In a confidential, secluded location somewhere in the North West, a series of meetings and presentations that will determine the fate of potentially the most valuable takeover in sporting history are taking place.
According to sources close to the process, teams of legal and financial advisers attached to Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani’s bids for Manchester United will get access to a fresh tranche of detailed information that will go a long way to deciding their final valuation of the Premier League’s most high-profile club.
Among the documents will be club accounts, sponsorship arrangements, wage and future transfer commitments, property portfolios and even future revenue projections. Manchester United officials will be on hand to press home why the Glazers believe the sale demands a premium price.
But really it now all boils down to one question: who will blink first?
Not the Qatari banker Al Thani, whose bid is well-financed, well-connected in the Gulf state and widely believed to be the early front runner in the process.
Despite the first stadium protests aimed at what Amnesty International have branded Qatari sportswashing over the weekend, i can reveal the businessman remains “totally committed” to brokering a full takeover of United as soon as possible. Those close to his bid feel all indications so far are that theirs is the “best bid – and the best bid for the club”.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s interest in buying the club through his Ineos group hasn’t waned either but those familiar with the process believe this is the time for all parties to get realistic about the value of the club and whether there is room to move on their initial offers.
“This is advisers, not the main players. But it’s fair to say this is where the really serious stuff starts,” one source close to the process tells i. And inevitably that comes down to money.
For the Glazers, the question is whether to continue holding out for a £6bn valuation that always looked optimistic given the lack of investment that has gone into United on their watch.
If they do – and decide to draw on the external funding provided by Elliott Investment Management, who have also reached the second phase of the process – they are certain to face a fresh wave of protests. Thick skins would be required and the smart move, according to those familiar with football business, would be to accept offers over £4.5bn.
“In terms of the price, the issue is that because Todd Boehly overpaid for Chelsea that has set a benchmark against which the Glazers feel they can achieve £6bn,” football finance expert Kieran Maguire explains to i.
“I think a price of £4bn to £4.5bn is very generous but it’s a realistic one that someone will pay and represents a very good deal for the Glazers.”
Maguire believes the lack of a return on investment has put off some bidders. There is no major new stream of revenue for the club that doesn’t come from a significant redrawing of the broadcast contracts or something major like Project Big Picture or the European Super League. They feel further away than ever, especially with a Government-endorsed independent regulator on the horizon.
Add to that the fact that a complete Old Trafford rebuild could cost an additional £1bn and Maguire says it’s no surprise that the interest has come largely from those who see the club as a trophy asset rather than a potential gold mine.
Both Al Thani and Ratcliffe can, of course, draw on significant funds but both have made it clear they will not overpay. And Old Trafford is at the front of both bids’ plans. The Qatari proposal is about capital investment in the stadium, training ground and into the community around Old Trafford. A theoretical first 100 days under Al Thani would probably put flesh on the bones of those projects rather than a flurry of football announcements.
Indeed, it’s understood that so far there has been little or no focus on topics like signings, adding football executives or what transfer funds would be available in the new era. The priority is on winning the bid and then they’ll sit down with Erik ten Hag and the other kingmakers in the football department to work out how to – in the words of the group’s initial statement – “return the club to its former glories”.
It comes with political and ethical entanglements but also the promise of bringing the club’s fading infrastructure up to date and fit for a trophy-laden future.
Supporters are probably every bit as conflicted as the Glazer family about what to do next.