Football: United shareholders vent fury

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The Independent Online
MARTIN EDWARDS and Manchester United's board had to withstand a three-hour verbal onslaught yesterday when shareholders gave vent to anger concerning BSkyB's offer to buy the club for pounds 623m. If you were a director of the plc, the Theatre of Dreams assumed the alarming resonance of a nightmare.

The annual meeting, which reported a profit of pounds 29.6m from a turnover of pounds 87.9m for the year up to 31 July, was the first chance for shareholders to properly confront the board which recommended BSkyB's offer and the atmosphere was universally hostile. There were more than a thousand people in Old Trafford's Manchester Suite and apart from the nine people on the top table, the rest seemed opposed.

The deal, which would make United a subsidiary of the media company, is subject to inquiry by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission which means it will not go ahead, even if it wins approval, until the spring. But if the United board were expecting a similar lull in the anti-takeover campaign they were disappointed. There were calls for Edwards, the chief executive, to resign while Sir Roland Smith, chairman of the plc, was described as "not fit to hold office in this company or any other company". For a football club returning the best financial results in Europe the furious reaction was shocking.

The BSkyB offer was not on the agenda but as soon as Smith opened the meeting the mood was so aggressive it could not be halted. "Most people are against the takeover," the first speaker from the floor said, "and it's about time we elected to the board people who reflect the majority view." Another added: "There is a saying, Sky's the limit. In this case Sky's the finish."

Andy Walsh, chairman of the independent supporters' association said the lapsing of the deal represented an opportunity to learn the opinions of shareholders and members. "Without the supporters the club is nothing," he said. "Players, managers and even members of the board come and go, but supporters stay for life and I think they deserve the respect to be consulted. We are intelligent people, let us make a decision based on what you are going to say and what those opposed to the deal have to say."

Smith, a director of the plc since it was floated in 1991 and a native of the city, countered: "Don't forget we haven't won the European Cup for 30 years and last year we didn't win anything. I want the club to be consistently in the top four or five clubs in Europe and the only way we will get that is to get quality footballers and coaches to keep us there. In today's world that, whether you like it or not, requires money.

"We have an opportunity now to put together a large media group with a very successful football business. We will not lose our identity, it's not in BSkyB's interest to do that. Nobody is going to pay pounds 623m, not even Rupert Murdoch is that stupid."

Smith's attempt to present his argument as a cold dip into reality did not wash, however. Michael Crick of Shareholders United Against Murdoch picked up the chairman for saying the meeting could not be carried on a tide of feelings. "Manchester United is nothing without emotions," he said. "We are all emotional about this club, that's why we follow it week after week. That's why we came along here today to fight for its independence."

Crick also criticised the letter sent with the share offer, saying it was misleading in offering only three options, all of them an acceptance, with no mention of rejection. "As the chairman you are the servant of the shareholders," he said, "and it's your job to represent the options fairly. Frankly the letter was a piece of BSkyB propaganda."

Calls for a vote among those present on the deal were rejected. "I think we know the mood of the meeting," Smith said, but he agreed the shareholders' views would be part of the considerations if the MMC approves the deal. "As far as the board is concerned, it is fair to say we have got the message."

But anyone seeing that as a potential U-turn will be disappointed. "The people against this deal rallied round today," Edwards said after the meeting, "and got a lot of shareholders who were against the take over to appear. There are thousands who didn't attend and we believe the vast majority of those are in favour."

n United have denied they are to go into partnership with Australian club Adelaide Sharks. Alex Ferguson said: "We want to concentrate our efforts on Europe."