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Ratcliffe bid presents glimmer of hope for Manchester United

Manchester United fans aren’t going to get the clean slate they wanted when the Glazer family announced nearly a year ago that they could sell the club, but there’s hope they might get something close to a fresh start.

British billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe, founder and chairman of chemical company INEOS, is closing in on a deal to acquire 25% of the club in exchange for £1.3 billion ($1.6bn), plus control over the sporting side of the business. It’s not the full takeover supporters demanded as it will mean the Glazers, wildly unpopular owners since their leveraged buy-out in 2005, are set to stay in some form, but there’s quiet optimism that whatever change is triggered by Ratcliffe’s arrival can be positive in nature.

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Most fans are prepared to wait and see what happens, but the general feeling is that, after 18 years of anger and protests, it can’t be as bad as what’s gone before.

Ratcliffe, estimated to be worth around £15bn ($18bn), has already shown his business expertise just to get himself into this position. While his main rival in the bidding process, Qatari businessman Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al-Thani, tailored his offer to win over the fans, Ratcliffe focused on winning over the Glazers. Ratcliffe initially wanted to buy the Glazers’ 69% shareholding and leave the rest on the New York Stock Exchange, but amid doubts about the structure of the deal and whether the American family really wanted to sell, he reduced his offer to a minority investment.

Sheikh Jassim, meanwhile, was consistent in his message that he only wanted 100% of the club, paid for in cash. In proposals that appealed to the majority of fans, he also said he would wipe away existing debt created by the Glazer ownership — the last financial figures released in March had that number at close to £1bn — and throw in an extra £1.4bn ($1.7 bn) for investment into the stadium, training ground and the playing squad.

There are moral issues surrounding the Sheikh’s interest — not least his strong links with Qatar, a nation with a poor record on human rights and laws against homosexuality — but, in a pure football sense, his plans appealed to supporters who have seen United fall behind neighbours Manchester City since their takeover by Abu Dhabi in 2008.

Yet Sheikh Jassim’s team announced on Saturday that they were withdrawing from the race, citing the Glazers’ “outlandish and fanciful” valuation of more than £6bn ($7.3bn) as their key reason. The current market value of Manchester United is around £2.7bn ($3.2bn), but his exit from the race brings to an end what has been a curious episode.

Sheikh Jassim never spoke publicly about his bid and after his interest was revealed with a short statement in February, the PR firm hired to push his case couldn’t answer simple questions about his age or family status. Further questions about the size of his personal wealth, where the money would come from and his links to the Qatari state were also left unanswered. So little was known about a figure who, almost overnight, became the talk of United’s global fanbase that supporters would regularly joke about whether he is a real person or was something generated by AI.

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A source close to the bid has told ESPN there are no plans to target another club, so maybe the answer will never be revealed. One of the positive elements of Sheikh Jassim’s bid, according to his team, was that it would have been a “clean” takeover. Meanwhile, Ratcliffe has done a better job of getting a foot in the door with the Glazers, but his idea is more complicated and therefore open to a raft of questions about how it’s all going to work.

Ratcliffe’s proposal is for an investment of £1.3bn, but where is that money coming from, will it be borrowed and where is it going? He’s set to acquire a 25% stake, but how can a minority shareholder control any area of the business, especially one as important as football operations? And if the Glazers are staying, what will their new role look like?

The key reason behind the Glazers’ announcement in November 2022, one in which they said they would consider “strategic alternatives” to meet “the club’s long-term investment needs,” was a realisation that they need capital to redevelop Old Trafford. It is budgeted to cost anywhere between £800 million ($975m) and £2bn ($2.4bn) — how does Ratcliffe’s money achieve that?

Above everything, the key question remains: Does United’s future look brighter with Ratcliffe as part of it?

Ratcliffe, 70, who tried to buy Chelsea in 2022, has experience in football after buying Swiss club FC Lausanne-Sport in 2017 and French club Nice in 2019.

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His time in charge of Nice has been underwhelming. They recorded three top-four finishes in Ligue 1 in the six years before Ratcliffe’s takeover and since his ownership have finished sixth in 2020, ninth in 2021, 5th in 2022, and ninth in 2023. There’s already talk that if Ratcliffe is successful in his bid to gain influence at United — he could get the green light as early as Thursday, when a pre-scheduled board meeting is due to take place — that he would look to replace football director John Murtough with his own man, possibly former Monaco sporting director Paul Mitchell.

United staff gave presentations to Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim’s team in March, leaving the meetings believing both groups were happy with the club’s structure and plans for the future, but as one INEOS source told ESPN: “What is the point of having influence and then not using it?”

Erik ten Hag’s job as manager is safe, but Murtough and CEO Richard Arnold would be vulnerable in any shake-up.

Ratcliffe, a boyhood United supporter who was born in Failsworth, is deeply aware of fan feeling, so expect a charm offensive when and if his investment is confirmed. But United supporters are keen for less talking and more action.

Again, as so often has been the case under the Glazers, the mood is tense. Fans are fed up after a decade of decline and have grown to fear empty promises of positive change. But if Ratcliffe can secure a deal that sees the Glazers take a back seat while improvements are made to the stadium and the playing squad, then it will renew hope that brighter days are not that far away.

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