Irish millionaires buy Sky's Man U stake

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The Independent Online

Manchester United was on full bid alert last night after two Irish horseracing millionaires raised their holding in the Premiership club to almost 25 per cent.

JP McManus and John Magnier snapped up BSkyB's 10 per cent stake in Manchester United for £62m yesterday morning, using their front company Cubic Expression to buy the pay-TV company's 26 million shares for 237p each. Together with shares bought by Cubic last Friday from another big shareholder, the hedge fund Lansdowne, it takes their stake to 60.1 million shares or 23.15 per cent.

Sources close to the transaction maintained Cubic did not plan to mount a full bid. However, dealers said the club was now clearly in play and Manchester United shares rose 5 per cent to 247.75p - their highest since January 2001 - valuing it at £644m. A number of wealthy overseas investors are now circling and dealers said a full-scale bid battle could see it fetch £750m-£800m. "They are definitely in play now," said Stan Lock at the private client stockbroker Brewin Dolphin.

Speculation has been swirling for months that Manchester United, the richest football club in Europe, was about to be taken over. The bid fever intensified last week after Malcolm Glazer, the owner of the American football team the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, nearly doubled his stake to 5.92 per cent.

Other wealthy shareholders include the mining millionaire Harry Dobson, who holds 6.54 per cent through his vehicle Mountbarrow, Jon de Mol, the creator of Big Brother, who owns 3.48 per cent, and another Irishman Dermot Desmond, the chairman of Celtic, who holds 1.5 per cent.

Observers doubt whether Mr McManus and Mr Magnier would have paid such a high price for BSkyB's stake, acquired by the pay-TV company during its own abortive bid for Manchester United in 1998, unless they intended to bid or felt that a takeover offer was likely from another quarter.

Sources close to the club suggested that Mr Glazer was still the most likely bidder although speculation has ranged from Russian to Middle Eastern suitors. One rumoured bidder, the Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who fled Moscow and has been given political asylum in the UK, ruled himself out yesterday.

There had been speculation that Mr Berezovsky might follow in the footsteps of his one-time protegé Roman Abramovich, who now owns Chelsea. But Mr Berezovsky said: "Roman has made two mistakes. He met me and he bought Chelsea. I do not have any business ambitions in the UK and I do not want to buy a football club."