Man United takeover: What to know about the bidders, fan backlash, what’s next

It started with a statement.

In November, while the eyes of the football world were watching the World Cup in Qatar, the Glazer Family made the surprise announcement that Manchester United could be up for sale. The board, led by Joel and Avram Glazer, revealed they would consider “all strategic alternatives, including new investment into the club, a sale, or other transactions involving the company.”

But it’s been 158 days since that Glazers’ statement and the takeover process, being handled by merchant bank The Raine Group, has not reached a conclusion. It’s prompted confusion about the Glazers’ intentions, while fans are growing more and more frustrated. It’s a battle for control of one of the biggest clubs and the result will have consequences for English and European football.

The aim of the Glazers’ review, according to one source, is about how best to meet “the club’s long-term investment needs” — in particular, the long overdue redevelopment of Old Trafford. The “strategic alternatives” mentioned in the November statement can be broken down into two scenarios: a full sale, or the Glazers’ accepting a minority investment that would be used predominantly to rebuild Old Trafford.

Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al-Thani and British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder and chairman of chemical company INEOS, have made public offers to buy out the Glazers. Meanwhile, investment groups Elliott Management, Ares Management Corporation, Sixth Street and Carlyle are interested in acquiring a minority stake.

Sources have told ESPN that at least five other groups have also made their interest known to Raine but have not made their proposals public. There have been two rounds of bidding and sources have told ESPN there will now be a third round with a deadline of April 28. The biggest issue so far has been deciding what United is worth.

The Glazers, according to sources, value the club at £6bn, around double the market valuation of £3.1bn. The Glazers have been guided by last year’s sales of the Denver Broncos for £3.75bn and Chelsea for £2.5bn, but since putting United up for sale, have also seen American private equity billionaire Josh Harris agree to buy the Washington Commanders for £4.8bn.

The Glazers like to say that United is the “No.1 club in the world’s No.1 sport” with an estimated global fanbase of more than 1 billion, and that the most lucrative franchise on the planet should command a world record price. Offers from Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe in the first two rounds of bidding have failed to reach £6bn while details of proposals made by investment groups remain unknown. The cost for the redevelopment of Old Trafford is estimated to be between £1bn and £2bn, which includes plans drawn up for everything from building a new stadium to expanding and updating the existing one.

The bidders attracting the most attention are Sheikh Jassim and INEOS because they have made public offers to take over. However, the two bids are slightly different in that the Qataris want to buy 100% of the club while INEOS and Ratcliffe want the Glazers’ 69%, leaving the rest of the shares on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Qatari bid is the most popular among supporters because they are seen as the consortium with the most money to invest in players and facilities. United fans have seen neighbours Manchester City dominate English football while being bankrolled by Abu Dhabi, and most supporters believe the only way to compete is to accept similar investment from the Middle East.

But there are clear and valid concerns. Very little is known about Sheikh Jassim, chairman of the Qatar Islamic Bank, and his personal wealth, but he has significant links to the Qatar Investment Authority, Qatar’s Sovereign Wealth Fund. Qatar’s poor record on human rights, including treatment of the LGBTQ+ community in the country, prompted United LGBTQ+ supporters’ group The Rainbow Devils to issue a strongly-worded statement about their opposition.

“Rainbow Devils believe any bidder seeking to buy Manchester United must commit to making football a sport for everyone, including LGBTQ+ supporters, players and staff,” read a statement posted to Twitter in February. “We therefore have deep concern over some of the bids that are being made. We are watching the current process closely with this in mind.”

The counter-argument is that — officially, at least — Sheikh Jassim is acting in a personal capacity through an investment vehicle called the Nine Two Foundation. Same-sex relationships are criminalised in Qatar, though Sheikh Jassim’s personal view is not known. However, there is a strong case that he is being backed by the Qatari state. Peter Frankental, Amnesty International UK’s economic affairs director, said in February: “Fan groups are right to be concerned that a Qatari buyout of Manchester United is likely to be part of a wider programme of Qatari sportswashing, where the glamour of football is used to refashion the country’s image regardless of serious and systematic human rights abuses.”

On paper at least, UEFA insist that single owners cannot have two clubs participating in the same competition — for example the Champions League or Europa League — and would want to know that United and PSG are owned by separate entities. It’s an issue that also affects Ratcliffe because INEOS own Ligue 1 side Nice.

In the past, RB Leipzig and Red Bull Salzburg have both been allowed to participate in European competition and in March, UEFA president Aleksander Ceferin hinted that the rules could be softened. “There is more and more interest for this multi-club ownership and we shouldn’t just say no [to] the investments, and for multi-club ownership. But we have to see what kind of rules we set in that case, because the rules have to be strict.”

There are other criticisms of Ratcliffe, namely that if Qatar’s involvement is “sportswashing,” then he is “greenwashing” — an attempt to distract from criticisms about INEOS’ environmental impact. Fans also have concerns about Ratcliffe’s plans for the club’s debt. The latest financial figures show United owe close to £1bn through a combination of gross debt, bank borrowings, outstanding transfer fees and other associated payments.

