There is something deliciously wonderful about recent events at Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson, a tough cookie who has frequently failed to see eye to eye with the stock-market-oriented members of the club's board, is due to retire as manager. What does the club do? Nothing. It makes no offer to him to stay on in some capacity, does not go down on bended knee to beg him to maintain the link. Sir Alex is smouldering with anger, humiliated, dejected.
Then, as if by magic, a mysterious British Virgin Islands-registered company with the weird name of Cubic Expression buys enough shares to become United's second-biggest investor. Suddenly, it is announced that Sir Alex will not be going, and that instead he will become the club's roving ambassador, on a £900,000-a-year contract until 2007. The manager's normally thin smile is now very broad indeed.
It must have been a delight to have been a fly on the wall at Old Trafford when the anti-Ferguson camp at United discovered the names of the people behind Cubic Expression: J P McManus and John Magnier. Two Irishmen, fantastically rich, incredibly connected, masters of the deal – and both close friends of Sir Alex. Of the two, it is McManus who would have caused the most gnashing of teeth. Not because he is a more formidable business brain than Magnier (he isn't) but because in the heavily masculine world where professional sport and business collide – in the bars and backrooms of leading football clubs, racing enclosures and golf courses, the milieu of the directors of Manchester United – it is McManus who sets pulses racing, McManus who is the subject of more anecdotes than anyone else, McManus who causes more heads to shake and raises more low, admiring whistles.
The word "legend" is overused by commentators. These days, it seems, almost everybody who remains around long enough acquires "legendary" status. In a few cases, however, the soubriquet is justified. So it is with McManus. The man, known throughout Ireland (a country, it is true, that likes to wrap its stars in mythical robes), as "J P" or " the Sundance Kid", really deserves the status. He is unique, a one-off, who worked in his dad's plant-hire business in down-at-heel rural west Ireland, became a bookmaker, went broke not once but twice, and went on to gamble his way to a fortune.
According to the latest Sunday Times Rich List, J P is worth £240m, making him the 14th wealthiest person in Ireland. Rubbish, scoff his friends – he is worth much more. They have no doubt that he is a billionaire. When Ireland wanted a new national sports facility, up stepped J P with a donation of £50m. Cubic Expression's United shares have cost about £50m; he owns part of the Sandy Lane hotel in Barbados; he has more than 100 racehorses and a stud farm in Limerick; he is developing Jackdaw's Castle, the famous racing stables in the Cotswolds, at the cost of many millions; he has homes in Ireland, Geneva and the Bahamas, and he visits them in his own private jet.
The undoubted fabulous wealth, though, is not what sets him apart. Even fellow multimillionaires speak of him in hushed tones. It's his love of a punt, of taking the bookies to the cleaners, that makes him special. And his sheer, unfazed ordinariness. He may have his horses, houses and jet, and he may play golf with Tiger Woods – he did the other day before Tiger went to Lancashire for this year's Open – but J P is one of the people. When he takes on the bookies he is doing so for the little guy, having a bash at the money establishment, giving the pinstripes a bloody nose.
Anyone who has ever been to Cheltenham for the Festival meeting knows the buzz. It is not for the Queen or the Queen Mum, God bless her, but for J P. "He is a total folk hero, an absolute hero figure," said one Cheltenham regular. And not just among the thousands of Irish racing fans who flock to the jumps each March. Among the English, too, J P is a god. When he arrives at the course they nudge each other, they point at him, they follow him; if he makes a move towards the bookies' stalls they rush to see what he's backing.
In major-league gambling, too, J P has acquired cult billing. Along with his close friends, Magnier and Dermot Desmond from Ireland, and Joe Lewis and Michael Tabor from England, he is seen as one of "The Boys"; a group of men who play together and work together, making even more money from property deals, currency speculating and share trading.
A glance at the players' list of the J P McManus Invitational Charity Golf tournament, held near Limerick, testifies to his pulling power. All "The Boys" are there, with their families and friends, plus much of the rest of the cream of European rich business and a smattering of celebrities such as Sir Alex and Chris de Burgh (J P once commissioned the Irish singer to pen a song to commemorate a race won by a horse owned by one of his friends). They are joined by more serious golfers, who play for free and love their company: Woods, David Duval, Darren Clarke. And they play golf. Afterwards there is an auction, where J P and his pals have some fun, bidding six and seven-figure sums for lots ranging from a round with Tiger to a golf painting, and everyone else sits and gawps.
But, while there is much whooping and hollering, and the inevitable slapping of backs, it would be wrong to think of J P as a good-time lad, albeit one who is now 50. He likes the craic, of that there is no doubt. He is, though, a teetotaller, married to Maureen, a local girl and strong Catholic. He speaks in a low murmur that belies his large, ruddy frame. "If you met him you'd think he was the third son of a priest. He has few words to say – mind you, the words he does say are worth listening to," says someone who knows him well.
Unflappable and calculating, not given to histrionics, McManus is blessed with a brilliant mathematical brain. He has been roasting the bookies since the late Seventies and early Eighties, regularly winning hundreds of thousands of pounds in one afternoon. He has also become a racehorse owner, which has merely served to fuel the mystique. For three years running he sent out Istabraq to conquer the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. This year, but for the foot-and-mouth outbreak and the meeting's cancellation, he would have cheered Istabraq to a record fourth successive triumph. Another of his runners, First Gold, would probably have delivered him the prestigious Gold Cup.
He may be rich but he is careful with his money. When Manchester United were in the Champions' League, J P wanted to follow the team he had always supported. He worked it out that rather than pay for tickets for him and his friends on the open market, it was cheaper to buy a box for them all at the club. He is generous, too. Once, he decided it was time his good friend Sean Connery became interested in racing, so he bought the actor a horse, Risk of Thunder (the horse's first outing was on a Sunday on the continent in Europe and Maureen, refusing to budge from her ritual, insisted on going to mass first before boarding the McManus Gulfstream to fly to join 007).
If, as is now possible, Ferguson becomes chairman of the club that never gave him full credit as a manager – and the cash to buy all the players he wanted – he can congratulate himself for making a shrewd choice of friend.Reuse content