Bid fever puts Man Utd back into $1bn league

The bid fever surrounding Manchester United intensified last night as the club sought to discover the identity of a mystery investor who bought more than 2 million shares last Friday and the value of the company jumped to its highest in more than two and a half years.

As shares in the club rose a further 8 per cent in heavy trading to 235p, valuing it at £611m or $1bn - its highest since February, 2001 - a spokesman said the company was preparing to issue 212 notices to establish the beneficial owner of the shares.

Initially speculation in the City had centred on Malcolm Glazer, the American football billionaire, as the man behind the latest share buying. Mr Glazer doubled his stake in the club to just under 6 per cent a week ago. However, rumours were also swirling that the buyer might be another Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, seeking to emulate his compatriot, the new Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, by acquiring a Premiership club.

The identity of the seller of the 2.2 million share stake last Friday was revealed yesterday as Lansdowne Partners, a hedge fund run by Stuart Roden, a former fund manager at Merrill Lynch. The share sale took Lansdowne's stake down from 6 per cent to 5.17 per cent and was said to have been carried out as an "agency cross" which involves shares changing hands directly without the involvement of a market maker.

If Mr Glazer, the owner of Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has bought more shares then he is obliged under City disclosure rules to notify the club which would then inform the market. A Manchester United spokesman said last night he was not aware of any such notification being received.

The Manchester United board, led by chairman Sir Roy Gardner, is seeking a meeting with Mr Glazer. However, the club continues to view all of its major shareholders as "value investors" and not potential bidders, the spokesman added.

The largest shareholder in Manchester United is Cubic Expression, a vehicle owned by the horseracing duo JP McManus and John Magnier. BskyB owns 9.99 per cent, while Mountbarrow, a vehicle controlled by the mining millionaire Harry Dobson, owns 6.54 per cent. Other big shareholders include Jon de Mol, the creator of Big Brother with 3.48 per cent, and Dermot Desmond, the Celtic chairman, who owns 1.5 per cent.

Initially speculation in the City had centred on Malcolm Glazer, the American football billionaire, as the man behind the latest share buying. Mr Glazer doubled his stake in the club to just under 6 per cent a week ago. However, rumours were also swirling that the buyer might be another Russian oligarch, Boris Berezovsky, seeking to emulate his compatriot, the new Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, by acquiring a Premiership club.

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