All good things come to those who wait, is probably what the optimistic Manchester United fans have been saying for the past 17 years, as they desperately tried to get the deeply unpopular Glazer family to relinquish control of their football club; following the Americans purchase back in 2005. Those supporters finally received the news they have been hoping – and in many cases fighting – for, when the controversial owners declared officially this week that they are prepared to sell the club, as they “explore strategic alternatives”.
The Americans, who paid £790m ($1.34bn at that time) to take ownership, are thought to be looking to offload for a figure close to an eye-watering £5bn ($6.05bn). Following the announcement there was an immediate rise in United’s stock market valuation by ironically… 17%. The Old Trafford outfit sat fifth in the Premier League as many of their star players headed off to Qatar for the World Cup, still way off the pace to challenge for a title that they have not won since 2013. They have not won a trophy since claiming the Europa League and EFL Cup in 2017.
The move also follows news coming out of fierce rivals Liverpool that their chairman, Tom Werner, had announced that the Fenway Sports Group who own that club, were considering a sale of their own.
Club statement dampens any initial excitement
The Glazers sold 10% of their holding through stock listings in 2012, and in subsequent years have released additional shares. Billionaire Malcolm Glazer died in 2014, although he had already passed the day-to-day running of the football club into the hands of his sons, Joel and Avram.
In a collective statement from the board they said they will “consider all strategic alternatives, including new investment, a sale, or other transactions involving the company.” They went on to say that the process would include an assessment of several initiatives to strengthen the club, including stadium and infrastructure redevelopment, and an expansion of the club’s commercial operations on a global scale.
Then just to keep supporters feet firmly on the ground, they added that there could be no assurance that the review being undertaken would result in any transaction involving the company. They finished by stating that there would be no further announcements until the board has approved a specific transaction, or other course of action.
Protests gradually increasing in intensity
There have been endless protests against the owners almost from the moment they walked through the doors, although part of the issue for many fans is they very rarely actually do so. They have been gradually getting more demonstrative and in May 2021 one particularly bad dissenting movement resulted in a home fixture against Liverpool being postponed.
United had been part of the failed European Super League project that dramatically collapsed in a matter of hours just a month earlier, in the April of that year. At the time Joel had apologised for any unrest caused, but that largely fell on deaf ears.
Why sell right now?
In fairness to the Glazer family, they have never really hidden the fact that they treated the purchase of Manchester United as a financial investment. They did have some passing interest in the football side, but the main aim was always to make money, and lots of it. They made the club pay the interest on the initial deal, and took dividend payments for themselves. Now it seems they obviously see this as a good time to offload, particularly after it became clear that the potentially highly lucrative European Super League plan, which they naively backed, was a complete non-starter.
They will have noted the Saudi Arabian backing of Newcastle United, which adds competition at the very top of the financial stakes; plus they will also be aware of the significant investment that is now required to improve a somewhat tired looking Old Trafford and their Carrington training ground. It also cannot be a coincidence that they are making this move immediately after Liverpool’s American owners put that club on the market, seemingly aware that now is the optimum time to maximize their returns.
Taking these factors into account, and noticing the very healthy £4.25bn which Chelsea were able to pull in for their own sale, and possibly they feel they have got as much value out of the club as they are likely to, and bailing out now without the need to commit to another lengthy spell in charge and additional outlay.
So who might be interested in taking the club on?
The sums of money involved at the very top of the football tree are staggering, with the Glazers reportedly borrowing over half a billion to fund their own purchase, and that was 17 years ago. That effectively means potential interested parties are restricted. Ineos billionaire, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, still represents the dream for many supporters, as he is a self-confessed “red”, supporting the team since childhood and has signalled his interest in buying the club in the past.
However, he has also stated that buying a premier league club is grossly overvalued and not necessarily a wise business investment. Heart often overules head in these situations though. There could potentially be a move from a sovereign investor, with Bahrain mentioned in some quarters; but sports washing is very much in the news at present, and such a move would not be popular.
One high-profile critic already removed
Of course were there to be a change at the top it would come too late for superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, who this week had his contract cancelled by mutual consent, after openly criticising the Glazers in a television interview seen by millions. He basically left the club no option, although many saw it as a deliberate move, given his troubles on the pitch this season.
He now is a free agent after terminating his £500,000-a-week contract. Those are the sort of salaries any new owner would have to be prepared to match, if they carry genuine aspirations to take the club back to a position where they are challenging for the very top honours.
How long would a change of ownership take to complete?
Essentially, these things take, for want of a better phrase: “as long as it takes.” Most people would love it to be done and dusted in rapid time, but reality would suggest that any deal involving the sums and complexities likely in this sale, will be fairly drawn out.
Were an unbelievable offer that blows everyone else out of the water come in, then it could make things smoother, however, it could depend more on what the Glazers are actually after. They may sell to the highest bidder, or they could look at what is in the best interests of the football club, although their record would indicate the former.
Supporters demanding the right values
The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) responding to the news, said that it is imperative that any new owner matches the same values of the club to theirs, and any change therefore has to be the right change. That despite spending 17 years trying to get the Glazers out.
“Any prospective new owner or investor has to be committed to the culture, ethos, and best traditions of the club.” That was their message, although they made the point that any money coming in had to be spent on the playing side and the stadium. Unconfirmed figures suggest that United have a net spend of £1.18bn on transfers under the Glazers, with only Manchester City having a higher total during that timespan.
Their spending on transfers and wages has been huge, yet there is a chasm between them and those who are genuine contenders. They have never replaced Sir Alex Ferguson since his retired in 2013, so possibly that should be the first area to look at.