Man Utd's mystery bidder is waiting on the touchline

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The Independent Online
A MYSTERY suitor is lining up a bid for Manchester United.

Names in the frame include the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Arabian billionaire Prince Waleed bin Talal (who has invested in EuroDisney and Canary Wharf) and an unnamed European media group.

The City is convinced that a bid is in the offing, spurred by an approach made in the last couple of weeks to Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards to buy part of his 14 per cent stake in the club.

Its is understood that J P McManus, the legendary gambler and racehorse owner, recently made an approach to Mr Edwards to buy some of his stake but was rebuffed.

Mr McManus is the single biggest racing gambler in Britain and Ireland, famous for often betting up to pounds 250,000 on a horse. He owns many horses himself, and tends to back them, including Istibraq, which has won the Champion Hurdles at Cheltenham for the last two years running.

Reports that the bidder was Joe Lewis, the Bermuda-based billionaire, who used to run ENIC, a company which owns 25 per cent of Glasgow Rangers as well as stakes in four other European football clubs proved unfounded. It was suggested that Mr Lewis was acting alongside his friends, stockbroker Dermot Desmond and racehorse owner John Magnier.

However, sources close to Mr Lewis firmly squashed such rumours yesterday, saying that neither he nor ENIC, where his son, Charlie Lewis is still a director, has been involved in any way with an approach.

Speculation has been further spurred by the possibility that BSkyB, the satellite broadcaster controlled by Rupert Murdoch, might choose to either unload or at least reduce its own 9.1 per cent stake in Manchester United. BSkyB's pounds 623m bid for the club was blocked by the merger authorities in April after a noisy campaign by fans opposed to the deal. Asked if BSkyB planned to sell or reduce its stake of 23.5m shares in United, a spokesman for BSkyB said yesterday: "We've no plans to relinquish them [the shares]. We've had them since the takeover was blocked, and we're holding on to them as an investment." The BSkyB spokesman also denied that it had been approached by a potential bidder for the shares.

Rumours of a renewed bid for Manchester United have been circulating in the City for some weeks now, prompting analysts to suggest that some bid speculation was already in the share price. The shares rose 3 to to 211p yesterday, having touched 218p at one stage.

A bid at 211p would value United at pounds 555m. Some analysts have said United could be worth over pounds 1bn.

An approach by a European media group would face none of the regulatory problems that torpedoed Rupert Murdoch's bid. CanalPlus of France, for instance, owns the Paris St Germain club, while MediaSet of Italy owns AC Milan.

Mr Edwards owns some 36 m shares in United and there is speculation that he is prepared to unload 10 per cent. Part of a family which has run the club since the Sixties, Mr Edwards came under fire last year when his board agreed to sell the club to BSkyB. Mr Edwards stood to make more than pounds 80m through the sale of his stake. Mr Edwards' father Louis, a Manchester butcher, took control of the club in the early Sixties and under his stewardship United became European champions in 1968. Mr Edwards senior handed over control to Martin shortly before his death in 1980.

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