Man United's winning streak can't last forever

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The Independent Online
Another day, another takeover rumour concerning Manchester United, and another burst down the wing for the share price. What on earth is going on? Martin Edwards (Mr Chairman to his ground staff) is beginning to attract bid speculation like Vinnie Jones accumulates red cards.

Perhaps it is something to do with his suggestion that the club would have to consider a bid if it was pitched at more than pounds 400m, against a current market price of pounds 350m. That is not the kind of thing chairmen of publicly quoted companies normally say. Then again, Manchester United, indeed football clubs as a genre, do not make for normal quoted companies.

Just look at Celtic, where the wizards of the financial dribble are producing some very strange results. It lost pounds 1m last year, it hasn't won anything on the field for ages, it is the perennial poor relation to its Glasgow rival Rangers, and yet the share price has doubled in the past six months to pounds 20. Ay, that's football, laddie.

The meteoric rise in Man Utd's share price has a little more substance behind it. It has won the double (again), it is back in the European Cup, which is a licence to print money now that they have dreamed up the wheeze of turning it into a mini-champions league, and it has the new BSkyB television deal and pay-per-view to whet the appetites of its City supporters. Television income alone could treble to pounds 15m next year.

Hang on, though. It is, at the end of the day and when all is said and done Brian, only a football club. And the defining feature of football, unlike other sectors of the entertainment industry, is that there can only be one winner. What happens to those gate revenues, the TV income, and the Giggsie duvet covers when United crash out of Europe and Newcastle snatch the Championship from them? This does not seem to have deterred an apparently endless stream of potential bidders, from Michael Grade's VCI video business to Granada, Whitbread and now Mark McCormack's IMG. Can Sir Desmond Pitcher's United Utilities, which already supplies water and light to the masses in the North-west, be far behind?

Football has come a long way from the days of stale pork pies, lukewarm Bovril, urinals that resemble cowsheds and egomaniacal owners who treat clubs like trophy assets. But is it really the sort of business which is appropriate for the stock market?

Perhaps football clubs will eventually tire of the disclosure requirements that come with public ownership and take themselves private again. In the case of Man Utd, Mr McCormack could save them the bother if his rumoured interest turns out to be real.

Meanwhile its directors, who own 22 per cent of the stock, continue to do well as the punters dive in, oblivious to the stream of denials from would-be bidders. And what of the referee in all this? The Stock Exchange has thus far stayed firmly on the sidelines.

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