Knighton's theatre of dreams in ruins

The man who almost bought Manchester United is ready to sell his stake in Carlisle after being banned as a company director

Michael Knighton, the man who nearly bought Manchester United, then famously promised to take Carlisle United to the Premiership, met brutal reality last week when a Leeds court banned him from being a director or being involved in the management of any company for five and a half years. Knighton resigned from Carlisle's board last December but still owns 93 per cent of the club, which he says he will now look to sell. His departure will, it is safe to say, be mourned by few of Carlisle's dwindling huddle of supporters.

Michael Knighton, the man who nearly bought Manchester United, then famously promised to take Carlisle United to the Premiership, met brutal reality last week when a Leeds court banned him from being a director or being involved in the management of any company for five and a half years. Knighton resigned from Carlisle's board last December but still owns 93 per cent of the club, which he says he will now look to sell. His departure will, it is safe to say, be mourned by few of Carlisle's dwindling huddle of supporters.

The disqualification, obtained by the Department of Trade and Industry, relates to Knighton's running of St David's private school, which he owned via the same holding company, Knighton Holdings, through which he owned Carlisle United. In a statement which Knighton did not contest, the court heard that St David's had difficulties in the early 1990s, and went out of business in 1997 owing £474,000. Knighton, and his wife Rosemary - who was also disqualified as a director, for two years - paid Knighton Holdings £203,000 in preference to other creditors, "in particular the Inland Revenue", which was then owed £288,000. In a revelation which should deeply concern the Football Association and League, Mr Knighton told me yesterday that the money was subsequently ploughed into Carlisle United.

"All the funds from the holding company were used for the football club," he said, "because that had become my principal interest."

Knighton first burst into football's consciousness on a sunny August afternoon in 1989, when, having concluded a deal to buy Martin Edwards' 50.6 per cent Manchester United stake for £10m, Knighton, in full kit, juggled a football on the Old Trafford pitch and scored an unopposed hat-trick in front of the Stretford End.

Since 1977, he had been a teacher at St David's, headmaster from 1982. In the school holidays, he bought, did up and sold some houses, and he made enough money in the 80s property boom to retire to the Isle of Man. There, he says he did an "academic study" of football and looked for clubs to buy.

Knighton was an early football speculator. He saw through the dreadful image of a game disfigured by the Hillsborough Disaster, to a passionately followed sport whose clubs were "brands" which could be commercially exploited. He withdrew, however, from the Edwards deal under immense pressure from within United and the media, which questioned whether he had the money - in fact he was intending to finance the purchase, and the proposed redevelopment of the Stretford End, with a £24m overdraft from the Bank of Scotland. He became a United director and stayed for three years, seeing United float and begin their decade of remorseless success and brand exploitation.

In 1992, Knighton decided that Carlisle had what he called "the fundamental absolutes" of football clubs commercially: tradition, a loyal fan base, a wide catchment area - in Carlisle's case potentially the whole of Cumbria - and land; 130 acres behind the East Stand, ripe for development. He bought the club, then bottom of the League and haemorrhaging money, for a nominal amount, announcing that within a decade, Carlisle would be in thePremier League.

At first, under managers Mick Wadsworth, then Mervyn Day, Knighton's dream seemed not too fantastical. Carlisle won the 1995 Third Division Championship, and the Auto Windscreens Shield in 1997. But they yo-yoed, Knighton selling players rather than investing to stay up. In late 1997, Knighton sacked Day. He denies the widespread story that he then appointed himself manager.

"I did some stretches on the training ground, but I never took a session and didn't pick the team. David Wilkes and John Halpin were directors of coaching. They were using me as a front man."

In May 1999, Carlisle hosted arguably the most extraordinary match in football history, part Roy of the Rovers, part Billy the Fish, so fittingly Knightonesque. Drawing 1-1 with Plymouth, the on-loan goalkeeper Jimmy Glass - signed after Knighton sold Tony Caig, the club's only keeper - scored five minutes into injury time to keep Carlisle in the Football League. The story has crazy romance, but by then many fans were bitterly resentful of Knighton.

St David's School had closed in 1995, after difficult years in the early 90s recession. He personally lost £175,000 when it went bust. At Carlisle, having not drawn a salary for four years, in 1995 Knighton paid himself £110,000. He confirmed yesterday that he paid himself "around the same" every year until he left the board last December. His son, Mark, and wife were also working at the club, as, for a time, was his daughter. But Knighton dismisses suggestions that the family was making excessive money out of Carlisle:

"I was there 18 hours a day. My son works on the programme and four other jobs. My daughter worked for three months as a temp. What points are people trying to make?"

In 1995 too, Knighton made headlines when he told a story about seeing a UFO from the M62 near the school in Huddersfield. Locally, the tale was still accepted with some good humour. He had built a new East Stand with £1m from the Football Trust and £2m borrowed by Knighton Holdings. The stand overran the pitch; his plan was to move the pitch and rebuild the stadium as part of the major redevelopment of the club's land. This, the "Carlisle Gateway Millennium Project", including a hotel, golf course and lake for water sports and wildlife, received outline planning permission in 1996. The Department for the Environment, however, asked for a detailed Environmental Assessment, which the club never produced. In October 1998, Knighton withdrew the application. The East Stand still runs 16-20 metres too long; fans sitting in the far end overlook not the pitch, but the Waterworks End terrace, which is now closed.

Knighton points out that Carlisle have consistently made a profit, but this, as he admits, has mostly been due to selling players, not commercially exploiting Carlisle's "fundamental absolutes". This grieves the fans most, the sales of young talents, Matt Jansen, £1m to Crystal Palace, Rory Delap, £500,000 to Derby, and a procession of good senior players. Last season Carlisle again finished 91st, surviving as a League club only on goal difference. Gates have dropped to around 3,000.

Some fans are now trying, helped by the Government-backed initiative Supporters Direct, to form a trust, to buy shares and gain a voice in the running of their club. Their efforts have so far had a hostile response from the club's current chairman, Albert Doweck, a Manchester-based businessman.

For all the perennial outlandishness of Michael Knighton's world, his dire record at Carlisle points up some serious concerns. It is depressingly true that Carlisle, so unsuccessful, have been one of the only Third Division clubs to turn a profit. Football's economics, predominantly because of clubs' excessive wage bills, are near unsupportable.

But it is worrying too that football clubs, century-old community institutions, are prey to takeover by anybody, bearing any plan and some access to the wherewithal. Following Knighton's disqualification for admitted unfit conduct in the running of a company, the Football League said yesterday it has no plans to take any action at Carlisle. The Football Association is similarly silent. Carlisle supporters must wait to see if somebody else will come in to buy their club, with its depleted squad, askew ground and demoralised fan base.

"I leave Carlisle a better club than when I came," said Knighton yesterday. "That's a fact."

Manchester United fans, many of whom bitterly resent the commercialism which has overwhelmed United since Knighton's failed attempt to buy it, might take a look at Carlisle from the redeveloped splendour of Old Trafford, and reflect, just a little, on what might have been.

davidconn@freeuk.com

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