Sam Wallace: Manchester United fans should look long and hard at spin and promises of City slickers
Claims the Red Knights had Ferguson's support may show they are fighting a dirty war
Monday 08 March 2010
There is something about this group of bankers, PR men and publicity-hungry City types who call themselves, in preposterous fashion, the "Red Knights" that reminds me of the current group of bankers, PR men and publicity- hungry City types who make up the altogether preposterous Conservative Party.
Like the Conservatives, those who claim to speak on behalf of the Red Knights are not slow to tell us that those they seek to replace are utterly useless. For the Labour government read the Glazer family, whose £709.5m debt, we all know, is imperiling the future of Manchester United.
The Red Knights' mantra really is no different to the Tories' "We can't go on like this" refrain, to which the answer, in both cases, is plainly: "Yes, we know that, but how about telling us exactly what you plan to do?" In fact, in the case of the Red Knights, it is a struggle to get one individual to admit publicly to his involvement.
The Conservative Party strategists who have sought to insert David Cameron into government with the minimum of policy promises must look with envy and awe at the Red Knights and their reams of positive publicity.
This is not intended to belittle the basic principle that United need to be free of the Glazers. We can all see that. The bond issue document that the Glazers issued in January was as heartbreaking a piece of corporate literature as you will ever read, offering up stadium, training ground and even players to serve the debt.
But however despairing that makes United fans feel, it by no means obliges them to go running into the arms of the Red Knights without doing due diligence first. If anything, the Glazer experience at Old Trafford should make those United fans' groups who are being courted by these would-be rescuers even more cautious.
So far the Red Knights have operated in the shadows and the unattributed claims yesterday that they had the secret support of Sir Alex Ferguson, despite his vehement denials, were the clearest indication yet that they could be fighting a dirty war.
Even the name Red Knights invites us to assume that they are automatically the good guys. The concept of Red Knights is a thrillingly ingenious play on the myth of white knights who, of course, always ride to the rescue of those in distress. The PR firm really earned their money there.
The executive types of the City love to make themselves sound more glamorous with monikers such as these. Just for the hell of it some of them have pictures of footballers on their office walls and proclaim themselves "footy mad". They give interviews to the business pages in which they compare themselves to football managers and even take their ties off when they go to games.
It is all very heart-warming that people such as Jim O'Neill, the putative head of the Red Knights, is so willing to share with us his Moss Side childhood and passion for United, but that does not really answer the basic question. How would his consortium offer a stable alternative to the Glazers?
What O'Neill seems to be proposing is a collective fund of anything up to £1.5bn which is made up of, according to some reports, as many as 60 investors, at least one of which could put up as much as £600m. It presupposes an extraordinary alliance of rich, powerful people all of them used to having their own way, yet all pulling together for an institution that may never return them any profit.
We have heard so much about the so-called Red Knights' impeccable financial acumen and their genius for tapping the emerging markets. What we have not been told is how they plan to unite this disparate group of investors; a job that sounds about as challenging as shepherding the mid-1980s United team out of the pub at closing time.
It is for this reason that United fans' groups, who have given so much of their time and energy to opposing and exposing the Glazers, need to think very carefully before they decide to back this particular horse.
In the Financial Times on Saturday, a source close to the Red Knights was quoted on the subject of the Glazers hiking ticket prices at Old Trafford in order to pay down the debt. He said: "To apply private equity principles to lower income levels of society is completely inappropriate. It is very harsh on these people."
Hang on a minute. The very principle of private equity is borrowing money to buy companies, cutting costs (which roughly translates as "sacking people"), using the cash-flow to pay the debts and selling the entity on for a profit. Goldman Sachs, for whom O'Neill is the chief economist, has a private equity department which, among other deals, was part of a 2002 buy-out of Burger King whose staff are regarded as low-income.
Are we to believe that those men among the Red Knights who have dedicated their lives to pursuing the margins of profit have suddenly been overcome by brotherly love for the average Stretford Ender with a season ticket and a terraced house in Urmston?
The current recession alone should tell fans that when it comes to the world of British finance there is no reason to tug on forelocks and defer to "thems-what-knows-better". There is no cause to be blinded by the glittering write-ups that the likes of O'Neill have been given by his more star-struck acolytes or those other Red Knights from institutions such as Freshfields and Saatchi & Saatchi.
As for Keith Harris, the Red Knights' stockbroker who spends as much time being interviewed as he does raising finance, his call to arms for United fans to cancel season tickets and boycott matches should be treated very carefully. The Manchester United Supporters' Trust, the largest of the fans' groups, has not yet endorsed that nuclear option, which could yet do extreme damage to the club.
That is why it is understandable when United's chief executive, David Gill, reacts with anger to the Red Knights, a group that have managed that age-old political trick of winning prestige without actually doing anything. Gill opposed the Glazer takeover as long as his legal obligations as a director permitted and since then he has run United as best he can under the debt.
He deals in the reality of the situation, which is keeping United afloat under an unfavourable regime. Like the Tories, the Red Knights are very good at imagining how they would ride to the rescue but they should explain how that works in reality before they are granted the endorsement of the fans.
It's once bitten twice shy, Shaun
Shaun Wright-Phillips lambasts Manchester City for not offering him a new contract with two years left to run on his current deal. Just a thought, Shaun, but perhaps there are some at the club who still remember the day you walked out on them to join Chelsea?
Owen sacrificed much to serve England
As Michael Owen's international career seems to be ending, it should be remembered that the injury that did him most damage – the cruciate ligament at the last World Cup – was sustained when he came back early from a broken metatarsal. Owen did so in order to play for England. His 40 goals for his country may not have got him Sir Bobby Charlton's record, but they are a wonderful accomplishment.
Full marks for honesty
Nicklas Bendtner might have been guilty of some horrendous misses on Saturday but he deserves credit for fronting up for interviews afterwards and taking the responsibility. Certain players could learn a lesson there.
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