Football bids heading for fever pitch

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THE VALUE of England's leading football clubs appeared to rise still further yesterday when Alan Sugar, the chairman of Tottenham Hotspur, rejected an offer valuing the Premiership outfit at pounds 80m, and one of the First Division's leading clubs, Sheffield United, announced it was in talks with possible buyers.

The City continued to speculate about the identity of a bidder who has asked a United States investment bank to investigate topping British Sky Broadcasting's pounds 623.4m offer for Manchester United.

In an official statement to the Stock Exchange, Tottenham Hotspur said Alan Sugar, the chairman, had rejected an offer for his 40.88 per cent stake in the club from English National Investment Company (Enic), the financial group.

Mr Sugar had approached Enic about buying his shareholding for 80p a share - putting a value of more than pounds 80m on the club.

However, when BSkyB tabled its bid for Manchester United last week he decided that the club was worth more and decided to reject the bid. Tottenham shares closed up 13p at 85p.

Sources at Enic said the company had been "days away" from completing a successful bid. The company is now expected to wait until the takeover speculation has died down before making another attempt.

"We really want to get Tottenham back to where it belongs," the source said. "We're in the long-term investing game now."

Enic has the support of United News & Media, owners of the Express newspaper titles, and the US media giant Time Warner. It already owns 25 per cent of Glasgow Rangers and has stakes in clubs including Slavia Prague and AEK Athens.

Meanwhile, the fate of the jewel in the crown of the Premiership, and arguably the most famous football club in the world, Manchester United, continues to be the subject of rumour. Salomon Brothers, the US investment bank, confirmed over the weekend that it had been asked to speak to HSBC, Manchester United's financial advisers, about the possibility of making an offer.

Interpublic, the US advertising group, was one of the names in the frame. Industry rumours suggested that Frank Lowe, a director of the group who also runs the Lowe Howard Spink agency, was keen to mount a bid. However, although the company refused to comment, insiders played down the rumours. Other possible bidders include Time Warner and the television group Granada.

However, sources close to Manchester United played down the prospect of the bid materialising, pointing out that the new bidder was planning to fund the purchase with a large amount of debt.

"This is absolutely not a business you load up with debt," an insider said.

Although Manchester United's board would be legally obliged to consider any serious bid that improved on BSkyB's, the club is expecting to continue recommending the broadcaster's offer.

Sheffield United yesterday joined in the frenzy by confirming that its chairman and major shareholder, Mike McDonald, had started "preliminary discussions with a number of individuals" who were interested in investing in the club.

However, Sony, the electronics group, refused to comment on reports that it was lining up a pounds 220m bid for Newcastle United.

John Bridgman, director-general of fair trading, yesterday officially invited comments on BSkyB's offer for Manchester United.

The Office of Fair Tading will take submissions on the bid until 28 September before deciding whether it should be referred to Monopolies and Mergers Commission. The final decision rests with Peter Mandelson, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, who will receive the OFT's advice by 12 October.

Meanwhile, Roger Taylor, the former drummer with the rock group Queen, emerged as the mystery benefactor who has donated pounds 10,000 to the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association to help to fund its campaign against the BSkyB bid.

A group of Manchester United shareholders, led by Michael Crick, the television presenter, are also lobbying against the deal. Mr Crick said the group had approached the Virgin tycoon, Richard Branson, for advice on the campaign it is waging. "We wrote to Branson asking him to give advice on how a bid might be structured that would protect the interests of the fans," he said.