United cool on Etihad deal with bigger sponsors in the wings

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Manchester United have stalled sponsorship talks with one of the world's richest airlines because they are confident of sealing a shirt deal with an alternative backer that will smash the British record.

Etihad Airways, which is the government-owned national airline of the United Arab Emirates and is backed by the UAE's billionaire royal family, has been among the front-runners to succeed Vodafone as United's shirt sponsor. But a source in the UAE indicated yesterday that no deal is on the horizon, while United sources remain confident they are closing in on a huge endorsement package, presumably elsewhere.

United's owners, the Glazer family, have set their sights on beating Chelsea's £11m-a-year deal with Samsung, and believe they can achieve that quite comfortably even if they turn their back on Etihad's huge resources. Other companies in the frame include Mansion, a Gibraltar-based online gambling company, and Qatar Airways. United are continuing to negotiate with several parties in the hope of ratcheting up the deal.

Etihad would appear to be a reliable fallback option. The airline announced yesterday that it will start a daily service between Abu Dhabi and Manchester in March. They are also in direct competition with Arsenal's new stadium sponsors, Emirates, who are based in Dubai. And they have more money than Emirates with which to wage a turf battle.

Etihad going head-to-head with Emirates in English football would be a good way for Abu Dhabi to try to take a slice of the tourism market away from Dubai. Seven emirates make up the UAE, and of them, Abu Dhabi is far wealthier than Dubai.

Negotiations are being led for United by Bryan Glazer and the commercial director Andy Anson, who was forced from the original plc board by the Glazers and then reinstated when they took over in May. They have visited potential sponsors in the Far East and the Middle East.

Vodafone's termination of their £9m a year, announced in November, was met with widespread pessimism, except by the Glazers who believed United could secure a more lucrative shirt contract.

It has been Bryan, rather than his brothers Joel and Avi, who has taken charge of negotiations with Anson with the purpose of beating Juventus's deal with the Libyan oil company Tamoil which is believed to be worth £15m a year. After initial disappointment at Vodafone's withdrawal, United officials believed that they were entering the shirt-sponsorship market at an opportune moment.

Gill said that United was "still one of he biggest, if not the biggest, names in club football and the opportunity to be on that shirt only comes up once every so often". United want the deal in place by the end of next month so that their shirt manufacturers, Nike, can begin production of a new home shirt design that the club hope will be one of the best selling of all-time.

Top 20 international rich list of clubs

1 (2) Real Madrid 186.2

2 (1) Man United 166.4

3 (3) Milan 158.0

4 (5) Juventus 154.9

5 (4) Chelsea 149.1

6 (7) Barcelona 140.4

7 (9) Bayern Munich 128.0

8 (10) Liverpool 122.4

9 (8) Internazionale 119.7

10 (6) Arsenal 115.7

11 (12) Roma 89.0

12 (11) Newcastle 87.1

13 (14) Tottenham 70.6

14 (17) Schalke 04 65.8

15 (n/a) Lyon 62.7

16 (13) Celtic 62.6

17 (16) Man City 60.9

18 (n/a) Everton 60.0

19 (n/a) Valencia 57.2

20 (15) Lazio 56.1

Deloitte Money League: revenue in millions of pounds 2004-05 season (2003-04 ranking in brackets)