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Will Selling Part of Soccer’s Biggest Club Help Make it Great Again?

SportWill Selling Part of Soccer’s Biggest Club Help Make it Great Again?

There are two explanations for why Sir Jim Ratcliffe named his petrochemicals company INEOS.

The first is the practical: the company he was taking over in 1998 was previously called INspec Ethylene Oxide and Specialities, a bit of a mouthful, so the acronym made sense.

The second is a little more romantic: faced with this slightly clunky acronym and the need to provide a new company name with an acquisition deadline looming, Ratcliffe and his sons were thumbing through Latin and Greek dictionaries in search of something more resonant when they learned that “ineo” was Latin for entering something new and “neos” was Latin for something new or innovative. INEOS, they therefore concluded, would mean the dawn of something new and innovative.

In his ideal world, Ratcliffe would be declaring a new dawn for Manchester United having finally made a breakthrough after more than 12 months exploring the possibility of buying his hometown club from the Glazer family.

But can it really be a new dawn if a United board meeting this Thursday ends with the Glazers agreeing to sell a 25 per cent stake in the club? It would certainly be an innovative compromise on both sides, but the new dawn the club’s supporters and, indeed, staff crave? For as long as the Glazers retain overall control, surely not.



Manchester United takeover: The 12 who will decide on Ratcliffe bid and the voting rules

It is a breakthrough of sorts, theoretically a long overdue first step towards the departure that the Glazers appeared to herald last November with their announcement of a “process to explore strategic alternatives for the club”.

A minority investment was among the options floated at that point, but it was not the one the supporters or Ratcliffe and INEOS hoped for.

Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani, the other leading bidder, was not prepared to compromise by settling for a minority stake. His representatives declared on Saturday night he was walking away from the process, infuriated by the Glazers’ refusal to accept his reported £5billion ($6.08bn) bid for the club.

Frustration with the Glazers is a familiar story. It remains to be seen if or how that will change with this new development. Even if INEOS take control of United’s sporting operation — and do so with considerably more success than their mixed experiences in football with Nice in France and Lausanne-Sport in Switzerland — it is far from clear whether this is truly the first step towards a full-scale takeover.

The Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) responded to this weekend’s developments by releasing a list of 11 questions, asking where these shares are coming from; which of the Glazers will remain shareholders after this transaction; what plans have been made for investment in infrastructure (for example the stadium); and whether there is now a clear path to a change of majority ownership.

Former United defender Gary Neville went one — well, actually five — better, asking 16 questions. He had previously listed his five “non-negotiables” for a new United owner: a new sporting project; a new or redeveloped Old Trafford; a new training ground; a full redevelopment of the surrounding land to create a “Manchester United World” and an amazing fan experience; and to pay off the club’s debt and stop taking dividends until all of this is done. And quite reasonably he asked: “How does a minority investor positively impact the club to achieve the above?”

Neville argued that the Glazers had “overstayed their welcome”. That was one thing he got wrong. Beyond the sanctuary of the Old Trafford boardroom, the Glazers were never made welcome in Manchester. There were fan protests when they arrived in the summer of 2005, immediately loading their acquisition debt against the club, and they have continued ever since.

Even when United continued to win trophies under Sir Alex Ferguson in the late 2000s and early 2010s, there was never the slightest goodwill towards the Glazers. Over the past decade, as Ferguson’s departure has led to a downturn in performance on the pitch, the owners’ failings have been exposed: not just the enormous financial burden of their ownership, but the glaring lack of football strategy, the lack of investment in Old Trafford, even the flat-lining of commercial performance until the past 12 months. The Glazers’ prominent role in the failed European Super League launch only added to the revulsion felt by many United fans.

So how, as Neville asked, does a minority investment like that proposed by Ratcliffe represent the kind of change United need?

The Glazers are unpopular with large sections of the United fanbase (Ryan Pierse/Getty Images)

All the early indications are that Ratcliffe and INEOS will look to take control of the sporting side of the club while leaving the Glazers in charge of the business for now. Any challenge to the complacent culture of the past decade would be welcome, but it feels like an underwhelming compromise for a club so obviously in need of new ambition, new vision, new investment and new energy across the board.

Beyond that, when it comes to football strategy, INEOS’s record in Nice and Lausanne has been mixed rather than outstanding. They have shown a greater feel for and interest in the sport than the Glazers, but Sir Dave Brailsford, the company’s director of sport, has yet to replicate in football the great success he had with British Cycling and Team Sky.

