Sir Jim Radcliffe is not a sportswasher or a hedge fund and he is a fan of Manchester United. Does this make him the best option for United fans to support?
It’s no great surprise that the first group to publicly declare that they will be bidding for Manchester United would be that fronted by Sir Jim Ratcliffe. United were always going to be of considerable interest to the only people with the financial wherewithal to buy a club of this size and grandeur, and that will only have strengthened with the team’s upturn on the pitch.
One thing that Ratcliffe can rely on that practically no-one else who’ll be able to afford the sort of price that the Glazers will be demanding can hope for is public support. There aren’t any details on the specifics of the bid at present, but it is extremely likely that he will be able to rely on considerable support from the fans themselves.
Not being an American hedge fund or a Middle Eastern sportswasher carries certain privileges, even if the pockets of INEOS, Ratcliffe’s chemicals company, might not turn out to be as endlessly deep as some of the others who may be prepared to spend big on buying this particular football club. Bringing the fans together wouldn’t be an issue. Other potential bidders would be considerably more divisive.
Much has been made of Ratcliffe’s previous connections to Chelsea, but this feels like little more than a billionaire doing billionaire things. Having a Chelsea season ticket because it amounts to the equivalent of a pocket’s worth of loose change is a very billionaire thing to do. Expressing an interest in buying a big Premier League club because they’re available – INEOS submitted a formal bid for Chelsea in April, only for the club to be sold to Todd Boehly’s Clearlake consortium instead – is a very billionaire thing to do.
But what sort of owner might Sir Jim Ratcliffe turn out to be for Manchester United? Well, there is some evidence, although this does come with a degree of qualification. INEOS already owns three clubs: OGC Nice in France, FC Lausanne-Sport in Switzerland and Racing Club Abidjan in Cote d’Ivoire, and the results have been mixed.
In France, OGC Nice are having something of an underwhelming season. Under Christophe Galtier, who’d won the league title in 2021 with Lille, Nice finished in fifth place and reached the final of the Coupe de France before losing to FC Nantes. Galtier took the step up to PSG at the end of last season, and the club’s summer transfer activity was very Premier League-centric. The club spent a considerable amount of money, including on a number of faces familiar to those who watch the English league, including Nicolas Pepe on loan from Arsenal, Mads Bech on loan from Brentford, Ross Barkley and Aaron Ramsey as free agents, and Kasper Schmeichel from Leicester City.
Galtier’s replacement, Lucien Favre, did not work out. This was Favre’s second spell with Nice – he took them to third place during his first – but this time there were reports just a few weeks into the season that there were problems behind the scenes. The players brought in didn’t seem to suit the football that he wanted to play, and although Favre got his team through their Europa Conference League group stage, their domestic performance was at best tepid considering that they spent €70m during the summer. Lille are in tenth place in Ligue Un, and the final straw for Favre came when his team was knocked out of the Coupe de France by third tier side Le Puy-en-Velay Foot 43 Auvergne. Didier Degard is now in interim charge of the team.
Elsewhere, FC Lausanne-Sport have been bouncing between the top two divisions in Switzerland for the last decade and were relegated at the end of last season for the third time in the last ten years. They’re currently in fourth place in the second tier of the Swiss league system. Racing Club Abidjan were promoted to Cote d’Ivoire’s Ligue Un in 2018 and won the title in 2020, but are currently in 12th place in the table.
Of course, steering a course for Manchester United would be a completely different challenge for Ratcliffe, but we can learn a little from his involvement at Nice. He hasn’t been shy to spend a little money where he’s believed that it would be beneficial to the team, and although things have gone wrong for them this season, it’s not difficult to see why it was felt that they could build on a pretty good season during the summer.
But it should be repeated that this history with substantially smaller clubs is of limited use when trying to assess whether Ratcliffe would be successful at Old Trafford. Two of his other three clubs exist in a completely different financial universe to Manchester United while even Nice, who have played Champions League football and are still in European competition this season, don’t really make for a reasonable comparison for the challenges and potential benefits of running one of the planet’s biggest football clubs.
The challenges are clear. Manchester United exist in a different football universe to that of 20 years ago, but their wide commercial appeal affords them the ability to challenge the clubs supported by the vast riches of the hedge funds and the oil barons. They are one of the few clubs left that can do so. But maintaining that challenge would still be difficult, even with almost-bottomless pockets.
Elsewhere, Old Trafford has fallen into a state of something approaching disrepair while the club’s training Carrington training ground also needs redevelopment. But while these would be expensive – and there’s little question that they need doing – securing the funding for them shouldn’t be a major issue, and the benefit of simply being the person who finally got the Old Trafford renovation done once and for all would likely see his stock rise still further in the eyes of United supporters. That and not loading it with debt for the cost of your purchase would seem to be pretty risk-free ways to make yourself popular.
As ever with the sale of a football club, the answer to the question of what the club is worth can only be realistically answered as ‘what someone is prepared to pay for it and what the owners are prepared to accept to sell it’. There will doubtless be a lot of chin-stroking about this sale in comparison with the sale of Chelsea last year and plenty between what Manchester United and Liverpool might sell for over the coming months, but such speculation is largely futile. Should a bidding war break out then yes, Manchester United could be sold for a grossly over-inflated price.
So this sale will be massive, and it’s impossible to say to what extent the opinions of others will be heard when picking a new owner for the club, but when the fanbase is as large as Manchester United’s, those supporters do have a voice and it may be recognition of the importance of this that has been behind Ratcliffe’s decision to be the first go public with his interest.
Perhaps if he can build a groundswell of support among United fans, a feeling of unstoppable momentum might even build up that makes him feel like the only game in town and even deter one or two rival bidders.
There will, of course, be some who believe that all that matters is how much money any new owner is prepared to throw at the team, never mind the source of that money, but there may be more who want United to return to a model by which the owners are custodians of the club who represent Manchester United with honour, who build a broader base than just wielding a check book every time things start to look a little sticky, and who represent something beyond the predatory part of the capitalist spectrum.
There probably are no ‘good’ billionaires, but that doesn’t mean that there can’t be differences between the way in which they do business when running a football club.
Perhaps it’s becoming impossible for a football club to be run in that way and be successful in the 21st century, but Manchester United’s ability to raise commercial revenue gives them as good a chance of succeeding against this particular grain as anyone. The team’s improvement on the pitch has proved that change can come quickly even after years of stagnation., and supporters will be hoping that this pace can be extended to the boardroom too.
Is Sir Jim Ratcliffe the right person for their club? It’s certainly too early to tell. But he might be the least bad option, and when it comes to modern football that might even be as good as things get.