The Sweeper: Who Are The Red Knights?

Red Knights

Big Story

The Red Knights — super-rich and influential Manchester United fans riding to the rescue of the club from the clutches of the Glazers — are led by Jim O’Neill, chief economist at Goldman Sachs, Mark Rawlinson, head of corporate law at Freshfields, and Paul Marshall, a founder of the hedge fund Marshall Wace.

The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust emailed their considerable list of United supporters today, totalling around 50,000 (admittedly including snoopers like me), responding to the news breaking with further details of the “Red Knights” efforts to buy out the Glazer family. Duncan Drasdo, head of MUST, writes:

“You’ve no doubt seen coverage in the media of Monday’s “secret” meeting of the “Red Knights” – a group of true United fans – and the fact that MUST was an essential partner at that meeting.

We can reveal that the Red Knights are indeed developing a plan to buy United – and any new ownership model would aim not only to put the club on a sound financial footing, but would also put all of us, as supporters, at the heart of everything the club does.

Crucially, before they take action, the Red Knights need to know that they have the backing of United supporters. They’ve played their part and now we need to play ours by demonstrating mass support. We need to race to our first goal of 100,000 fans.”

Details of the Red Knights’ plan and the involvement of supporters in it remain sketchy. The British press, though, is asserting the seriousness of the men behind the bid, with the Telegraph saying:

While the project may look to some a classic case of millionaires high on the greasepaint-whiff of football, the Knights, for all their self-aggrandising title, have substance. O’Neill is among the most respected economists in the UK. He is a former non-executive director of United who opposed the Glazer takeover, and he remains close to United chief executive David Gill.

His involvement is not without personal jeopardy. A spokesman for the Knights stressed that he was acting in a personal capacity, but his position has already brought a personal intervention from the Glazers, who are understood to have contacted Goldman’s New York head office to complain after he went on the record to say there was “too much leverage” at United.

O’Neill is joined by equally credible figures. Mike Rawlinson, a partner at City law firm Freshfields, was an adviser to United when the Glazers targeted the club in 2005 and also knows Gill.

Paul Marshall, a partner at hedge fund Marshall Wace, and Richard Hytner, deputy chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, are also involved, as is investment banker Keith Harris.

They are a formidable grouping but to overcome scepticism in the City and hostility in Florida they will need to produce a credible proposal in the face of the fierce complexities their ambition poses.

The ties to David Gill are particularly interesting, with the Red Knights saying yesterday they were “supportive of current management” at United, according to David Conn. Conn further explains how the Red Knights want MUST involved in the campaign:

Fans will eventually be asked to contribute financially towards buying a stake and, probably at some strategic point, to withhold their custom. Hence Duncan Drasdo, Must’s chief executive, saying it is “essential for a majority of two key groups, the Old Trafford season ticket holders and those with executive facilities, to show their appetite for participation”.

That collective supporters’ stake (presumably to be held by MUST) is expected to be over 25%, which would give supporters some protection from certain measures the owners could take through company law. Yet how this money would be raised has yet to be explained; if we imagine a £1bn sale price, that’d mean the supporters’ collective share would be £250m. Would the Red Knights be so generous as to contribute towards this and donate a portion of shares? Would other rich Man Utd fans be willing to invest more into the fund and still receive only a single share?  Or would it require MUST’s 100,000 e-membership to contribute £2,500 each?

How will the Red Knights force the Glazers to sell? It seems there are several prongs to their attack, including pressure from season ticketholders (let’s not forget United’s waiting list at Old Trafford has entirely dissipated in the wake of sustained price rises), and potentially buying up the Glazers debt on the market. Ultimately, though, it’s about giving the Glazers enough money to put it crudely, satisfy their greed enough that they get the fuck out of dodge.

Conn explains: “Their ideal solution is to make the Glazers an offer large enough to give them a profit palatable to both sides on the £272m the family paid to buy the club in 2005. The other £559m out of the total £831m price, including professionals’ fees, was all borrowed then loaded on to the club to pay off. The Glazers may want £500m profit; the Red Knights might consider £100m more than adequate.”

Quick Hits

  • UEFA’s financial fair play proposals have received assent from the European Clubs Association, though not without a few concessions.
  • Portsmouth’s owner offers a lifeline, but it’s still nowhere near enough for the club to survive long.
  • Reuter’s says that China’s match-fixing scandal is just a reflection of the game’s deeper problems: “China’s match-fixing scandal is a symptom of the problems that bedevil soccer in the country and urgent restructuring of the game is needed to prevent its recurrence, according to Shanghai Shenhua owner Zhu Jin.”
  • Johannesburg’s new World Cup venue, Soccer City, came in $133 million over budget, apparently due to higher building costs than anticipated.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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