Debt-loading by the Glazers, which began with their leveraged buy-out in 2005, is one of the main reasons they have been so hated in Manchester for the best part of 20 years; when announcing his interest in the club, Sheikh Jassim made a point that his bid would be “completely debt free.”

In contrast, Ratcliffe’s bid will not lumber the club with fresh debt, though INEOS hasn’t promised to get rid of any existing debt. In March, Ratcliffe and representatives of Sheikh Jassim were given presentations by club bosses including CEO Richard Arnold COO Collette Roche and toured Old Trafford and United’s Carrington training base. Both have indicated they will participate in the third round of bidding while investment groups like Elliot, Ares, Sixth Street and Carlyle are also still involved in the process.

After 10 years without a Premier League title and 15 years since they lifted the Champions League, both Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe say their ultimate goal is to return United to the top of domestic and European football.

There has been no official word from the club since their November statement, and there was no mention of the process at all when the second quarter financial results were released in March. The view in November was that the most likely outcome was a full sale, but there is a growing feeling that the Glazers — in particular Joel and Avram — are looking to secure the funding needed to stay on as owners.

There is even a scenario, although viewed as unlikely, that could see co-chairman Joel and Avram remain connected to the club while siblings Kevin, Bryan and Edward Glazer and Darcie Glazer Kassewitz cash in. United insist there is no issue with the club’s short-term liquidity, though there is a need to solve issues surrounding long-term investment needs.

Simply put, the Glazers have realised they need to improve Old Trafford and don’t have the money to do it. Despite being the largest club stadium in Britain with a current capacity of more than 74,000, Old Trafford has been overlooked as a potential venue for games at the 2028 European Championships as part of a joint bid lodged by the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Sources have also told ESPN that privately, the Glazers are talking up their role in United’s progress under manager Erik ten Hag this season and believe they have the personnel in place — particularly in the recruitment team led by football director John Murtough — to challenge City. They have also pointed to Chelsea’s plight following their takeover by a consortium led by American businessman Todd Boehly last summer.

Boehly sacked Champions League-winning coach Thomas Tuchel after only a couple of months and then sacked replacement Graham Potter, acquired at great expense from Brighton. Chelsea finished third in the Premier League last season, but are currently 11th in the table and are closer to the relegation zone than the top four.

Meanwhile, things are looking up at United under Ten Hag and some sources believe the Glazers see a chance for an even bigger payout. If an under-performing team playing in a dilapidated stadium is worth one amount, then a successful team playing in a state-of-the-art stadium should be worth significantly more — and why sell for £6bn now when you can sell for more than £10bn in 10 years time?

In short, the fans are getting frustrated. There was widespread euphoria when the Glazers announced they might sell, but most supporters are beginning to lose hope that their hated owners might finally be on their way out. Of the potential owners, some fans prefer Sheikh Jassim because he’s viewed as the man with money to spend, while others prefer Ratcliffe, who was born in Failsworth and was a childhood United fan. (Yet there is an awareness that he submitted a bid to buy Chelsea last summer.)

Their worst-case scenario overall is that the Glazers end up staying. There are still regular protests inside the stadium at home matches, and there is a larger protest planned around Aston Villa’s visit to Old Trafford on April 30. In the event of the Glazers staying on, there is a real possibility of protests that would dwarf anything staged in the past. In May 2021, fans broke into Old Trafford during a large anti-Glazer demonstration that led to the postponement of a high-profile match against Liverpool — it marked the first time fan protests had ever caused the postponement of a Premier League fixture.

Positivity among fans hasn’t been helped by the emergence of Finnish businessman Thomas Zilliacus, who had expressed a desire to partly fund his bid through fan involvement. He submitted a bid to Raine in the second round, but has since said that while his offer is still on the table, he won’t participate in the third stage and described the process as “a farce.”

Zilliacus told ESPN that he believes the third round is designed purely to drive up the price and thinks Joel and Avram Glazer are determined to stay on in any case. He has not been seen as a serious contender, but his opinions of the process confirmed some fans’ worst fears about it, prompting the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) to call for things to be “concluded without further delay.”

For now, the process is ongoing and Raine have asked for a third round of bids to be submitted by the end of April. Raine initially said a deal could be completed by the end of March — a timeframe that’s obviously been and gone — while United staff were told earlier in the year they could expect “clarity” on the ownership situation by the end of the season. The next step after the next round of bids would be the naming of a preferred bidder to enter into a period of exclusivity.

Ten Hag has so far played down the impact of the uncertainty, but he’ll want to know how much money is available to spend during the summer transfer window. The Dutchman has overseen an upturn on the pitch this season — United won their first trophy since 2017 in February and remain on course to return to the Champions League — but he has stressed the need to take another step forward over the summer. He needs a top-class striker and is also interested in elite midfielders Frenkie de Jong and Jude Bellingham.

United have Financial Fair Play concerns to navigate and some players will leave to offset the summer spend, but even signing two world class players is likely to cost upwards of £200m. The worry for many fans is that the progress this season will be washed away by an underwhelming transfer window that would get blamed on uncertainty over the club’s ownership.

It started with a statement and it will end, inevitably, with a statement. The only question is whether it will be written by new owners signaling the start of a new era or old ones desperately trying to hold on.

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