Engine maker floats into a different league

Another tycoon buys his field of dreams. Patrick Tooher meets Sheffield United's new boss

FLOATING your company on the stock market ought to be more than enough to keep even the busiest chairman fully occupied. For millionaire Manchester businessman Michael McDonald, however, successfully listing diesel-engine maker L Gardner on the Alternative Investment Market last month was the least of his worries.

For on the very day that shares in the 125-year-old company raced to a nearly 20 per cent premium to value Gardner at pounds 16m, Mr McDonald also finally took control of debt-laden Sheffield United, the struggling First Division football club, after a bitter and protracted takeover battle.

The pounds 3.2m deal, rubber-stamped at a board meeting last Thursday, involved Mr McDonald and two anonymous backers buying a controlling 52 per cent stake in the club from the former owner, Reg Brealey, the controversial businessman behind the troubled jute processing company Titaghur.

"The negotiations were horrendous," says Mr McDonald. "Getting the shareholders to agree was bloody difficult."

Joining him on the new United board are his erstwhile rivals Stephen Hinchliffe, a local entrepreneur and former club director whose Facia group is now Britain's second largest private retailer, and Kevin McCabe, a Scarborough-based builder who made his fortune when he sold his pipes and cable-laying company to Southern Electric for pounds 11m two years ago. Both men also sought to wrest control of "the Blades" from Mr Brealey but were beaten to the punch by Mr McDonald.

The new board's task at Bramall Lane is daunting. The season got off to a woeful start when the manager, Dave Bassett, and the club's players and staff were not paid their monthly salary cheques.

United now languish third from bottom of the First Division and face an uphill struggle to avoid relegation, having lost 12 of 20 games so far. Gates have halved from an average of 20,000 two years ago, when United rubbed shoulders with the elite in football's top flight.

Last year, supporters fed up with the way the club was being run formed an action group, the Blades' Independent Fans' Association (Bifa) which accused Mr Brealey of denying the manager transfer funds and of stalling over a new stand. Bifa organised protest meetings and handed out red cards for fans to brandish at directors during matches.

Mr McDonald's credentials for reviving the club's fortunes seem as good as any. Unlike many football club owners, his connections with Pele's "beautiful game" are anything but tenuous.

"I've never been a golfer," he says, "but I've played amateur football at a decent level [he used to turn out for non-league Hyde United, the east Manchester club where he is now president]. I am a roots football person."

His background in the family scrap metal business and machine tools meant he forged close contacts across the Peak District with the city of Sheffield, the steel centre of the North. During the 1980s his Texas group, which retains majority control of L Gardner, became one of Britain's biggest independent foundries.

L Gardner itself is a recent addition, bought from the tractor-maker Massey Ferguson's offshoot Perkins two years ago, since when six-figure losses have been transformed into profits of pounds 1.8m in the year to August.

Nine in 10 of Hong Kong's 4,000 buses run on Gardner diesel engines, as do most of London's double-deckers, and leading customers for its engines and parts include such bus companies as Stagecoach and Leyland. "We are picking up orders left, right and centre," Mr McDonald says.

L Gardner was not the only turnaround situation he was attracted to. Two years ago he tried and failed to buy Premier League Manchester City, but pulled out of bidding when he realised the former City star Francis Lee was the popular choice among the side's long-suffering supporters.

"It was an 11th-hour decision," he recalls. "But without the fans' support, it is not easy to turn things round."

Undeterred, Mr McDonald soon turned his sights on Sheffield United - another big city club that has had to live under the shadow of a larger local rival.

"I hate to see underdogs," he explains. "Sheffield can carry two big clubs, and United should be on a par with Wednesday."

How much money he pumps into the club remains to be seen. Mr McDonald is reluctant to portray himself as a new Jack Walker, the steel magnate whose millions transformed the fortunes of Blackburn Rovers, who are the reigning Premier League champions.

"You've got to be very realistic. You don't make money out of football, it's not like a business. You do it for the enjoyment and seeing it grow."

Instead, he sees plenty of commercial opportunities off the field in merchandising, catering and corporate hospitality. But he is the first to recognise that only putting more bums on seats will restore the club's financial health.

"Gates are the problem. Being a Lancashire person, I don't really understand the Yorkshire people - I don't see the logic in fans staying away. Take Manchester City. They had a disastrous start to the season but their support remained very strong, averaging 28,000. But at Sheffield United it has halved in two years and we need 14,000 just to break even. That's a major, major concern because nobody can build success in any walk of life without having support. Very few people are a one-man band."

Mr McDonald reckons a return to home crowds of 20,000 at Bramall Lane would allow the club to sign big names and invest in the ground.

But he admits time is not on his side and wooing back Sheffield United's fairweather fans will not be easy. "Of course, there is a chicken and egg situation. We are pretty precarious at the bottom of Division One."

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, Accreditation, ITIL)

£70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Information Security Manager (ISO 27001, A...

Biztalk - outstanding opportunity

£75000 - £85000 per annum + ex bens: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Biztalk Te...

Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows, Network Security)

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Trade Desk Specialist (FIX, Linux, Windows...

Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Directory, ITIL, Reuter)

£35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Windows, Active Dire...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?