Manchester United fans were celebrating a second scalp in two days yesterday when the club's board effectively killed off Malcolm Glazer's chances of an imminent takeover.
By telling the Stock Exchange that it would not support an "overly leveraged" Glazer bid - one financed by heavy borrowing, in other words - the board has at least stalled the 76-year-old American's ambitions of owning United. And though, like the Arsenal side vanquished 2-0 on Sunday, Glazer is unlikely to be deterred for long by his setback, the board's message could not have been simpler. First, that United will not countenance approval of any proposal that might create a risk, however theoretical, of a "Leeds route" to financial ruin. Second, that the club's footballing interests, and not solely its bottom line to shareholders, are what matter.
It is understood that Glazer was proposing to borrow some £400m of the £800m he would need to buy United outright. David Gill, United's chief executive, aware of the need to maintain a relationship with Glazer, who owns 28.11 per cent of United, thus insisted yesterday that the board has halted takeover talks with the Glazer family for "anti-leverage" and not "anti-Glazer" reasons.
"The level of debt required was not in the best interests of the club going forward," Gill said. "The club has 126 years of history and is recognised as one of the most successful football clubs in the world. I don't think any sensible person would think we could recommend a proposal that could jeopardise something that has been built up over so many years."
Fans' groups were less concerned with the way in which Glazer had been stymied than by the fact he had been. "This looks like the final nail in Malcolm Glazer's coffin," said Oliver Houston of Shareholders United. "The fans have led from the front and I hope the board will recognise that."
Jules Spencer, the chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, also welcomed United's statement, which ends the chances of Glazer buying United in any board-supported scheme.
"Now we know that if Glazer wishes to make a hostile bid, he will be setting himself against not only the supporters but the board as well," Spencer said.
Glazer is understood to be dismayed by developments but has no plans to give up his long-term plan to buy United. He knew that a takeover was unlikely to be smooth and analysts said yesterday that United's statement need not thwart him indefinitely.
"The board's support would have been an added luxury, but not having it doesn't make a bid more or less unlikely," said Henk Potts, a City football analyst. "The decision to sell or not rests with the owners, not the board."
Glazer could yet take a majority holding by buying the 28.89 per cent stake of United owned by the largest shareholders, John Magnier and JP McManus. Talks with the Irishmen are on hold - for various conditions, including funding, it is understood - but are not necessarily finished for good.
If Glazer could acquire their stake he would trigger a mandatory bid for the club anyway, and the board's support - or lack of it - might not actually influence other shareholders against him.
His biggest problem, the one that has apparently led to the board's stance, is a lack of ready cash to do a deal. The board's support of a loan-based buy-out would undoubtedly have assisted him in terms of credibility. Lack of it leaves him, like Arsenal, wounded but far from dead.
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