United dismiss talk of foreign takeover

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The Independent Football

Manchester United yesterday dismissed reports that a trio of foreign billionaires are on the verge of a £600m takeover battle for the club.

Reports yesterday claimed three separate individuals - one from Russia, one from the Middle East and one European - are poised to launch takeover bids which would dwarf Roman Abramovich's £250m arrival at Chelsea.

But the United spokesman, Paddy Harverson, said: "It's pure speculation." Privately, United claim they have not been the subject of any approach and are unaware of "active interest" from any party.

Speculation over United's financial position has grown in recent weeks and emerged again after their chief executive, Peter Kenyon, moved to Stamford Bridge last week. Kenyon will reportedly receive a £3m signing-on fee which is part of a three-year package worth at least £7.5m.

An influential United supporters group have warned prospective buyers that they are not willing to give up their stake in the club without a fight. Reports suggested that the three individuals are preparing separate takeover bids which would turn the club into a privately-run operation.

United's dependence on the approval of shareholders is perceived as a weakness by some who point to the benefits of having one owner in overall charge. However, the Shareholders United spokesman, Oliver Houston, says his organisation is opposed to moves which would turn control of the club turned over to an individual. "Manchester United is not the plaything of wealthy individuals or international corporations," he said. "It is a 125-year-old community asset that should be run in the interests of its supporters."

On their own, the members of Shareholders United do not have significant financial clout. But as an organisation they have had their victories in the past, notably when they played a key role in foiling a takeover by BSkyB.

Shares in United, priced at 168p, are thought to be overvalued, but the scale of funds available to individuals such as Abramovich, who is thought to be worth around £5bn, mean a takeover would still not be beyond them.

The Dutch coach, Martin Jol, has revealed he has been approached by Manchester United to become Sir Alex Ferguson's No 2. Jol is one of the most highly-rated football thinkers in the Netherlands where he is coach of RKC Waalwijk. He is also a former West Bromwich and Coventry player. Jol has confirmed that he met United for talks before the start of the season and he remains favourite for the post which has been vacant since the summer when Carlos Queiroz was appointed head coach of Real Madrid.

Jol said: "I had a three-hour meeting with Sir Alex Ferguson. If I get the chance to go to Manchester it would be a very interesting job. I don't want to say anything about the Manchester United deal as I have a rule with Ferguson that I will not say anything."

The silence since Jol's meeting suggests Ferguson may continue without an assistant in the short term, but that he is top of the list should Ferguson choose to go for a European coach. The United manager is also considering the former Tottenham manager, Christian Gross, who is now in charge of Basel in his native Switzerland.