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In a few months, the face of Manchester United could change forever.
On the pitch, Erik ten Hag’s side are competing for four trophies this season but how far United can progress in the medium to long-term depends on their ownership saga.
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Bids from Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim Bin Hamad Al Thani and Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s INEOS group were confirmed on Friday, while it was revealed on Saturday that US hedge fund Elliott Management also lodged a proposal for possible financing with the Glazers.
Sky Sports News chief reporter Kaveh Solhekol assesses what each scenario could mean for United…
Qatar: Fabulously rich but questions remain on morality and PSG
Debt: The Qataris have almost unlimited wealth and would wipe out Manchester United’s debt. That is attractive to the fans.
This debt has weighed down on the club for the last 18 years. The Glazers bought United in a controversial leveraged buy-out – it means they borrowed money to buy the club. The deal was worth £790m – but the Glazers put only £270m of their own money. They borrowed the rest and saddled the debt onto United. Up until that point, United had been a debt-free club.
Ever since then, United have been paying the interest on that debt along with dividends – it has cost United £1.5bn to be owned by the Glazers, with the net debt now around £515m.
All this money has been taken out of United while Roman Abramovich put in £2bn into Chelsea, while Sheikh Mansour and Abu Dhabi have invested significantly in Manchester City.
Ten Hag and transfers: The most likely scenario is that the Qataris would bring in their own people to run the club but Ten Hag would stay as manager.
Sheikh Jassim has been a Man United supporter since 1992 and has seen the club through good and bad times. He must know Ten Hag has got United heading in the right direction again. I would be very surprised if the Qataris bought United and replaced Ten Hag with a marquee name like Zinedine Zidane.
It would of course be up to Ten Hag to get on and have a good relationship with the new executives they bring in: a new sporting director, new chief executive for example.
The owners would then give Ten Hag what he wants. The Qataris will want the best of everything. We have seen it with PSG and the signings of Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Lionel Messi, but things would be different at United.
My general sense on the transfer market is United would be big spenders in the summer window – but we are not talking crazy spending of £300m to £500m.
Everyone knows they need a striker – a world-class No 9. They will get that player, and there are names people have mentioned such as Victor Osimhen and Harry Kane.
Joining United would be more attractive for players as well – not just because of the work Ten Hag has done but also the fact they could be owned by the Qataris. If you are a player or an agent, you want to be part of this brand new project.
Stadium and infrastructure: We have been told that redeveloping and building a new stadium would be an absolute priority.
The training ground would be redeveloped as well and we have seen PSG are about to move into a new centre after criticism that their facilities were not good enough.
Crucially, through the ‘Nine Two Foundation’ the Sheikh has set up, he has said all the profit he makes from United would be put back into the club and the local community.
United are one of the few clubs in the world that can be self-sustaining. It does make a lot of money because of the global interest in it – the Glazers claim the club has one billion fans.
Protests and criticisms: There would be protests if the Qataris went on to buy the club, as we saw with the World Cup, about human rights in Qatar and the treatment of LGBTQ+ people in the country and the fact that homosexuality is illegal and criminalised.
I have been told everyone will be welcomed at Manchester United. The message is loud and clear: just because Qatar has certain laws does not mean it will affect the way the club is run and United will be the open and inclusive institution that it is now.
The other controversial aspect about the Qatari bid is whether Sheikh Jassim is really different to the ownership of PSG under Qatar Sports Investments (QSI)? UEFA rules state two clubs with the same owner cannot play against each other in the same competition.
The Qataris are very confident that it is totally different. We are told QSI and the Qatar Investment Authority are not involved in this and this is Sheikh Jassim’s private bid.
The two clubs would be run by different people, which is the same thing Red Bull did with RB Leipzig and RB Salzburg. But like with the human rights issues, there are serious questions to answer about whether that is actually the case.
Does a private individual have the money? People will ask the question: is this actually a bid from the state of Qatar? Is that where the money is coming from?
Ratcliffe: Not as wealthy as Qatar amid greenwash concerns
Debt: Sir Jim Ratcliffe is one of the richest men in the UK but is he rich enough to own and run Manchester United on his own?
The answer is no. Ratcliffe’s takeover would be part-funded by debt and he is being advised by US investment banks Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.
But crucially, the money he would be borrowing to buy United would not end up on the club’s balance sheet. Ratcliffe and INEOS would be responsible for the debt.
United fans with long memories will remember that JP Morgan also worked with the Glazers on their 2005 takeover and were backer of the doomed European Super League project in 2021.
Ratcliffe is initially bidding to buy the 69 per cent of United which is owned by the Glazers but because of the way United’s shares are classed that would give him almost total control. His long term is believed to be owning the club outright.
Ten Hag and transfers: Ratcliffe has kept his thoughts about Ten Hag to himself but as a genuine United fan he must be thrilled about the job the Dutchman and his coaching team are doing at Old Trafford.
