'Manchester United are the ­commercial juggernaut they are today ­because of me' - the failed takeover which provided blueprint for £3billion success

"I wanted to show the fans I was one of them, a football fan first and a businessman second. I was there because I wanted to make a difference."


"I do regret not completing the deal, that was a mistake, but I was 37, I was a young man.

"I only left Old Trafford when the Premier League was about to start and I didn’t like what the big five clubs were saying, about how people wanted to watch them and that they should break away.

"I knew Manchester United would dominate the Premier League, the infrastructure was there.

"But they’ve lost their way now, they’re almost back to where they are on the playing side when I went, they're massively underachieving and something needs to be done."

There has never been a time before when football ownership has ever been such a hotly debated topic.

Failed plans for a European Super League, spear-headed by Manchester United co-owner Joel Glazer, back in April reignited the underlying sour taste at Old Trafford as supporters rallied against their club's derided decision-makers.

Since then there have been promises of reform going forward with United hopeful of a new fan advisory board in place for the start of next season, as well as details on how a new scheme to allow supporters to buy shares in the club will work.

For many fans the attempted reconciliation comes far too late into the Glazers' 16-year tenure in Manchester for forgiveness to be granted, with plenty of supporters demanding new owners altogether.

An unwelcome reality for many is that there remains few viable alternatives to the Glazers right now.

The possibility of fan ownership has been discussed but the sums involved in purchasing United would make that difficult given that they were recently valued at over £3billion by Forbes, while rumours of possible Saudi Arabian investment in the club are wide of the mark and would be controversial for other reasons.

United fans just want someone with the best interests of the club as their main focus - 32 years ago it looked like such an opportunity had arisen.

It was in 1989 when former United chairman Martin Edwards sanctioned the £20million sale of the club to Isle of Man-based property tycoon and former hopeful footballer Michael Knighton.

Michael Knighton had a bid of £20 million accepted for the ownership of Manchester United

"I believe that under new direction and with new financial backing this club can go even further," Edwards stated after reluctantly deciding to part ways with the club nine years after taking over following the death of his father, Louis.

The entrepreneur set up a company called MK Trafford Holdings specifically for the purpose of the takeover bid and a £10m contract was signed for Edwards's 50.06 per cent controlling stake in the club, subject to an audit of the club's accounts.

On top of that a £20-per-share offer was made to the club's other shareholders, financed by MK Trafford investors Knighton, former Debenhams executive Bob Thornton and Stanley Cohen of Betterware home shopping.

Of an initial £20m investment half of it was going to be spent on purchasing Edwards’ controlling shares, while the other half was intended to be spent on pushing ahead with the long-planned regeneration of the Stretford End and squad strengthening.

Edwards had already rejected a bid of £10m from newspaper magnate Robert Maxwell in 1984, but this time had been convinced to sanction the then-biggest takeover deal in the history of British football with Knighton's offer.

The figures were enormous at a time before the huge boom and commercial valuation of clubs, but Knighton saw something in United which was to earn him a controversial reputation.

While it wasn't a popular prediction at the time, the businessman was well aware of the profitability of United as a global brand as well as a football club, something which would become clear over the following three decades.

Knighton insisted he could turn United into a £150m company within 15 years, explaining there was a massive untapped market in terms of merchandising and hospitality experience.

Michael Knighton predicted huge commercial growth in English football

"We shall tap into every conceivable market," he stated. Yet his claims were met with scepticism from the tabloid press, who questioned what his true intentions actually were.

“I think history has proved without question that in 1989 I knew what the future held for the whole industry, not just Manchester United,” Knighton told The Guardian two years ago. “Everyone I talked to back then was sceptical about satellite television but I knew it would be a game changer. I could see that football, and particularly English football, would soon be worth billions as a global product.

“It seemed obvious to me to get hold of one of the greatest brands in the sector would be like owning a gold mine, but at the time I was pretty much alone in that view. The Financial Times asked me why I was buying a club that had just announced a loss of £1.3m and was only turning over £7m a year. I said I was buying potential, that I thought it should be possible to turn United into the world’s wealthiest club.”

While a deal had been in the works for a number of weeks the news of a proposed takeover first emerged three days before the 1989/1990 league season was due to start.

Sir Bobby Charlton and other club officials were made aware of the plans on Wednesday 16 August 1989, and two days later the takeover was officially announced as Knighton posed for the media and shook hands with Edwards on the Old Trafford pitch.

A day later brought about Knighton's longest-lasting memory from his 62 days as chairman-elect.

On the opening day of the season Knighton ran out onto the pitch before a 4-1 win against Arsenal, clad in club training gear, and performing keepy-uppies in front of the Stretford End.

"Many grown men dream of emulating George Best and scoring at the Stretford End. But to try it in front of a packed club was the act of a brave man," a local news reporter stated at the time.

Michael Knighton demonstrating his ball skills on the pitch at Old Trafford after agreeing to buy Manchester United

"The new chairman could have fallen flat on his face in every sense, but in a few minutes of pure indulgence he did what his predecessor didn't manage in eight years - he won over one of the country's most critical crowds."

It was one of many PR exercises undertaken by Knighton in his pursuit of buying the club, again another premonition of the similar irreversible culture changes which were going to alter the face of football forever.

