Inquiry may stall takeover for a year

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PROTESTS of Manchester United supporters against BSkyB's takeover of their club lasted only as long as it took for their team to score.

By the time Dwight Yorke had scored his second goal against Charlton Athletic last night, three minutes into the second half, few dissenting voices remained. The odd chant of abuse accusing United's chief executive, Martin Edwards, of greed soon petered out and the expected demonstrations of angry fans outside the Old Trafford ground failed to materialise.

But pushing the deal through the series of investigations it faces before the pounds 623m sale can go ahead could take much longer - possibly up to a year.

City analysts believe that objections from fans, other media, and from sporting companies, will make it inevitable that the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) will recommend a monopolies investigation into the world's biggest sports deal

The developments came as the two sides met yesterday to discuss details of the takeover.

Speaking at a press conference to confirm the acceptance of the deal, Mr Edwards said: "I believe what we have done will strengthen Manchester United, not weaken us.

"We have not betrayed Manchester United's fans. We have given them a brighter future."

But the deal puts Peter Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, on the spot because he will have to decide whether to accept any OFT recommendation to refer the deal to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Mr Mandelson is a close friend of Mr Murdoch's daughter, Elisabeth, general manager of BSkyB, and he spent years, with Tony Blair, wooing the media tycoon.

He may also be mindful of the widespread anger and concern of former players, business leaders and politicians expressed yesterday as they each voiced their worries for the future of football and fears for the control that could now be exercised by Rupert Murdoch.

The Irish Prime Minister and United supporter, Bertie Ahern, said: "I am not that happy about it. Neither was I happy in 1991 when the club went onto the stock market, because I think all of this just drives sport into big business."

Mr Ahern, who closely follows the fortunes of the club, said everyone knew the commercial orientation of Manchester United had changed after the club was floated on the stock market. He believed BSkyB would be "on both sides of the table" in negotiations about the future of Premiership football on television.

"I can do nothing about what happens in the laws in the United Kingdom or in Manchester, but it makes me more determined to advance legislation we are working on to bring forward the protection of our own sporting events. I can do something about that - and I will."

Sir Tom Finney, the former Preston North End and England winger, said: "It is absolutely frightening. We think we have reached the peak of transfer fees, but it is going to go further than that now. If Alex Ferguson [the club's manager] says he wants a couple of players and they cost pounds 20m each, the money will be available. Manchester United will be able to buy all the Ronaldos they want. The game is going away from the man in the street."

Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's manager, said he expected similar deals to surface and warned of major changes in the game. "Then I would be worried because there is a danger that the rules change," he said.

"I think it would be a threat to the game if there was more heavy involvement with media in other clubs."

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said: "The other Premier League clubs now are going to have to come together to try to preserve what competitive element there still is in the Premier League."

Lord Hollick, the Labour peer and chief executive of United News & Media, said: "It's a coming together of the monopoly supplier of pay and subscription television in the UK with what Murdoch himself called the `battering ram' of sport."

David Mellor, chairman of the Football Task Force, said: "The purchase of the club by the Murdoch empire creates intolerable conflicts of interest. It makes the case for a special regulator for football even more compelling."

The Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association (Imusa) claims Martin Edwards has shamed it by selling up. "Football is more important than profits," said Imusa's chairman, Andy Walsh.

"This club is not to be sold like some second-hand Jag by Martin Edwards and his cohorts ... His words that he has Manchester United close to his heart are nothing more than weasel words."

David Mellor

Football Task Force chief

`The purchase by the Murdoch empire creates intolerable conflicts of interest, making the case for a regulator even more compelling'

Gordon Taylor

PFA chief executive

`The other Premier League clubs are going to have to come together to try to preserve what competitive element there still is'

Arsene Wenger

Manager of Arsenal

`We can see what influence TV already has on the game ... it would be a threat if there was more heavy media involvement in other clubs'

Sir Tom Finney

Former England winger

`We think we have reached the peak of transfer fees, but it is going to go further. United will be able to buy all the Ronaldos they want'

Bertie Ahern

The Irish Prime Minister

`I can do nothing about what happens in the UK ... but it makes me more determined to advance laws to protect our sporting events'

Lord Hollick

Head of United News & Media

`It's a coming together of the monopoly supplier of pay and subscription TV in the UK with what Murdoch himself called the "battering ram" of sport.'

Comments