Man Utd at three-year high as bid speculation hits fever pitch

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The Independent Online

Shares in Manchester United rose to a three-year high yesterday on renewed speculation that the Premier League football club was about to receive a takeover bid after an investor snapped up a major chunk of shares.

The investor is widely believed to be Malcolm Glazer, who owns the American football Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He has been steadily increasing his holding in the past few weeks and is thought to have bought 4.5 per cent of the company, taking his stake to just under 15 per cent, using Commerzbank as his intermediary.

Commerzbank confirmed it had brokered a deal, but would not name the buyer or seller of shares. If the German bank was acting for Mr Glazer, it would make him the second biggest shareholder in Manchester United after the Irish racehorse magnates JP McManus and John Magnier, who own 23 per cent.

David Gill, the chief executive of Manchester United, met Mr Glazer and one of his sons in America recently. Mr Glazer's son is thought to be particularly enthusiastic about investing in the football club.

A spokesperson for United confirmed the meeting, saying it was "useful and productive". The spokesperson added that Mr Glazer regarded his stake as a "value investment".

The face-to-face discussion was in the last couple of weeks and is expected to be followed by a further meeting at which United's management wants to clarify what Mr Glazer's intentions are, sources said. Under Stock Exchange rules, if he was the buyer of the shares he will have to disclose the acquisition by Monday evening.

The seller was Lansdowne Partners, a hedge fund. City observers said the company had probably doubled its money on its investment, which it has been trying to sell at the 265p a share level for some time.

While the name of Mr Glazer was on the lips of most people in the City yesterday, there was also talk that an entirely new bidder had entered the fray. One suggestion was that Lansdowne had offered its stake, worth about £30m, to all existing major shareholders, but had received a higher price from an unidentified buyer.

Stock Exchange trading data showed two blocks of about 11.9 million shares were traded, representing just over 4.5 per cent of the club's total shares. The first block was sold at 264.25p and the second at 265p, a significant premium to Thursday's level of 249p. These prices value the company at about £690m. The shares have risen sharply from 105p at the beginning of the year, closing at 263p last night.

Mehmet Dalman, the London head of Commerzbank, executed the trade yesterday morning. A fanatical Manchester United supporter, Mr Dalman is thought to have contacted a number of shareholders before buying Lansdowne's stake. He knows Mr Glazer, though the American has not used him in his stake building in Manchester United until now.

Shares in the world's best known football club have shot up this year after persistent rumours it would follow its arch rival Chelsea in being bought. The Stamford Bridge club was bought by the Russian business tycoon Roman Abramovich in July. There is also ongoing speculation that one of Manchester United's existing list of colourful entrepreneurs might make an offer. They include Mr McManus and Mr Magnier, who increased their stake to more than 23 per cent in October when they bought BSkyB's 10 per cent holding.

Meanwhile John de Mol, the creator of the Big Brother reality TV series, has also been buying the stock. Frank Botman, the director or Talpa Capital, Mr de Mol's investment vehicle, said it was not the mystery buyer or seller of yesterday's stake.