Right now, Nice lie second in Ligue 1, above Paris Saint-Germain, but their performance over the first four years under INEOS (fifth, ninth, fifth, ninth) is actually slightly down on the five years before that (eleventh, fourth, third, eighth, seventh). There have been a few notable wins in the transfer market (signing Mario Lemina from Southampton and selling him on to Wolverhampton Wanderers for a profit, signing Amine Gouiri from Lyon and selling him on to Rennes at a profit) and there are high hopes for Terem Moffi, the Nigeria forward they signed from Lorient earlier this year, but it is fair to say that, after six years at Lausanne and four years at Nice, INEOS are still to prove themselves in football.

Still, patchy sounds better than the Glazers’ record. And if Ratcliffe and Brailsford were to turn to a candidate such as Paul Mitchell, who is respected for his recruitment and strategic work at MK Dons, Southampton, Tottenham Hotspur, RB Leipzig and Monaco, that would seem a positive addition for United, who, for reasons unclear, have appeared determined to avoid appointing any kind of proven, experienced, high-class operator to oversee their football strategy. But again, it doesn’t sound like a silver bullet.

As for the question of investments in stadium and infrastructure — let alone the supplementary point Neville made about wanting a United hierarchy which could show positive leadership at a critical juncture for the sport’s future — once more there is the question of how much change a minority investor could make.

A redeveloped, expanded Old Trafford, moving towards a capacity of 90,000? Sounds great. But even with Ratcliffe on board, is a Glazer-led regime really going to commit to and, crucially, deliver that?

Ratcliffe’s willingness to settle for a minority stake might alienate that section of United’s fanbase who are left praying for a dramatic late twist — or else preparing to mourn the takeover that never was.

To some supporters, beguiled by the PR spin, Sheikh Jassim represented a panacea, the antidote to all the modern United’s many ills, someone who was going to wave a magic wand and wipe out the club’s debt, rebuild Old Trafford and the training ground and recruit a raft of world-class players who would restore the club to pre-eminence while seeking to “place the fans at the heart” of the club once more. As for the ethical baggage that would have come with being bought by a member of Qatar’s ruling class, it simply didn’t matter to those fans.

But here’s the thing. United’s global profile is so huge that they do not need that ownership model and all the entanglements that tend to come with it, the way other clubs, starved not just of success but of hope, were perceived to need it. United just need better owners than the Glazers: owners who respect the club for the historic institution it is and look to develop it and improve it, on the pitch and off it, rather than seeing it as a cash cow; owners who are willing, where necessary, to invest money in the club, but will certainly not take money out.

Old Trafford needs investment (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

They need someone to invest in the stadium, to address the problems that have arrived due to neglect under the Glazers’ ownership. But that is where debt — of the type taken on by Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur with their stadium constructions and Liverpool with the construction of two new stands — is entirely legitimate, as opposed to the Glazers running the club into hundreds of millions of pounds worth of debt just to prop up an investment they could not otherwise have afforded.

It often seems there is no better owner than the one who, having made grandiose promises (even if only through PR statements), walks away, leaving fans to fantasise about what might have been. For Sheikh Jassim at United in 2023, think Dubai International Capital with Liverpool in the 2000s and Alisher Usmanov at Arsenal in the early 2010s among so many others.

Ratcliffe could easily have been another of those, playing the “boyhood fan from Failsworth” card, making big promises but then disappearing. There is something to be admired in Sheikh Jassim’s unwillingness to indulge the Glazers any further, but that was always the price on the ticket: either pay their grossly inflated asking price for the whole club or settle for a minority stake, as Ratcliffe appears to have done.

A few weeks ago, with the takeover saga at what felt like an impasse, Ratcliffe gave a brief, unexpected insight into his feelings on the matter. In a video to commemorate 25 years of INEOS, the British billionaire said: “You can’t really contemplate acquiring a brand like Manchester United and failing — because the failure is just far too public and too excruciating.”

It was a statement that was open to interpretation. Did he mean 1) having entered the bidding process, he could not bear the thought of losing out? Or 2) if he succeeded in buying the club, the thought of failing would be impossible to contemplate.

Most media outlets settled on the first interpretation, but some of us thought he probably meant the second: that, having acquired United, you cannot contemplate failing. That would suggest a desperation to force change, even if it means accepting what might previously have felt like an unpalatable comprise by going in as a minority investor.

What all of this demonstrates is that Ratcliffe is fiercely determined to get a slice of United — even if for now it really is just a slice — and, ultimately, to take full control and make a success of it. He surely isn’t doing this to be a bit-part player in the Glazers’ miserable Old Trafford story.

And so once more we come back to the romantic considerations versus the practical: the sugar-coated fairytale of a local lad (albeit a petrochemical billionaire and tax exile) taking over and restoring his boyhood club to former glories versus the pragmatic reality of a torturous business negotiation that ends with him buying a 25 per cent stake in order to join forces with a regime that every United supporters wants rid of.

A new dawn at Manchester United? It really doesn’t feel like it. Not until the sun has set on the Glazer regime once and for all.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Sam Richardson)


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