Will Jim Ratcliffe’s stake in Manchester United lighten damp air at Old Trafford?

Photograph: Stu Forster/Getty Images

The beginning of the end for the Glazers or a consolidation of their hold over Manchester United? It is the key question attached to Sir Jim Ratcliffe taking a £1.3bn, 25% stake in the club and its answer may take years to shake out. For now, the main issue addressed is closing off the “full sale now” demand made by fan activists during the 11 months since the Florida family commenced “a process to explore strategic alternatives”.

Was a full sale ever realistic? That depends on your faith in Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani. As the Qatari billionaire withdrew in October, more details of his thwarted plans for the club were revealed in Jim Bowen “what you could have won” fashion than had been during his courtship. Complaints of “a fanciful and outlandish valuation” featured prominently within what became an admission Ratcliffe had “won” the process.

Related: Sir Jim Ratcliffe completes deal to buy Manchester United minority stake

What followed from sources was the suggestion that taking a minority stake was his initial step towards overall control, the final price to be determined by the success of the partnership in the coming years.

Some United fans will never forgive Ratcliffe for allying with the Glazers but again, realism comes into play. How else was a deal supposed to be struck? Ratcliffe’s reputation in the business world is of someone who gets things done, of being a determined, innovative negotiator. A minority shareholding can wield significant power, as United fans may recall from the club’s plc days two decades ago, when Ireland’s Cubic Expression consortium and the Glazers themselves made significant waves.

Ratcliffe will be no fairy godmother, limitlessly benevolent like Sheikh Mansour or Roman Abramovich, but United always washed their own face as a business until current economic tailwinds, high inflation and increased interest rates started pushing debt levels close to £1bn. What former chief executive Ed Woodward once compared to “selling diamonds” never needed state-associated ownership of the kind possibly now going out of fashion, with financial restrictions on Newcastle’s Saudi consortium far tighter than during Manchester City’s splurge and in the light of Qatari retrenchment at Paris Saint-Germain.

Ratcliffe and his Ineos team assuming sporting control suggests a form of executive power. If the Glazers are loathed for using the club as their ATM while never properly servicing the debt their late patriarch, Malcolm, laid on the club in 2005, it is United’s sporting failure that most damns their reign. That the Glazers ratified a spend of £1.5bn on players since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement is used as mitigation by a dwindling number of advocates but an accepted truth of their stewardship is that the club suffers sorely for a lack of direction and expertise.

It has long been a truism that even the keenest business brains can become befuddled by the football boardroom. Mike Ashley and Lord Alan Sugar were canny operators much admired in retail but made the mistake of trying to operate their football clubs, Newcastle and Tottenham, like their other businesses. Both exited football in profit but having won few friends. Making sums add up is no route to popularity. Both went into football without experience while Ratcliffe, with respect to Ashley and Sugar, is multiple times more financially wealthy and has sporting previous – if not unimpeachable success.

Critics declare his Ineos Grenadiers cycling team is nowhere near as all-conquering as the Team Sky he rebranded, that Sir Ben Ainslie has never captured the America’s Cup under Ineos sails. The fortunes of FC Lausanne in Switzerland and Nice in France are picked over though the latter being second in Ligue 1 represents promise. There are those who mistrust the key adviser Sir Dave Brailsford’s “marginal gains” but Ineos running the sporting side while the Glazers look after the business side has faint echoes of the Glazers’ early years when Ferguson was supported by David Gill on United’s football side, and Woodward ran the commercial side. Repeating that era’s successes is the endgame, if a distant dream.

In Ratcliffe’s previous swoop for a club, Chelsea, in 2022, he circumvented the sales process of Raine, the same group operating for the Glazers, only to withdraw almost as quickly. Further suspicions of opportunism against the self-proclaimed Failsworth-born “top red”? A few Chelsea fans might now wonder how his regime could have compared to that of the Todd Boehly-led winning bid.

From within United itself, as the bidding process continued, there has been a wounded defensiveness to criticism. Last season’s successes have been trumpeted when the team is already falling behind this season’s targets. The handling of Mason Greenwood and subsequent accusations made – and denied – against Antony have led to unwanted headlines. Richard Arnold, the chief executive who attempted a more open-door policy than his predecessor Woodward, came under heavy criticism and departed even before the new setup was officially in place.

Related: René Meulensteen: ‘A lot of negative pressure has been created at Manchester United’

The arrival of Ratcliffe, not someone to take a back seat and reportedly critical of operations during initial exploratory meetings, brings the future of the club’s entire executive class into question. His faith in Erik ten Hag was said to be more solid than many other United supporters’ though recent weeks may have changed that. John Murtough, a low-profile, low-energy director of football, is highly likely to be on the casualty list.

Ratcliffe’s 25% stake brings many such questions, including the makeup of divisions between the Glazer siblings – who wants to cash out, who wishes to remain? – the now onerous debt, a complicated “A” and “B” equity structure and an antiquated stadium with a leaking roof. Even a self-made man worth almost £30bn cannot cure all ills but perhaps his fresh approach can lighten Old Trafford’s damp air. The only credible alternative outcome after so many months of wrangling turned out to be the bleakness of the Glazers retaining full control.


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