The future of Manchester United could be decided on Friday when the deadline passes for a third round of bidding to buy the Premier League giants.
United’s owners, the Glazer family, reportedly want a world record £6 billion ($7.3 billion) fee for a sports club before they agree to sell the Old Trafford outfit.
That eye-watering price has so far not been met, raising fear among a discontented fanbase that the Americans could yet prolong their controversial 18-year reign.
Qatari banker Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani and British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe are the front runners should the Glazers decide to sell their majority shareholding.
Deeply unpopular with supporters since they saddled the club with debt in a £790 million leveraged takeover in 2005, the Glazers appeared ready to cash out at an enormous profit when they first invited external investment in November.
However, Elliot Investment Management and The Carlyle Group are among the private equity firms in the market for a minority stake that could allow the Glazers to retain control and provide the funding for investment in the club’s infrastructure, such as a redevelopment of Old Trafford.
According to reports, executive co-chairmen Avram and Joel Glazer are keen to hold on to their stakes in United, while siblings and fellow directors Kevin, Bryan and Edward Glazer and Darcie Glazer Kassewitz are open to offloading their shares.
Offers from the second round of bidding last month were believed to have been worth around £5 billion.
That would smash the Premier League record of £2.5 billion paid for Chelsea last year by a consortium led by Los Angeles Dodgers co-owner Todd Boehly and private equity firm Clearlake Capital, with a further £1.75 billion promised in investment in infrastructure and players.
The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust (MUST) has called for a swift conclusion to the process to allow new owners to be in place for the summer transfer window.
“We are in dire need of new investment, which undoubtedly requires new ownership. MUST, along with United fans all around the world, are calling for this process to be concluded without further delay,” the fans’ group said in a statement.
– Decade of decline –
The history of the Glazers’ time in charge, though, suggests they are unlikely to bow to fan sentiment.
United have been in a steady decline on and off the field over the past decade.
The Red Devils have not won the Premier League title since former manager Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, while the club’s revenue has fallen behind local rivals Manchester City and Liverpool due to a lack of regular Champions League football and a failure to modernise Old Trafford.
But they are enjoying a renaissance under Erik ten Hag’s management this season, having ended a six-year trophy drought by lifting the League Cup in February.
They also face Manchester City in the FA Cup final on June 3.
Sheikh Jassim’s bid for 100 percent control of the club promises to erase United’s $620 million debt, as well as investing in an overhaul of the stadium and training ground.
Just months after hosting the 2022 World Cup, a successful Qatari bid would give the Gulf state pride of place in the Premier League — the world’s most-watched domestic competition.
But Sheikh Jassim is the son of former Qatari prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, and his close links to the gulf state’s ruling elite would raise questions over another Premier League club becoming a state-backed project.
INEOS chemical company founder Ratcliffe, a boyhood United fan, has been more circumspect in his assessment, insisting he will not pay a “stupid” price in a bidding war for one of football’s most iconic clubs.
Reports that Ratcliffe could make an offer for a majority stake in the club, but allow Joel and Avram Glazer to remain as shareholders have also raised concerns among the fanbase.
Finnish tycoon Thomas Zilliacus is the outside contender, having said his offer from the second round of bidding still stands despite labelling the prolonged sale process as a “farce”.