Manchester United ‘summer of chaos’ talk is hyperbole but sale and slump has left club reeling
The sale of Manchester United has been an extremely drawn-out process and it may not even result in a full one. Pressure is building again at Old Trafford.
It doesn’t really feel as though this is how Manchester United’s season was supposed to end. It’s only been 10 weeks since they returned from a brief break for their EFL Cup final win against Newcastle United with talk of a quadruple starting to form on people’s lips. This always felt somewhat optimistic. Even on March 1, when they beat West Ham 3-1 in the fifth round of the FA Cup, they were 11 points adrift of Arsenal and eight back from Manchester City, with just the one game in hand on each. But such was the warm afterglow of their trip to Wembley that at that point, anything might have seemed possible.
Ten weeks on, this doesn’t seem to be the case any more. The quadruple has certainly gone. In the Premier League, their first game back after the EFL Cup final was that seismic 7-0 defeat to Liverpool, a result which seemed to encapsulate all of the issues that have hung over Old Trafford like a dark grey cloud for the last decade. United have won just four of their last 10 league games, including four defeats.
Looking optimistically upwards has been replaced by the stampeding sound of Liverpool in the background. The Reds have won six in a row and closed the gap to fourth place to just one point, although they’ve also played a game more.
Elsewhere, Manchester United’s Europa League hopes evaporated over the course of 180 chaotic minutes during which they raced into a two-goal lead in the space of 21 minutes in the first leg at Old Trafford before losing 5-2 on aggregate to Seville. Even the FA Cup final looks like a daunting prospect, with their opponents being The Manchester City Complex.
And then there’s the takeover talk. The constant, ongoing, forever swirling takeover talk. There are now two parties in the race for the long-threatened buyout of the club: it’s Sir Jim Racliffe and INEOS versus Sheikh Jassim and Qatar. Both sides huffed and puffed over the valuation that the Glazers seemed to have come to, and the current tabled bids are the third that have been submitted. But this week – finally – came news. The Sun reported that INEOS is the Glazers’ preferred bidder for the club, and this seems likely to cause ructions because while Shiekh Jassim wants full ownership, the INEOS bid was for 51% of the club, but valued at a price proportionally closer to the Glazers’ full valuation. The offer from INEOS would allow two of the Glazer family who wish to retain their shareholdings to do so to while the other four could sell up.
On Friday evening, The Times reported that the Glazers were ready to hold ‘final talks’ with Ratcliffe and INEOS over a deal.
This seems likely to infuriate those who support a #FullSaleOnly at Old Trafford. Whether these people are motivated by the lure of Qatari billions or by only wanting the Glazers out is unknown, but it has seemed pretty clear that there has been a big PR battle going on from both sides in recent weeks. A poll carried out in February by The Athletic showed that 66.2% supported INEOS, with Qatar second at 16.9%, and with 98.2% of respondents being against the Glazers retaining control of the club. But this seems to have swung since then, especially with the news that Ratcliffe’s bid would keep (some of) the Glazers at Old Trafford.
Such has been the level of astro-turfing from both sides that it’s impossible to say exactly how the entire fanbase feels at present. A recent demonstration by The 1958 was attended by around 1,000 supporters, and they may be considered supporters of the Qatari bid, considering that if one of the bids is for a full sale and the other isn’t, then you de facto become behind the Qatar bid by protesting for a #FullSaleOnly.
It is understandable to feel conflicted over this, especially those who may have spent the last 10 years or more complaining about Manchester City and the infinitely deep pockets of their owners. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” doesn’t feel like a winning argument when part of that conversation concerns such matters as sportswashing.
Yet at the same time, the Glazers have been despised at Old Trafford for getting on towards a generation now, and it is absolutely understandable that United supporters should be desperate to see them leave. And there is something fundamentally absurd about the fact that we should each have to find what we’re comfortable with on our ethical barometer just to support a football team. It’s unfair on Manchester United supporters, just as all of this is unfair on all football supporters. The fact remains that we shouldn’t have to contort our ethical compasses just to do this. The same applies to Manchester City and Newcastle United supporters. They shouldn’t have had to make this sort of decision in the first place.
What can be said with a reasonable degree of confidence is that none of this uncertainty seems to be doing Manchester United any good. Share prices have fallen sharply in recent weeks with the dawning realisation that the sale isn’t going to proceed as had been expected. In the middle of April, Sky News reported that “shares dropped to $18.91 each at one point on Monday morning in New York, the lowest since November,” off the back of reports on ESPN that the Glazers were set to stay, to some degree at least. As of May 12, those stocks are trading at $18.19. Meanwhile, on the pitch, the team has now lost two in a row and one or two questions have even started to be asked of Erik ten Hag.
Time is running out before the transfer window reopens, and his squad does need a little attention. The Sun has framed this as a ‘summer of chaos’. While this may be over-egging the pudding somewhat, it’s not difficult to envisage a bottleneck forming in the sale process and the club being unable to spend as it wishes during the summer. They seem to want to drop £100m on Harry Kane, quite asides from any other considerations, though there remains little indication of substance to this ongoing story beyond Manchester United really, really wanting him.
The reason for this is very obvious. Manchester United have only scored 49 Premier League goals this season, 40 fewer than Manchester City, and Kane remains one of the Premier League’s most potent goalscorers. But having to negotiate purchasing the most-prized asset of Daniel Levy, who will surely already be aware of the risks of selling to a direct rival and the PR damage that would be done to him should a sale be completed, will be a challenge.
Other reinforcements are also required, but the club’s downturn in form has thrown whether they can offer Champions League football into doubt, and while budgets may have been decided upon for a variety of possible outcomes regarding the sale, they’re unlikely to be implemented until contracts are signed. That potential stasis is what is starting to look like a potential issue, even if describing it as a ‘summer of chaos’ does sound a little hyperbolic.
The quadruple talk was always conjecture, and largely light-hearted. But the downturn since the start of March has been real. Three wins from their last four matches of the season against Wolves, Bournemouth, Chelsea and Fulham will ensure Champions League football for next season, and three them are at home. But the mood at Old Trafford could turn, especially if INEOS do end up successfully co-owning the club with (some of) the Glazers. It certainly feels as though there are no solutions that will please everybody when it comes to what happens at Manchester United.
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