Is an American sports mogul poised to bid £1bn for world's most famous football club?

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The Independent Football

On the field Manchester United made an inauspicious start to the new season with a 3-1 defeat yesterday by arch rivals Arsenal in the Community Shield.

On the field Manchester United made an inauspicious start to the new season with a 3-1 defeat yesterday by arch rivals Arsenal in the Community Shield.

And away from Cardiff's Millennium Stadium, where the match was played, speculation was mounting that United - the best-known brand in world sport - was about to be taken over by an American tycoon prepared to pay up to £800m.

Malcolm Glazer, a Florida-based billionaire, may be closer than ever to achieving his goal of taking control at Old Trafford with a rumoured meeting for the first time this week with the club's two biggest shareholders, the Irish racing moguls John Magnier and J P McManus.

With so much at stake neither side would confirm reports of a summit tomorrow but it is thought that Mr Glazer or his two sons acting on his behalf may gain control of the club with an offer to buy the Irish stake in Manchester United of 28.9 per cent. Added to Mr Glazer's own holding of 19.2 per cent, any acquisition would automatically trigger a takeover bid and probably result in the tycoon, who already owns an American football team, assuming control.

Some analysts doubt whether Mr Glazer has sufficient funds to gain 100 per cent of the £800m-rated club, but with a share of 48.1 per cent, he would, in effect, be able to dictate policy ranging from ticket prices to purchase of players.

Although he is the 224th richest person in the US with an estimated fortune of $1bn (£544m), Mr Glazer is less wealthy than the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who used his financial might to buy Chelsea Football Club outright with little resistance.

Mr Glazer has made his fortune through deals in property, banking and more recently sports teams. With an investment of $190m he transformed American football club Tampa Bay Buccaneers from a struggling side in 1995 to winners of the Super Bowl, the game's marquee event, and a highly profitable franchise.

Manchester United, which won the Champions League in 1999 and has dominated domestically for a decade, has also left its European rivals in its wake with a business strategy that boosted its worldwide fan base to 75 million. It blazed a trail with tours to the Far East and the US and its array of retail outlets and multi-language websites have left even the most glamorous clubs in Europe playing catch-up. Its finances have been boosted by lucrative sponsorship deals, such as an agreement with the US sportswear manufacturer Nike worth more than £300m over 10 years.

Talk of a takeover has dismayed many fans. Supporters with small financial stakes in the club fear a new owner would simply exploit the club's commercial advantage in the US and Far East, hike ticket prices and cut back on the budget for players for which Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager, lobbies hard at board level.

Any move would be opposed by Shareholders United, an umbrella group representing 10,000 private shareholders.

Oliver Houston, a spokesman, said: "We are already the biggest sports franchise in the world and there is nothing that Mr Glazer or any other potential buyers can bring to the table. They will not plough money back into the club as they might claim but they will take it out to pay back their creditors."

Mr Houston said talk of a meeting could be a ploy by Mr Glazer to force other buyers into the open. Other analysts believe Mr Magnier and Mr McManus have built up their stake in the club over four years and view it as a long-term investment.

In the last attempt to buy United, Rupert Murdoch's proposed £625m bid, was blocked by the Government in 1999.

United in numbers

*Turnover: £91.9m

Annual wage bill: £37.7m

Pre-tax profit: £26.8m

Number of shirts sold last year: 2.5m

Ground capacity: 67,700

Year founded: 1878

Turned professional: 1885

Became limited company: 1907

Pitch size: 116x76 yards

Manager's age: 62

Official price for home shirt: £44.99

Number of different home shirt designs in past 12 years: 24

FA Cup wins: 11

Premiership titles: 8

Premiership position last season: 3rd

European Cup wins: 2

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