Concerns are growing among some parties involved in the Manchester United sale that the Glazers might have “played them for months” – and instead of selling the club they would prefer to either push up the price to create leverage for a loan, or offload a minority stake to a hedge fund.
The latest fears came as the US hedge fund Elliott Management confirmed that it had made an offer for United, but only for a “small amount of common equity”.
To some well-placed observers those words suggest that Elliot, which used to own AC Milan, are only interested in the 31% of non-Glazer shares that are traded on the NYSE. However they could target the members of the Glazer family that want to sell. Either way, it raises the prospect of a scenario that would allow United’s co-chairmen, Joel and Avram Glazer, to stay at the helm.
Meanwhile eyebrows continue to be raised over claims that up to eight bidders are interested in the club given that only two, the Ineos owner, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, and the Qatari consortium of Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, have gone public with wanting a controlling stake.
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The suspicion remains that Raine, the US bank running the sale, is trying to ramp up a bidding process that is not as competitive as made out. Well-placed sources believe Raine’s aim is to push potential suitors towards the upper end of the Glazers’ £5bn-6bn valuation – significantly higher than the Qataris or Ratcliffe appear to want to pay.
On Thursday the Finnish entrepreneur Thomas Zillacus was the latest to be linked with United, saying he would put up £3bn for the club if fans were willing to put up the other half of a £6bn bid. However his move seems highly unlikely to succeed given he has yet to show proof of funds or make a bid.
The latest plot twists came after the deadline for the second round of bids for the club was extended on Wednesday. On Thursday all parties involved were still waiting to hear details about the new deadline, with some suggesting that a “fluid” approach would be introduced by Raine.
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That would allow the main bidders to lodge offers for as long as they wanted to remain in the process – which could allow it to drag on even further.
If the club is eventually sold it would comfortably break the world record for a sports team, held by Rob Walton, a member of the family that owns Walmart, who bought the Denver Broncos NFL franchise for $4.65bn (£3.78bn) last year.
However a nightmare scenario for United fans remains in play: the family that loaded £514.9m of debt on the club when they took over in 2005 – with only £35.1m coming off since – staying in charge for the foreseeable future.