Football: Knighton's presence felt at lesser United: He wanted control at Old Trafford but instead has presided over an upturn at Carlisle. Dave Hadfield reports

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The Independent Online
MICHAEL KNIGHTON is juggling again, juggling ideas as unlikely as. . . well, as buying Manchester United.

So much has happened at Old Trafford in recent times that it seems more than four and a bit years since Knighton announced his intention to take over United by cavorting in front of the Stretford End.

It was an image that was to haunt him as critics accused him of turning the great icon of the game into a laughing stock, but if he feels any embarrassment about it now, as he controls the destiny of another United - Carlisle - 120 miles to the north, he disguises it well.

Fuller of face and figure than he was on that infamous Saturday afternoon of boyish enthusiasm, he still has no regrets over it. 'There was a tremendous gap between boardroom and terraces,' he said, his own hopes of a career as a professional footballer having been curtailed by injury.

'I was jubilant. I'd fulfilled my childhood dream. I was at the greatest club in the world and I was chairman-elect. I wanted to let the Stretford End know that I was one of them. Look at the photos; they're all smiling and so am I'

Although life at Carlisle, where he has been chairman for 18 months, is a far cry from Old Trafford, Knighton is still smiling. This season the club have climbed slowly up the Third Division table and gates have risen sharply. Last week a crowd of 13,200 turned up to see Sunderland scrape a 1-0 extra-time victory in an FA Cup third-round replay.

Yet whatever Knighton achieves at Brunton Park, it seems certain that he will be forever remembered for that bizarre day when he donned his playing kit at Old Trafford, having announced his intention to take over the club.

The jubilation of that day faded as doubts grew about Knighton's funding. After the initial announcement of his plan to buy out Martin Edwards' 51 per cent shareholding for pounds 10m, United's directors grew increasingly hostile towards Knighton.

It emerged that he had sought financial backing for his bid from, among others, Eddy Shah, the former national newspaper proprietor, and the Lancashire businessman, Owen Oyston. After he had finally pulled out of the deal, Knighton was criticised by the City Panel on Mergers and Takeovers for a breach of the Takeover Code, which requires that a bidder should 'only announce an offer after the most careful and responsible consideration'.

Knighton denies that he was merely the front man for a consortium and insists that he had the funds to go through with the deal. His version of events is that he withdrew after becoming the target of a campaign of vilification. 'It was Maxwell who turned it,' he said. 'He had 22 million readers and he'd tried and failed to buy the club twice. He went for the windpipe like a Rottweiler.'

In the end, he says, he tore up his contract to buy the club because the anti-Knighton bandwagon had convinced everyone that, even if he did buy it, he would use it for building land or sell it on to the highest bidder. 'That was terribly destabilising for the club and I couldn't let that go on,' he said.

Despite that, he is fiercely proud of his three years as a director. He was able to work alongside the chairman, Martin Edwards, he says (although that is the name which comes first to his lips when he warms to his theme of selfish chairmen), but not alongside three others.

'So I walked away. But my signature is on some of the most important contracts ever signed by Manchester United. We won six trophies. I gave them the kick up the arse that they desperately needed, even if that makes me sound like an arrogant little shit. I'm proud of what has happened at Old Trafford since I became involved. I don't take credit for it, but I was the catalyst.'

The world might have thought that Knighton left Old Trafford a sadly deflated and discredited man. He does not see it that way at all. 'I was approached by 15 clubs, but Carlisle had all the criteria I was looking for,' he says.

Nor was there any doubt in his mind that he would get involved again. 'I idolise the game. I love everything about it. My family link with football goes back to my great- grandfather signing for Sheffield Wednesday in 1890.'

He can reel off the old chap's playing record and the real way to hurt him, as more than one newspaper discovered, is not to call him a clown or a barrow boy but to cast doubt on his own brief playing career.

'They said no one at Coventry remembered me,' he said. 'Phone them up; talk to the man who took me there - he's still around. I truly believed I was going to be one of the greatest players in the world.'

A snapped quadricep muscle put paid to that and any amateur psychiatrist can attribute his schemes since to a desire to compensate for that heartbreak. 'I'm sure that's right, but I wouldn't change a thing - not even the injury,' he said. 'If that hadn't happened, I would have had a football career and retired in my thirties with a small pension.'

Instead, he is chairman and chief executive of Carlisle United. Many people might prefer the small pension.

'For the first 15 months, I spent every minute at the club,' he said. 'That's what it needed; the bank was bouncing cheques and it had reached the end of the road.'

Purchasing a controlling interest in an impoverished club like Carlisle did not make much of a dent in his personal fortune and he says he has no intention of emulating the likes of Jack Walker at Blackburn. 'People are always saying to me I should put my hand in my pocket to buy players,' he said. 'I say: 'Why should I spend money on players for you? Why should this industry be a charity?' '

His first prediction was that this United would be right up there with his other United within 10 years. 'And I'm more confident of that than I was 18 months ago,' he said.

Despite rising only slowly up the lower reaches of the table, Carlisle's gates are the second best in the division - 'call it the Knighton factor, if you like, but notoriety can be a tremendous help' - and he has been able to announce a profit.

There are some quirky touches about the Knighton regime. Mick Wadsworth, who at any other club would be called manager, is known as director of coaching, and Knighton himself had a spell coaching the youth team.

Knighton made his money through property dealings. Remember the castle in Scotland, the estate on the Isle of Man, the private school in Yorkshire? He is still juggling his assets.

The school occupies a rather higher position in its league table than Carlisle, but Knighton has no doubt that the club - helped by old heads like Mervyn Day and David McCreery - will meet his timetable.

He worries more about the fate of the lower divisions as a whole. 'The game is poisoning its seed-corn,' he said, and described the Premier League as 'motivated by abject greed and selfishness.'

He wants Football League clubs to boycott the FA Cup until the big battalions cough up more of the TV and sponsorship money which he says they hog. But would he be the same in their position? 'The test of that will come when Carlisle United are in the Premier League. I'll still be on record saying that we must protect the lower brethren.

'I'm not afraid of failure, but it won't be for want of trying. If I can't achieve what I've set my sights on here, I'll walk out with my dignity intact, my head held high and a smile on my face. That was the way I left Old Trafford.'

(Photographs omitted)

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