United are still in the hunt for four major trophies this season and for the first time since Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013, it feels like they have exactly the right man in charge.
Whoever ends up owning United it would be a major surprise if Ten Hag was not a major part of their vision for the future of the club
Under Ratcliffe, new faces would arrive in senior positions but the position of Ten Hag would appear to be rock solid. There could be key roles for Sir Dave Brailsford, who is now the INEOS director of sport, and Jean-Claude Blanc, the INEOS chief executive of sport.
When it comes to transfers, you would expect Ratcliffe to back Ten Hag in the summer window and as a United fan he will already know that signing another forward will be the top priority.
Ratcliffe may not have the financial firepower of the Qataris but a net spend of €100m (£88m) over the past three seasons at Nice shows he knows how important it is to invest in talent if you want to succeed on the pitch.
After missing out on Champions League qualification at the end of last season, Nice signed players such as Kasper Schmeichel, Aaron Ramsey, Ross Barkley and Nicolas Pepe. In January they signed Nigeria striker Terem Moffi from Lorient in a loan plus obligation to buy deal worth up to €30m.
Stadium and infrastructure: Ratcliffe is a United fan so he knows Old Trafford needs to be redeveloped as soon as possible and more work needs to be done updating the Carrington training ground.
At INEOS he has extensive experience of overseeing and financing major infrastructure projects so there is no reason to doubt that Old Trafford would again become one of the best stadiums in the world under his ownership.
Since INEOS brought Swiss club Lausanne in 2017, they have moved into a brand new purpose-built 12,000-seater stadium.
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Protests and criticism: While the Qatari bid will face questions about sportswashing, Ratcliffe and INEOS will need to address concerns that they have are using sport to greenwash their corporate image as an operator of polluting industries.
Ratcliffe, a prominent Brexit supporter, has also faced criticism for moving to tax-free Monaco in 2020.
As far as football is concerned, Ratcliffe would need to satisfy UEFA that he was not running and controlling United and Nice if they both qualified for the same European competition.
In any case, that scenario is unlikely to come about next season. Nice are currently eighth in Ligue 1, 12 points behind the three Champions League places given to France. United, meanwhile, are on course for a top-four finish under Ten Hag.
Glazers: Sell a minority stake amid potential success under Ten Hag
Debt: We do not know for certain that the Glazers actually want to sell Manchester United.
All they said in November is that they have appointed The Raine Group to look at a range of alternative strategies for the club going forward. One of those could be a full sale, but another option they have is just to sell a minority stake in United.
The Glazers have to decide whether being offered £5bn for the club is just too good a deal to turn down. They have also moved the registered office from Old Trafford to the Cayman Islands so the tax implications have been reduced.
But if they stayed on they could take up another one of the options that Raine have come up with, for instance, a possible proposal from Elliott Management. They could take a stake in Manchester United in return for the money that they put in which could be used to improve the infrastructure.
So maybe the Glazers will think, ‘We’re not going to sell it now. We will just sell 10 per cent for £500m and we’ll use that to redevelop Manchester United’.
Ten Hag and transfers: The Glazers are aware that more money needs to be spent on the squad as well, but if you look at the figures over the last three years, United have spent big on transfers which has contributed to a loss of £230m over that period. At the moment it’s a loss-making business.
But for the first time really since Sir Alex Ferguson left, there’s light at the end of the tunnel. They have got Ten Hag, the team is playing well and they are in four competitions.
In a funny way, the better that Man Utd play and the more successful they are on the pitch, the harder it makes it for the Glazers to decide to sell, so maybe they will think let’s hold out until the end of the season.
If Ten Hag is winning trophies, then do the Glazers really want to leave now?
Stadium and Infrastructure: The reason they carried out this whole process is because they know that Manchester United needs a lot of money spent on it going forward, especially the stadium.
Everybody accepts that Old Trafford has now been left behind by stadiums like Tottenham’s, so they could raise capital to carry out the works that need to be done. The Glazers already have people working on proposals to redevelop it.
Work has also started on improving the training ground, so that would continue.
Protests and criticisms: If they decide not to sell, I think it is going to be very, very controversial. The protests from United fans, many of whom have been protesting throughout the past 18 years and even before the Glazers took over, would increase because people would say you had this opportunity to end this once and for all with an incredible profit.
But it’s their club, so if they want to stay on, they can afford to stay on. It would be controversial, but there’s nothing stopping them from doing it.
Now we could be on the verge of an even greater era of the Premier League becoming even more powerful and popular than it already is, so if they think that United is going to be worth even more in five years’ time than it is today, then they can just hold and they can put up with the protests. It might be uncomfortable and difficult, but it’s something they’ve done in the past.
But I understand the Glazers and Raine want this process totally finished before the transfer window opens in June.
Ten Hag needs clarity when the window opens in June about who’s going to be signing the cheques – will it be the Qataris? Will it be Ratcliffe? Or will it be the Glazers?