led Nottingham Forest to two European Cups (1979-80).

“We’ll just relax and enjoy it all,” Clough said.

Win or lose, Burton will earn more than $700,000 from the game.

But can Burton, whose part-time captain is a construction worker, really pull off an upset against the millionaire stars from Manchester? It seems highly unlikely, but top clubs have fallen to giant-killers in the Cup.

The Red Devils fell to Bournemouth in 1984, non-league Hereford beat Newcastle in 1972 and Arsenal lost to lowly Wrexham in 1992.

Burton’s field is in bad condition with large sandy patches that favor the underdogs and could cause problems for United superstars Wayne Rooney and Ruud van Nistelrooy, who are used to playing in pristine conditions.

“If it’s a case of trying to kick him or something, I’ll see on the day,” said defender Darren Tinson, who will have the almost impossible task of trying to stop Rooney.

He knows this could end up being a really bad weekend for Malcolm Glazer on both sides of the Atlantic. Many in this town are hoping so.

D.C. United alumni — Former D.C. United captain Ryan Nelsen has been charged by the English Football Association for “improper conduct” for comments he made about a referee after his club Blackburn lost to Everton on Dec 3.

Former United midfielder Bobby Convey looks certain to be playing in the English Premier League next season. His club, Reading, is riding a 27-game unbeaten streak and is 18 points ahead of third-place Leeds United in the championship for automatic promotion to the Premier League. Reading visits West Bromwich Albion in the FA Cup today.

Congrats — D.C. United forward Santino Quaranta, who is training with the U.S. team, married his longtime girlfriend, Petrina, on Dec. 3 in Baltimore.

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