It sounds like a missing scene from the Da Vinci Code. On Monday night, reports leaked to the press that a group known as “The Red Knights” had assembled themselves for a secret meeting, presumably held in an underground lair by candlelight, to discuss their plans to wrestle control of Manchester United from the evil forces known as “The Glazers”. The group is a veritable who’s who of legal and financial powerhouses, with representatives of some of the world’s most influential organizations holding exclusive membership. Despite the early stages at which their epic quest lies, their intentions must be looked upon as being very, very serious.
There has been a strong air of revolt circulating around Old Trafford in recent months. A campaign begun by the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) protesting over the current financial state of the club due to the structuring of the Glazers business model since their takeover in 2005 has swiftly gathered momentum. Each week more and more fans don the Green and Gold colours of Newton Heath, the club from which Manchester United grew, to demonstrate their disgust with the club’s rulers.
On a day where it was made known that United took in profits of £276.5m last year, the fact that a debt of over £700m still looms over the club is seen as unacceptable and a notable source of concern for the future. Last year alone, payments of over £68m were handed over just to service the interest on this figure. As a result of this, there is a strong sense among supporters that this debt is stopping the club from aiming to sign the world’s best players and has caused them to become small fry compared to counterparts such as Real Madrid and Barcelona whose funding seems endless.
Last summers record sale of Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m has resulted in little reinvestment in playing staff and the signings that followed his departure, however effective they have turned out to be, did not send alarm bells ringing around the offices of United’s rivals as Alex Ferguson, despite his claims otherwise, seemed resigned to shopping away from the higher priced markets which he once frequented. United fans watched in disgust as big names like Ronaldo, Kaka and Karim Benzema, who Ferguson had long admired, packed their bags and headed toward the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu while they sniffed around signing Michael Owen on a free transfer.
Critics of the recent fans campaign say that United supporters are being irrational, after all the club has featured in the last two Champions League finals, won three league titles in a row and back to back Carling Cups, during which time the Glazers demanded minimal influence into how the club was run. While United remain successful on the pitch, money will continue to flow through their turnstiles, tills and boardroom, however should a downturn in form occur, fans worry that the club is ill-prepared to deal with the lower revenues that will be generated as a result. It’s a sad fact for any United fan to admit but with Sir Alex nearing the age of seventy, his days in the charge at the club which he made the most successful in world football are on the way to nearing their end. When the day does come that he is replaced, there is no guarantee that success will automatically continue. His are very large shoes to fill and a period of unparalleled change at the club may easily result in a downward trend in their triumphs, which is why fans are eager to ensure that Manchester United as a football club will long be able to stand proud as a trophy contender rather than slip into mediocrity as the Glazers continue to milk their accounts.
The Red Knights, a title which remains unofficial, are comprised of some extremely powerful big city players. Amongst others present at yesterdays meeting were Jim O’Neill (Head of Global Economic Research at Goldman Sachs), a life long fan of United and close friend of Alex Ferguson, Keith Harris (Chief-excutive at Seymour Pierce and well know football deal maker), Mark Rawlinson (Senior Partner at Freshfields, a law firm which worked with the Glazers during their initial takeover and most recently oversaw the buyout of Cadburys), Richard Hytner (deputy chairman worldwide of Saatchi & Saatchi and co-founder of United Shareholders group that fiercely opposed the Glazers in 2005) and Paul Marshall (co-founder and chairman of Marshall Wace, one of the London’s largest hedge funds).
None of the men listed above, or the others in attendance yesterday are short of a penny or two. However, when it comes to taking over the now third biggest club in the world (as of today’s reports) their pockets just don’t run deep enough and that’s why their contact books may be the most powerful tool at their disposal. Manchester United is valued at roughly £1bn and it is the provisional aim of the Red Knights to delve into the world of the global financial superpowers to see can they find the investment they require. Crucially, some of the money would also be sourced from supporter’s trusts so as to ensure everyday fans of the club can have their say in the future direction of Manchester United. The big point at which the group can use to self itself is that it has been officially backed by the MUST, who themselves have grown into a massively influential presence outside the offices of Old Trafford.
Sources have been quick to point out that yesterday’s meeting is merely the first step along a path that may ultimately lead to little to no change in the control of the club but the fact that such a powerful group has been formed at all is significant. As of yet, the group also say that they have opened up no channels of communication with the club. Furthermore, the glazers insist the club is not for sale, but as pressure mounts amongst fan groups, hopes will be for this message to change.
One thing is for sure, as United seek to add Premier League and European Cup successes to their already impressive trophy haul in the coming months, these are crucial times both on and off the pitch.