Goldman's O'Neill joins Manchester United board

Manchester United bolstered its depleted board yesterday by appointing a big City name, Jim O'Neill, the head of global economic research at Goldman Sachs.

Mr O'Neill, 47, who was born in Manchester, already owns a 0.5 per cent stake in the club, worth about £3.6m. He will take up his post as independent non-executive director next Monday.

The appointment came less than a week after Malcolm Glazer, United's second-largest shareholder, ousted three directors at the club's annual meeting in retaliation for the board refusing to back his proposed takeover.

United insisted yesterday that Mr O'Neill was not a direct replacement for any of the three. Sir Roy Gardner, United's chairman, said: "We have been speaking to Jim for some time so I am delighted that he has accepted the offer to join the board. Jim is a first-class businessman who brings with him an energy and commitment that few could match. His knowledge and experience will be a great asset to the board in our future growth."

United, who are certain to benefit from Mr O'Neill's extensive City contacts, will be keen to stress his independence. Supporters are likely to welcome the appointment of a self-proclaimed "lifelong fan", however, if only because they feel that no genuine fan would ever be supportive of a takeover of their club.

Oliver Houston, a spokesman for the Shareholders United fans' group, said: "We wish him the best of luck. We hope and expect he'll be backing the board's decision to ward off any hostile takeover."

Mr O'Neill, who succeeded Gavyn Davies as Goldman Sachs's chief economist, has been in his current job since September 2001. Before that he was the head of global economics and chief currency economist at Goldman, a firm he joined as a partner in October 1995.

One former colleague described Mr O'Neill as a "plain-speaking, self-made man" who has used his talent and hard work to rise from a humble background to the senior ranks of Goldman. As a partner when the investment bank floated on the stock market in 1999, his endeavours have made him a fortune. Partners at the time made between $60m (£32m) and $200m each from the flotation.

Mr O'Neill, who is married with two children, is well known for his philanthropy, not least as a founder trustee of the children's educational charity Shine.

More significant than his wealth to United will be his relationships with some key figures at the club. It is understood that he is friendly with United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, whom he knows through Sir Alex's son, Mark.

It is also thought that Mr O'Neill has a good relationship with United's largest shareholders, John Magnier and JP McManus. The Irish pair own 28.89 per cent of United through their Cubic Expression company. Forging amicable links with Cubic - who have had their own run-ins with the board over corporate governance issues - will be an important task, not least if Mr Glazer maintains a hostile bidding approach that the board has already rejected.