Malcolm Glazer obituary: US billionaire businessman who led the controversial takeover of Manchester United in 2005

He was the antithesis of the high-profile modern US sports owner

In the first few months of 2005, it could safely be said that the most hated man in England – or at least among the sizeable part of the population that supports Manchester United – was a reclusive American businessman of whom a couple of years earlier nobody had ever heard. Malcolm Glazer’s sin, though he would never have considered it such, was to secure control of the country’s most famous football club.

At first, Glazer’s interest in United was not treated very seriously. No way, the general assumption was, would a national institution allow itself to fall prey to a self-made, rarely seen Yank from Palm Beach whose sporting interests were confined to the gridiron variety of football, beloved in the US but virtually nowhere else on Earth.

But not for the first time, his foes had underestimated Glazer’s determination. He first emerged as a United shareholder in late 2003, with a stake of 3 per cent. Thereafter, events moved rapidly. Within a year he had launched a first bid that was rejected by the board, but his shareholding had risen to well over 20 per cent.

In May 2005 he struck a deal to buy the 29 per cent in United owned by two Irish businessmen, giving him 57 per cent and outright control. Inside two months, Glazer had mopped up the remainder, in a series of transactions that ultimately valued the club at over £800m, or $1.4bn. He then appointed three of his sons to the club’s board: Avram, Bryan and Joel – the last named, apparently, a United supporter and widely believed to be the driving force behind the deal.

The once unthinkable had happened. An upstart outsider had bought the world’s most famous football club. Adding insult to injury, Glazer had borrowed $850m to finance the deal – money that would be partly repaid by increased revenues, generated in large part by higher prices for tickets, kit and United souvenirs.

In its way, his road to United was even stranger than the one that had led Roman Abramovich, the Russian oil tycoon, to purchase Chelsea, United’s domestic rival, two years before. Glazer was the son of a Lithuanian Jew who deserted from the Imperial Russian Army and set up a small watch-parts business in upstate New York. Malcolm was the oldest of seven children, who took over his family business at the age of 15, when Abraham Glazer died in 1943.

The first expansion was into property, when Glazer bought several trailer parks in the 1970s, mainly in Florida. In the succeeding years, he moved into new areas, including food processing and packaging, securities trading, oil and gas, and real estate – all controlled through the family holding company, First Allied Corporation. Among its interests was Zapata, the Texas oil and gas company founded in 1954 by the future President George H W Bush.

Glazer’s methods were not always pretty. He was said to be a brutal corporate raider; many critics pointed to his bitter, unseemly fight with his sisters over their mother’s $1m estate, when she died in 1980. Glazer himself put his achievements down to hard work: “Show me a successful businessman, and I’ll show you a person who works 80 hours a week.” In 2005, Forbes magazine listed him as America’s 258th richest man, with a net worth of $1.3bn.

Above all, perhaps, he abhorred publicity. His last interview was in the mid-1990s, after which he was rarely seen in the media. His diminutive stature and ginger beard earned him the nickname of The Leprechaun. One way and another, in short, Malcolm Glazer was the very antithesis of the high-profile modern American sports owner.

That, however, was what he was. In 1995 he bought the permanently underachieving Tampa Bay Buccaneers – popularly known as the “Yuccaneers” – for $192m, at the time the largest sum ever paid for a US sports team. Within eight years, the team had won the Super Bowl, and in 2005 Forbes put the Buccaneers’ worth at nearly $900m, making it the ninth most valuable franchise in the NFL. And even as he built up his stake in Manchester United, Glazer’s name was being linked with two baseball franchises, the San Diego Padres and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Those efforts failed, but the hugely controversial foray into English football did not.

In the event, the worst fears of his foes did not come to pass. In 2005/2006, the first season of the Glazer era, Manchester United finished second to Chelsea in the Premier League, while for all the threats of a fans’ boycott, attendances at Old Trafford broke new records. Moreover, despite the debt incurred through the takeover, the Glazer-controlled board seemed no less ready than its predecessor to spend money on the best players available.

And better was to come. In their second season under the ownership of the Glazer family, United reclaimed the title, finishing six points clear of Chelsea. With the redoubtable Alex Ferguson at the helm, they went on to dominate the domestic scene, taking the top spot for four of the five following seasons, despite the perennial challenge from Stamford Bridge – and the emergence of their freshly minted “noisy neighbours”, Manchester City. A Champions League title came in 2008, again at the expense of Chelsea.

Nevertheless, despite the team’s triumphs, Glazer never set foot inside Old Trafford – and the feeling persisted in many quarters that the club would be engaged in a battle for its soul so long as the Glazers remained. An early (and lasting) testament to this disaffection is the well-supported FC United of Manchester, a semi-professional club formed in 2005 by supporters opposed to the takeover. Seemingly, though, the most serious challenge to the Glazers’ tenure came in spring 2010, when a consortium of wealthy, well-connected Manchester United fans – going under the banner of the Red Knights and including the Goldman Sachs chief economist Jim O’Neill – put together proposals for a takeover bid. Later that year, however, the plans were shelved.

Glazer had been ill for some time, after having suffered two strokes in 2006 which left him with limited mobility and impaired speech. It was at this point that Joel and Avram, as co-chairmen, took over the day-to-day running of the club – and so little is expected to change at Old Trafford, at least in the immediate future.

Malcolm Irving Glazer, businessman: born Rochester, New York 25 August 1928; married 1960 Linda (five sons, one daughter); died Rochester 28 May 2014.

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