`Stop Murdoch Utd' campaign grows

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The Independent Online
A COALITION to stop Rupert Murdoch buying Manchester United Football Club started to form yesterday as fans, MPs and rival buyers looked to the Government to halt the takeover.

Meanwhile, Manchester United's board met yesterday afternoon to try to stifle one dissenting director who is believed to oppose the deal.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, confirmed that any bid for the club by British Sky Broadcasting would be investigated by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

The Commons All-Party Football Group increased the pressure on Mr Mandelson with a demand that no decision be made on the takeover by without a Commons debate.

With the House not due to sit before mid-October, the MPs hope that their move will put a brake on Mr Murdoch's ambitions and force the Government to refer the bid to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission.

Joe Ashton, chairman of the All-Party Football Group and a director of Sheffield Wednesday, called for an urgent meeting with Mr Mandelson and will seek an adjournment debate when Parliament returns in the autumn.

Fans are planning a protest at tomorrow night's home game against Charlton Athletic. Leaflets will be distributed by the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association beforehand and demonstrations are anticipated with Mr Murdoch as the principal target.

"I don't think the crowd will need any encouragement from us to protest against Rupert Murdoch," Lee Hodgkiss, secretary of the association, said.

"They will be on his back. This is not just an issue about Manchester United, this affects every club in the country."

The Football Association also joined the fray yesterday. Graham Kelly, chief executive of the FA, said the club "had a responsibility" to talk to its own fans about any deal, and welcomed the announcement that the takeover bid would be referred to the Office of Fair Trading.

A potential rival to BSkyB also emerged with Enic - the leisure group which owns 25 per cent of Glasgow Rangers - confirming that it was looking at a bid. Enic has been encouraged by the level of opposition to the deal, but is unlikely to be able to pay as much as BSkyB for the club.

BSkyB will put its formal offer to United's board at the end of this week. The only voice of dissent on the board is believed to be Greg Dyke, a director of the company and head of Pearson Television, a rival to BSkyB.

The BSkyB bid pushed Manchester United's share price up by 30 per cent yesterday, adding pounds 150m to the value of the club.

City analysts expect the takeover to be referred by the OFT, or by Mr Mandelson, to the monopolies commission on the grounds that it raises competition issues by having BSkyB as both buyer and seller of football rights.

Adam Brown, a member of the government-backed Football Task Force, also joined those opposed to the deal.

He said: "I'm very much against it. One of the things that has decimated baseball attendance in America is that fixtures have been moved around to meet the needs of television."

The Foreign Office minister, Tony Lloyd, MP for Manchester Central, said the plans raised "an awful lot of questions".

Mr Mandelson said the bid would be "of enormous interest and importance to a lot of people". And he added: "If a bid goes ahead, it will be notified to the director-general of fair trading and he will look at it very completely and extremely searchingly."