United faces private future under tycoon

Racehorse owner favourite to control football giant

MANCHESTER UNITED is likely to be taken private by the horse-racing tycoon who is leading the race to control the Treble-winning quoted football club.

Insiders believe that John Magnier, the hugely successful breeder and owner, would be unwilling to undergo the scrutiny that would result from owning a large chunk of a public company. They cite the example of his friend Joe Lewis, the equally wealthy and secretive currency trader, whose attempts to buy Christie's, the auction house, collapsed in the face of intense public interest in his affairs. Mr Magnier's interests are so closely guarded that his main business vehicle, Coolmore Stud, is an unlimited partnership and hence is not even obliged to publish accounts.

It is understood that Mr Magnier has had a conversation with Martin Edwards, the chief executive of Manchester United, about buying the club but a deal remains elusive. Mr Edwards, who owns 11 per cent of the club, is thought to be insistent that a bidder purchases the entire club and not just his stake. It is this condition that is said to have scuppered an earlier approach from JP McManus, the legendary gambler who was only interested in buying Mr Edwards' shares.

But sources remain convinced that Mr Edwards, who was said to be particularly disappointed by the failure of BSkyB's bid, is keen to sell his stake to any party with the resources to maintain United's status as the world's biggest club. There is no doubt that the combined wealth of Mr Magnier, Mr McManus and Michael Tabor, a leading light of the bloodstock world, would fit the bill. They may also call upon former stockbroker Dermot Desmond.

Mr Edwards is thought to favour a bid from a media group but there is continued uncertainty about whether such an approach would receive regulatory approval. Stephen Byers, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, is expected to clarify the rules governing football club ownership later this month. These have remained uncertain since BSkyB's bid was blocked. It has been suggested that Mr Byers will rule out the possibility of a media group bidding for Manchester United, which would encourage Mr Edwards to countenance a bid from Mr Magnier. Mr Edwards' apparent desire to leave the club has been heightened by the continued criticism to which he has been subjected by certain sections of United supporters.

Officially, the club is refusing to comment on the bid speculation, wary of risking further attacks from fans who may resent the idea of a Magnier- inspired takeover.

Meanwhile it has emerged that Sir Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's treble-winning manager, may be the pivotal figure who introduced Mr Magnier and his associates to Mr Edwards. Two of Mr Ferguson's own horses are trained at the Ballydoyle stables in Ireland, which Mr Magnier owns. It is believed that only last week Mr Ferguson attended a lunch at which Mr Magnier and Mr McManus were present.

Although Manchester United shares have performed better than those of most quoted football clubs, analysts still believe its current stock market valuation of pounds 557m undervalues the club. The market capitalisation still falls short of the pounds 623m that BSkyB was willing to pay until its bid was blocked in April by the Monopolies & Mergers Commission.

The unwillingness of fund managers to invest in football clubs suggests that Manchester United may be ripe for going private. This could provoke a series of other attempts to take quoted clubs private.

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