Elon Musk’s takeover wasn’t even the biggest joke at Manchester United’s expense this week.
The richest man on the planet was only teasing when he pretended to be buying the club in a tersely enticing tweet, and that was bad enough. On the same day, however, in an interview with the Financial Times, Mercedes chief Toto Wolff said he had studied the club — in an effort to find out why great teams fall apart.
Wolff wasn’t mocking, merely, as the leader of a Mercedes unit that had dominated F1, seeing Manchester United as a similar sporting enterprise before their recent fall. ‘The human gets complacent,’ he said. ‘You are not energized in the same way you were before. You are maybe not as ambitious.’
Even so, it reinforced the idea of United as a punchline, the way Manchester City used to be. ‘The Theater of Screams,’ Sir Alex Ferguson would call Maine Road. There was a faux-clicker in a corner of Old Trafford detailing the years since City last won a trophy. All of this, and more, can be applied to United now.
The biggest players in sport are studying them for a crash course in how not to do it. So why would Sir Jim Ratcliffe want to get involved with the club in its current state?
Much as when Musk tweeted, there was great excitement when the wealthiest man in Britain seemed to suggest he would be interested in a stake in United. Yet we’ve been here before. Ratcliffe was also keen to buy Chelsea from Roman Abramovich, once the deadline for bids had passed. You will notice he does not own it now.
Elon Musk was only joking on social media when he said that he was going to buy the club
A New York based private equity group, Apollo, are in negotiations to secure a minority stake from the Glazers, with only two of the six Glazer siblings said to be interested in staying on. Yet, and here is the key, Joel and Avram Glazer wish to keep the majority stake and control the day to day running of the club. So what is in it for a private, individual, investor like Ratcliffe?
The estimated valuation of the business is £5billion — ironically, if the team had performed as well there would be little problem — and let’s say the Glazers offered up as much as 30 percent. That’s still £1.5billion, and who would want to plow that much into a company and leave people in charge who have become a case study in how to mess up?
Not everything that goes wrong at the club is down to the ownership — players, managers and staff must also take some blame — but this decline is all on the Glazer family’s watch. Surely, the bottom line for any serious investor must be regime change? If Ratcliffe is boarding this plane, he surely cannot be comfortable flying with the same pilot who seems baffled by the controls? He didn’t get to be worth close on £11bn by making dumb decisions.
Manchester United’s co-chairmen Joel Glazer (right) and Avram Glazer (left) are reportedly open to selling a stake in the club
Sir Jim Ratcliffe formally expressed an interest in buying the troubled club this week
It is different for Apollo who would only be investors. There is no suggestion of a majority stake, a takeover, or even an injection of funds to help with recruitment.
It’s just another speculative move by American venture capitalists. The new boss will be the same as the old boss. And not even a boss, really. As a minority investor, the best that could be hoped for is that they apply pressure to the club’s executive management. In reality, there would be little they could do.
And so United continued, flailing wildly. Little about the machinations of their recruitment strategy this summer makes sense. They missed out on £15 million Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot because they could not reach an agreement on his wages. Now it is being suggested there is a £60m move for Casemiro at Real Madrid. He’s a much better player, but unless he’s got the worst negotiator in football, surely he earns more than Rabiot? He’s 30, but he’s won the Champions League five times, and La Liga three times.
Toto Wolff, the Mercedes chief, has studied Manchester United and their decline to mediocrity
And Casemiro is regarded as one of the finest defensive midfielders in Europe. If Rabiot’s demands were too rich for United’s tastes, what of Casemiro? A suggested five-year contract would make United hostages to fortune given his age and while it could be argued he would justify his wage and fee as a premium talent, so was Raphael Varane when he left Real, and United appear to have worked their post -Ferguson magic on him.
Another target is Christian Pulisic of Chelsea, a lightweight forward or wide player not entirely dissimilar to the many on United’s books already, certainly Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford.
It has been so haphazard, United’s activity this summer, and, as targets increasingly fall by the wayside, only becomes more so.
United’s transfer dealings are haphazard – why would the club want another lightweight wide forward in Christian Pulisic?
Uncertainty off the field won’t make that worse, but nor does it make the outlook any brighter. Further fan protests against the Glazers are planned for Monday night’s game with Liverpool, and there is already a movement against Apollo, who are seen to be Glazer allies rather than their replacements.
Also, Josh Harris, a minority shareholder in Crystal Palace is Apollo’s co-founder and is listed as sitting on the board of directors and executive committee. The Premier League would therefore have to look at his involvement very closely.
Nothing is clean here, nothing certain. The Ratcliffe camp say their man is a buyer but only if the club is for sale, which it isn’t. If their man is contemplating making a direct play for ownership it is not apparent. The only billionaire who spoke of buying United outright transpires to have been joking. In the meantime, Wolff will have plenty of material for his next investigation into reverse alchemy. By the time this plays out he might be able to write a book.
Crystal Palace co-owner Josh Harris (centre) has an involvement in Apollo, who are in exclusive talks to buy a minority stake in Manchester United