"I wanted to show the fans I was one of them, a football fan first and a businessman second. I was there because I wanted to make a difference," he told MEN Sport last year.

Knighton certainly had the respect of some supporters given he came from a footballing background. Great-grandfather Willie Layton was a member of the Sheffield Wednesday squad which won the top-flight in 1903 and 1904 and Knighton himself had been an apprentice at Coventry City before injury cut his hopes short.

His promise of investing £10m into the rejuvenation of the Old Trafford facilities was warmly welcomed by the fans who put their hard-earned cash into the club every week, but still the media questioned the plans given loans would be required to sanction the initial investment.

"He's had to provide £20m for this takeover, so presumably he has had to borrow a great deal of that, which means he'll have heavy interest to cover," the MEN's legendary former chief United writer David Meek told BBC's Grandstand. "It means he'll want a dividend on his shares from Manchester United, which means that the club must make a profit in order to pay a dividend.

"So I don't see that they can buy a lot of expensive players and pay a dividend to Mr Knighton. So really, not a lot has changed."

Such scepticism was a common theme in the media at the time, though Knighton was adamant he had the funds to not only buy United, but lay the foundations for a dynasty which would soon become a global force.

“I’m known as ‘the man who tried to buy Manchester United but didn’t have the money’," he told The Mirror. “But that’s absolute rubbish. I had the cash alright – and I also had a £24million overdraft ­facility to back it up.

“In fact, when Martin ­Edwards told me he wanted £10million for his shares, I almost fell off my chair because I was ready to pay four times as much."

Even amid the uncertainty less than two weeks after Knighton paraded the Old Trafford pitch in club colours Alex Ferguson was given the green light to spend a ­British record fee for a defender when United splashed £2.3m on Gary Pallister.

Alex Ferguson with new signing Gary Pallister (2nd left) Club Director Maurice Watkins and agent Jon Smith (right)

The early signs were encouraging and club legend Best was optimistic by the lift his proposed takeover was bringing to the club.

"I think sometimes when a new face comes in, no matter at what level, it has a good effect on a club," he told Grandstand. "I hope it is going to be the same at Manchester United."

Yet questions regarding the source of Knighton's finances continued to circle - these doubts would prove to be the undoing of his bid to buy the club.

In mid-September fellow investors Thornton and Cohen pulled out from the deal, leaving Knighton searching for further investment if he were to make his dream of owning United a reality.

Other backers were approached to join him on his proposed venture, with Knighton proving to chairman Edwards and his legal team he did indeed have the funds to complete the initial deal.

Amid the looming deadline for a deal to be completed further scrutiny regarding the financing of the initial investment as well as cynicism regarding the lofty global ambitions he had for the club led Knighton to hand back the contract he had agreed with ­Edwards.

By mid-October all talks of a takeover were off as Knighton accepted a non-executive role on the board of directors and eventually watched on as United fulfilled his predictions as a mass marketing machine.

Michael Knighton eventually accepted a non-executive role on the board of directors

“In the end I joined the board and Martin used the blueprint I had written to ­revolutionise the club. Back then, United were turning over £7million-a-year and had just announced a loss of £1.3million.

“I had spotted the commercial rewards that would come with satellite TV, but got ­absolutely crucified in the media when I said that I was going to make United a truly global brand and the biggest football club in the world.

“That’s why I have no false modesty and say that Manchester United are the ­commercial juggernaut they are today ­because of me.”

While his claims might need to be taken with a pinch of salt, it is hard to argue against Knighton's self-acclaim as a visionary, with the global brand of United something supporters are now well aware of.

What was valued as a £20m investment in 1989 is now viewed as a £3bn behemoth in 2021, further endorsement for the huge changes the would-be owner predicted would imminently arrive in English football.

Three years after his retracted takeover bid the Premier League was founded and United were to be the first winners. The rest is history.

In the same year Knighton eventually went on to buy Carlisle United - a side who he believed he could revolutionise with marketing revenues and return to the English top-flight.

They would achieve promotion to Division Two in 1995 after amassing a club-record 91 points in a single season, which still stands today, as well as reaching the final of the Football League Trophy twice in two years, winning it once.

Joel Glazer (2nd L) Avram Glazer (C) and Ed Woodward prepare to ring the Opening Bell at the New York Stock Exchange on August 10, 2012

At the start of the 1997/98 season Knighton appointed himself as the new Carlisle manager after a run of poor results under fan favourite Mervyn Day, but could not save the side from relegation back down to Division Three.

Ironically his final years at the club were punctuated by a number of failed takeover attempts before he finally agreed to sell the club in July 2002, bringing to an end a turbulent decade in Cumbria.

At the age of 69 Knighton is now retired from football and currently spends his time painting, sculpting and writing poetry, though perhaps his finest creation was the blueprint for the modern business model of football.

He was laughed at for seeing United as far more than just a sports team, but 32 years later and the scandal of the European Super League proposals once again highlighted the growing gulf between billionaire owners and the souls of their clubs: the fans.

Source:https://www.manchestereveningnews.co.uk/sport/football/manchester-united-owners-takeover-news-20860903

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