Future of United hangs in balance

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The Independent Online
THE ATTEMPT by BSkyB to take control of Manchester United was on a knife-edge last night as directors of the Premier League football club tried to squeeze a higher price out of Rupert Murdoch's television group.

Directors of both companies were yesterday locked in discussions for the second night running at the London offices of HSBC, the City investment bank which is advising the football club.

A group called Shareholders United Against Murdoch has been formed to fight the deal. It has pledged to write to the club's 15,000 individual shareholders, who own 23 per cent of the club.

The anti-Murdoch group has been set up by the author Michael Crick, the media consultant Richard Lander and advertising executives Richard Hytner and Ben Langdon.

Officials at the club are also bracing themselves for a demonstration of fan power at tonight's home game against Charlton Athletic.

The Football Task Force chairman David Mellor joined the condemnation. Speaking in a personal capacity, he said agreeing to the bid would be "an act of cardinal folly".

He said he had been watching "the struggle for the soul of Manchester United" with mounting concern. "Is this proud club with all its traditions just to be a pawn in a global media power-play by Rupert Murdoch, who hardly knows where Manchester is?"

BSkyB is understood to have made an offer of pounds 575m, valuing each share at 221p. In an attempt to force a deal, the firm is also believed to have issued a deadline requiring the bid to be accepted last night.

But United's board, led by the chief executive Martin Edwards and chairman Sir Roland Smith, were holding out for a higher price. They believe other bidders will offer a higher price if BSkyB refuses to pay up. English National Investment Company, which controls 25 per cent of Glasgow Rangers and has stakes in a number of other European clubs, is weighing up a bid.

But industry analysts played down suggestions that another bidder could be found, and shares in the club dropped 6.5p to 200p as hopes of a bidding war faded. Investors were also discounting the likelihood that any bid would be investigated by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Football analyst William Davies, from stockbrokers Albert E Sharp, said: "Even if BSkyB make a bid tomorrow it is likely to take several months before it is concluded. Speculators are not going to want to hang around for six months."

Business, page 15