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Football works best as a dictatorship, not a democracy.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just ask Sir Alex Ferguson.

He was never happy with the Manchester United board when it was run as a plc. Indeed he refused to take up the shares when the club floated, although this may have reflected his deep socialist convictions of equal shares for all.

But he also chaffed at the limitations imposed on him as a result of trying to please the shareholders. For him this meant too many owners and, since their need for dividends had to be satisfied, it ended up that, in effect, they controlled the money he had to spend.

Remember in the early days of flotation how the United board boasted to the City that there was a transfer fund? This was publicised to reassure the City that there was a limit to transfer spending and not all surplus cash would just be handed over to Ferguson.

And in his near 25 years at Old Trafford, he has never been happier since the Glazers took over imposing a single family control of the club of the type that Old Trafford has not seen since the Second World War, not even when the Edwards family was in charge.

This is something that could assume great significance as the Red Knights try to take over the club. Of course any takeover plans could be scuppered by the Glazers refusing to sell. But, given that everything has a price, there may well be an offer that the Red Knights make which could tempt the Americans.

The question then is what sort of management would run Manchester United? And who would make sure the football needs are met and also keep the many shareholders happy?

Some of the potential owners of United would have forked out as much as £20 million each. Surely they will want some return for their money? The need to keep them happy and yet make sure that Ferguson gets what he wants may prove more difficult than squaring the proverbial circle.

Don’t get me wrong. While fans owning football clubs is not a new idea, nothing on this scale has ever been attempted before. I think the idea of fans coming together and owing a football club quite as large and prominent as Manchester United is an exciting prospect, more so as this exercise seems to be bringing together fans of all classes and means.

It must also be said that both the Red Knights and MUST, the Manchester United fan group, have so far played this game rather well. After some initial talk, the Red Knights have said nothing. It is interesting to note that in the early days Keith Harris of Seymour Pierce was quite vocal. Indeed it was his comments that alerted everyone to the Red Knights’ creation. Harris is a close friend of Martin Edwards and has never hidden his desire to be chairman. Lately he has said very little and the Red Knights seem to be quietly trying to make sure that they have the means to take over the club.

The Red Knights have left all the publicity to MUST, an interesting two pronged strategy which, given the Glazers notorious reluctance to say anything publicly, has meant that they have had all the best moments in the media.

But, at the end of the day, the question still remains who among these Red Knights will actually mount the United charger and run the club? Even where fans in theory own the clubs, as at Real Madrid or Barcelona, football history shows that you need one man in charge. In Spain members elect that person. These elections do not end up in hung parliaments – in fact they produce strong characters who are not short of being dictators.

What is more, the recent history of English football is littered with consortiums that have gone horribly wrong. That is even when these consortia have two men in charge and not the dozen or so that Manchester United under the Red Knights might end up having.

I give you three examples from the last 20 years.

Back in 1980 two Tottenham fans, fed up with the club’s recent problems which included relegation and then promotion and also huge debts after building a stand, decided to oust the then owner. After complicated deals, they succeeded and even made history by becoming the first club to float. But then the two men fell out and, a decade and a great many financial problems later, the club was sold. The two fans were Irving Scholar and Paul Bobroff and, to this day, Scholar regrets getting into bed with Bobroff. He believes that, but for this marriage, his affair with Tottenham would still be going on.

As it happens, the club was sold to another consortium – that of Alan Sugar and Terry Venables. Sugar had no interest in football, but he found the idea of an alliance with the man of football – Venables – exciting. It meant that Venables gave up team management and moved from the dugout to the board room to run the whole show. He appointed managers under him to run the football teams.

The marriage was hailed as being made in heaven. In little more than two years it proved such a disaster that it ended literally in tears on the steps of the High Court.

We still do now know how the Liverpool consortium of George Gillett and Tom Hicks will end. It is evident that this has been a dysfunctional marriage and, while this is not the whole story, the relationship between the two men has played a crucial part in why Liverpool is not working. I am sure Martin Broughton, the new chairman, will be looking to sell to one buyer if he can.

It is also worth nothing that all these marriages, apart from the Sugar-Venables one, were dictated by the need to raise enough money to do the deal. In theory Sugar could have done the deal himself but did not feel he had the knowledge to run a football club. He found the idea of working with Venables very exciting.

Now contrast this with what happened at Nottingham Forest in the 70s. Here was a club going nowhere – a club which while not owned by fans had a broad structure which was more like a co-operative. Along comes old big ‘ead himself Brian Clough. He takes over and exercises dictatorial control – as he put it, this meant knowing everything from the cleaning lady to the board room. The result: Forest go places they have never been before, and may never go again.

A great example of football dictatorship at work.

So what will the Red Knights operating model be?

It is possible that the game plan here is somehow making Sir Alex that sort of dictator. If that were to happen, it would mean that the dream of Manchester United fans that the man of football should take over (an idea that was thwarted when Matt Busby was prevented from running the club by the Edwards family) would now nearly half a century later, come true.

But somehow I do not see Sir Alex who is nearing 70 doing that.

And who in any case will be the main driving force in the Red Knights consortium.

I see Mark Rawlinson, the legal man from Freshfields, as the key player. As legal adviser to the United board when they were trying to stop the Glazers, he made the most of a not very good hand to delay their progress and wring concessions from the Glazers. His game then was skillfull and it will have to be even more so now.

But will he be prepared to give up his lucrative law firm to take charge at Old Trafford? It will require someone like him if the dismal history of football consortia is to be turned on its head by the Red Knights.

Mihir Bose is one of the world’s most astute observers on politics in sport and, particularly, football. He formerly wrote for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph and until recently was the BBC’s head sports editor.

      

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