Shocking results, financial uncertainty and massive fans’ discontent — no wonder Manchester United’s current woes under the Glazers remind Michael Knighton of the club’s darkest days in 1989.
Knighton was an ambitious young property developer when he tried to buy United three decades ago, juggling the ball on the Old Trafford pitch to general astonishment.
He ended up on the board for three years where he helped United to capitalise on their brand and give Sir Alex Ferguson the resources he required to turn the ship around.
Michael Knighton has compared Manchester United’s current woes to the darkest of days
There is a huge divide between the United owners and the Glazer family running the club
Now 70 and successful as a painter, Knighton cannot believe that his beloved club has turned into a car crash once again with the Glazers hanging on in desperation as interested buyers queue up.
Chemical tycoon Sir James Ratcliffe, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be about £14billion, has made his interest known and has Knighton’s backing. Knighton is also involved with another consortium who are waiting to see how events unfold.
‘There are strong comparisons between Manchester United in 1989 and Manchester United now, apart from the figures involved becoming much bigger,’ he says.
‘United was a failing business in ’89, they never made any money. When I was juggling that ball, they’d just announced losses of £1.3m on a turnover of £7m. The fans hated the Edwards family [the owners] and they hadn’t won the league for 22 years.
United have brought in five-time Champions League winner Casemiro from Real Madrid
‘And look at where the club are now. I knew a year ago they were in crisis. The structure is wrong, The Glazers pay themselves substantial dividends and United have to service a debt of nearly £500m.
‘It was only a matter of time before the problems would manifest themselves on the pitch. The first couple of games have been horrible and manager Erik ten Hag looked very distressed at Brentford, realising the task he has.
‘Unless they sign some talented players at the end of the window, they look a relegation team,’ said Knighton. A self-made son of a coalminer, he became a school headmaster at 28 and then built a property empire after buying and doing up his first house in Huddersfield for £12,000.
Knighton said that United will ‘look like a relegation team’ if they don’t sign several players
Avram (left) and Joel Glazer (right) have come under intense criticism at Manchester United
These days he gets healthy commissions as an artist, abstract or figurative. His painting The Gilded Boy — based on Bobby Moore and Duncan Edwards — has just sold at the Royal Academy for £40,000. Football and United remain in his blood. His great grandad Willie Layton won the league and cup for Sheffield Wednesday and Knighton was on Coventry City’s books until he suffered a serious injury at 16.
He showed off his skills in 1989 with keepy-uppies in front of the Stretford End before the opening game of the season against Arsenal. It followed an £18m bid for the club and he says the showmanship was deliberate, to show the fans that directors did not have to be stuffy.
The gimmicks belied a serious understanding of how football was about to develop. ‘I told Martin Edwards [chairman] we were at the dawn of the digital age with satellite TV and it would change the industry. We could make United the greatest sporting brand on the planet,’ he says.
‘None of the other club chairmen or the FA seemed to recognise the potential of screening league games around the world. They’d laugh and say “Michael, we are not a product we can sell like a Mars Bar!”’
Michael Knighton tried to buy Manchester United over 30 years ago and was chairman-elect
For two months, Knighton had power as chairman-elect and gave Ferguson the green light to twice break the British transfer record for Gary Pallister and Paul Ince. ‘Fergie would come to me and say the club needed new players like people needed blood’.
A campaign against him by newspaper mogul Robert Maxwell persuaded Knighton life would be easier as a regular director than chairman so the bid was eventually withdrawn, but he was still on the United board until 1992.
He was criticised by some for not getting the takeover over the line but, to this day, he retains good connections with the wealthiest United fans and supporters’ groups.
‘I knew I had to do something to try and stop the travesty of Glazer ownership,’ he says. ‘I knew all the historic rubbish about me being a “circus act” would be regurgitated but I couldn’t sit on my hands.
‘Even if my role ultimately is to smoke the Glazers out so a wealthier man like Jim Ratcliffe ends up owning the club, it will have been worthwhile.’
With the Glazers holding talks to sell a minority stake in the club, Knighton adds: ‘The Glazers keep saying they don’t want to sell their main stake but, with what they are faced with, they will be looking for their exit.
Cristiano Ronaldo has been a centrepiece for United’s problems over the last couple of years
‘Of course they want top dollar, but they will go, they will sell their shareholding before the end of the season. They’ve turned down good offers before but they’ve now run out of road.’
Knighton says contrary to what Edwards says now, Fergie’s job was very much on the line until Mark Robins scored an FA Cup winner against Nottingham Forest in 1990 to change the course of history.
‘I was having a cup of tea at the previous game, a goalless draw against QPR, and there was plenty of hissing in the boardroom about Ferguson, “we’ve got to talk about the manager, he has got to go”.’
Ferguson won the FA Cup that season to spark a trophy rush that included 13 Premier League titles and the Champions League twice. But United are now trophyless for five years and it is nine years since they were champions.
Knighton, who is on a WhatsApp group with all the relevant fans’ leaders, expects large protests at tomorrow’s home game against Liverpool. He says: ‘I’ve told them I won’t be associated with anything violent or illegal. No damage, no pitch invasions.
The club is valued at £1.6billion but the Galzers want a lot more after Chelsea was sold for £2.5b
United have lost their first two games of the Premier League season under Erik ten Hag
‘I’m a peaceful person and who would want to give the Glazers any moral high ground by causing trouble. But whether everyone abides by that, I don’t know. It is difficult to control 50,000 fans who are at their wits end.’
United are valued at about £1.6bn by the stock market but the Glazers will want a lot more. Chelsea cost Todd Boehly £2.5bn this summer with a guarantee of an extra £1.5bn to be spent on the squad and other infrastructure.
Knighton said: ‘United will cost a premium in excess of their share because of its name and history. Yet the owners have damaged the brand and lumbered it with debt. A reasonable price would be well under the reported £4.5bn they once turned down.
‘The Glazers will know they are driving the value of their own asset down. They will not own Manchester United this time next year.’
Knighton says his group will spark the beginning of the end for the Glazers as wealthier parties are brought to the table. But he insists he is not looking for any reward, excepts perhaps this: ‘I wouldn’t mind juggling the ball for old times’ sake and smashing it into the Stretford End again.’