Very soon, Manchester United will have a new owner. Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar or Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man, look likely to land the prize.
Beyond that it is hard to be more definite. Those are the only two declared bidders. There may be others, but they are keeping their identities secret. Elliott, the US hedge fund, is apparently willing to fund a bidder, but it’s not clear who that would be.
It’s possible, too, that nobody has matched the owners’ valuation for the club. That could be anywhere between £4.5 billion and £6 billion — no one in the closed circle around the American owning Glazer family and their advisers is saying. Again, it maybe that the Glazers make only a part sale, of a minority stake.
Given the wealth of Sheikh Jassim and Ratcliffe, however, the chances of United going to one of them seem high. These are people who do not reveal their positions lightly and have the means to make a serious pitch.
As for the price, it’s always been in that ballpark, ever since Chelsea was sold to the US private equity tycoon, Todd Boehly, earlier this year in a deal worth £4.25 billion. United is much bigger, hence the higher figure.
So, after 17 years the Glazer era looks to be ending. United fans, by and large, are jubilant.
The commonly loathed Glazers are on their way out — at last, United will belong to people who genuinely love the club and, the two go together, will show that love by lavishing hundreds of millions, billions of pounds, on improving the Old Trafford stadium, the training facilities at Carrington and the team.
Supporters gaze at Paris Saint-Germain, also Qatari-owned, and the likes of Neymar, Mbappe and Messi, arguably the three best players in the world, and desire similar for the Red Devils of Manchester.
But they should be careful what they wish for.
From the off, the Glazers — the late Malcolm and two of his sons, Joel and Avram — did not endear themselves to the United faithful by not attending matches. This was unlike, say Roman Abramovich, who when he owned Chelsea was a regular.
United were slow, or stalled, on transfers. They bought some big names, but they never seemed convincingly in the race. Fans had to watch as stars who could have joined their club were lost elsewhere.
Fans riled to the core
After Sir Alex Ferguson retired, managers came and went, occasionally displaying glimpses of success, but then United would soon drop back, into the pack.
At Old Trafford, the roof leaked and Carrington felt tired. Versus Europe’s other leading clubs there has been a sense for a while of United falling behind.
Meanwhile, the Glazers continued to reward themselves, making annual dividend payments to Joel, Avram and their siblings. They came across as absentee landlords, distant and aloof, taking the cash but otherwise, not caring enough.
This riled a large contingent of fans to the core. In Manchester, historically the home of much working-class, political agitation, the perceived Glazers’ attitude went down badly.
Not least because United is not just any other football club, it’s the biggest in terms of worldwide popularity and reach, the one with the most dramatic legend attached to it: of the Munich air crash that killed members of the team, including the young England icon, Duncan Edwards; the rebuild under Sir Matt Busby, accompanied by the brilliance of George Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, that led United to become the first English club to lift the European Cup; the subsequent imperious reign of Sir Alex Ferguson and the landing of trophies galore.
Questions for the new boss
Having seen off the hated Glazers as they view a sale, how will they react to the new bosses? What if the new lot don’t spend or spend wisely?
How will Sheikh Jassim, if it is him, take to owning and running a club where the expectation levels are furiously high? Will he and his associates realise that hosting a World Cup is a very different proposition to week in, week out, attempting to win, against teams that are similarly well-resourced?
If it’s Ratcliffe, there is little in his back story to suggest he will wield a magic wand. He might know how to wrest a fortune from chemicals, via his vast Ineos group, but football?
In 2016-17, Nice were one of the very top clubs in France, challenging for the Ligue 1 title. Ratcliffe bought them in 2019 and since then, disappointment.
Ratcliffe also owns the Ineos cycling team, where again, past performances in the classical races have not been replicated, not recently.
Somewhat bizarrely — and United faithful please note — Ratcliffe put Sir Dave Brailsford, the former Team GB cycling coach, in charge of Nice’s finances and transfer policy. There has been a regular revolving door at Nice — chaos is another way of describing it.
The idea of “Sir Jim”, a Brit and a self-declared United supporter, succeeding the Glazers appeals to many. But it was not that long ago, either, that this “lifelong” United fan was trying and failing to buy Chelsea.
Competition is fierce
United’s army of fans will not come to regret the Glazers departure, the toxicity runs far too deep for that. The merest mention of their name provokes bile in usually the mildest of quarters.
Begrudgingly, the more restrained admit that not everything the Americans did was bad. United did not go short of leading and proven managers; star players were signed; with Ferguson managing they were successful.
If they are expecting an overnight transformation, which sees United turn into an all-conquering, super-slick powerhouse, they may want to think again.
Competition is fierce; success can soon turn to failure — look at Liverpool, challenging for four trophies one season, off the Premiership pace and struggling to claim a place in Europe and thrashed 5-2 at home by Real Madrid, the next.
No, when the Glazers do exit there will be an outbreak of popular euphoria. Just what replaces that mood, however, remains to be seen.
Chris Blackhurst’s The World’s Biggest Cash Machine — how the Glazers made billions from Manchester United will be published by Macmillan.