Manchester United's powerful shareholders may seize control of the club without making a formal bid, according to City investment bankers. If successful, they plan to shake up the board where Roy Gardner, Centrica's boss, is chairman and David Gill is chief executive.
It is understood that the plot is being hatched by 19 per cent stakeholder Malcolm Glazer, the American football tycoon, who is looking for support from Cubic Expression, the investment vehicle of Irish racing millionaires J.P. McManus and John Magnier. He may buy shares from them and other stakeholders to increase his holding.
Glazer could exploit a little-known section within Clause 9 of Britain's takeover code to boost his stake to more than 30 per cent without being forced to launch a takeover - which normally applies in such circumstances.
Under Takeover Panel rules, a shareholder with 30 per cent or more is spared the obligation of bidding if 50 per cent of the rest of the shareholders are not willing to accept the offer. 'Ideally, that is what Glazer wants,' says a City source. 'But it would need the agreement of the Irish, who control 29 per cent, and the fans who speak for 17 per cent.
'In other words, you would need a formal shareholders' agreement. Otherwise he may yet be forced to table an offer for the whole company.'
Last week it emerged that Glazer was selling $700m of property in the US, heightening speculation that he is preparing to acquire shares from the Irish, or build a war chest in case he has to bid.
A banker said: 'By exploiting the brand name in places such as the US and China, the shares could motor, and all shareholders would benefit.'
Glazer and other shareholders would almost certainly insist that some of their associates join Gardner and Gill on the board in order to ensure that their commercial objectives were met. But United's fans may prove to be the biggest obstacles for Glazer, who owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers American football club in Florida,
Oliver Houston of Shareholders United said: 'Spin and speculation make us even more suspicious about the motives of the predators circling Manchester United.'
Another feature about this in The Observer:
Take a handful of enigmatic zillionaires, a sprinkling of lesser City mortals with a passion for gossip and the most glittering prize in the business of sport, and what do you get? Another week of feverish speculation about the future ownership of Manchester United.
Once again, John Magnier and JP McManus, the Irish racing magnates, and Florida businessman Malcolm Glazer find themselves avoiding questions over their plans for Britain's biggest football club. Analysts and supporters alike have been trying to make sense of their ever-growing stakes for the best part of a year. But with the Square Mile awash with rumours that Glazer in particular may be ready to mount a formal takeover bid, is all about to be revealed?
A report that Glazer was due to meet Magnier and McManus last Tuesday was denied, but neither side will rule out a future meeting. And news that Glazer is selling $700 million worth of property in America, perhaps as a precursor to buying out the Irish, has also dropped neatly into the rumour-mill.
Yet neither Glazer nor the Irish have much reason to welcome speculation that can only force the share price up, making any genuine takeover more expensive and difficult. Unless, that is, the rumours flush out a Russian billionaire or some other hitherto-invisible third party with enough money to buy both of them out.
Shareholders United - it's not too late: Joinhere