Man Utd on lookout for acquisitions in Far East

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Manchester United, the UK's best-supported football club, is understood to be eyeing up acquisitions in the Far East. Speculation is mounting that it is set to become the first English club to buy or take a stake in a foreign football club.

It is believed to be scouring Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia for targets. It would also love to tap into the Chinese market, where it recently went on tour and where the game is rapidly growing in popularity

In the past few weeks United has appointed Hong Kong-based HSBC investment bank as advisers, a move that has been interpreted by observers as a forerunner to acquisitions.

"You don't employ corporate financiers for nothing. You employ them to look for acquisitions. The Far East is an obvious place to look," said one source.

Vinay Bedi, a football analyst with Wise Speke, believes United is most likely to lead the way among British clubs seeking to expand abroad.

"Acquisitions in the Far East are very possible in due course for many of the leading Premiership clubs. I would not be surprised if Manchester United was at the forefront of that initiative," he said yesterday.

United's chief executive, Martin Edwards, has already made it clear that he wants to expand the club's operations in the Far East. He recently employed Peter Kenyon, a former executive at United's kit sponsors, Umbro, as deputy chief executive to oversee global expansion.

The club has just opened an office and shop in China, from where it will co-ordinate its Far East operations. It already has shops in Thailand, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia, where it is marketing its brands heavily.

If these prove a success it plans to roll out stores across the Far East. Sources suggest buying a club in the Far East would be a natural way to boost merchandise sales in these stores.

"It is no secret that we are interested in the Far East. We are looking at opportunities over there," a spokesman for United said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Mr Edwards has raised more than pounds 2.9m by selling 405,000 shares in the club. Family trusts controlled by Mr Edwards have also sold 500,000 shares for pounds 3.25m. Mr Edwards, who once held 24 per cent of the club, has gradually been reducing his stake over the past few years and now owns less than 15 per cent.

It is understood he sold the shares to satisfy the demand for new stock from one large institution. He is believed to have sold the shares in the family trusts on advice that the trusts' assets were too heavily reliant on United's share price.