Board games

Man Utd fans vent their anger at the club's board for considering a potential takeover from Rupert Murdoch and BSkyB, writes Paul Richards

The Theatre of Dreams turned into a waking nightmare for the directors of Man­chester United as they were left squirming in their seats at Old Trafford on November 17th after a two-hour grilling by hundreds of shareholders.

The MUFC plc annual general meeting was bound to be dominated by the proposed takeover of the club by BSkyB, but no one predicted the scale of opposition from shareholders. As Shareholders United Against Murdoch organiser Michael Crick said afterwards: “We couldn’t have stage-managed it better ourselves.”

The vast Manchester Suite at Old Trafford was filled with around 1,000 shareholders. At the front was the board: Martin Edwards, Paul Kenyon, Greg Dyke, Amer Al Midani, Maurice Watkins and, in the Chair, Sir Roland Smith. To their credit, the organisers allowed plenty of time for shareholders to vent their anger about the recent acquiescence of the board to the overtures of BSkyB. Perhaps they knew that attempts to stifle criticism would have caused a riot.

From the floor came a volley of shareholders’ contributions, all united in a common theme: the board must not allow Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB to win control of Manchester United. From Scotland, from London and the south, and from all parts of Greater Manchester, young and old, men and women stood up and spoke against the Murdoch takeover.

Many invoked the memory of the Busby Babes and the glory days of the postwar era. But many more also spoke with financial common sense. Jonathon Michie, a professor of business, gave a withering analysis of the lack of acumen of the board in considering a deal with BSkyB, claiming millions might be milked from the profits earned by United to subsidise Murdoch’s global losses. Others warned that if a sell-out went ahead, there would be no more Manchester United AGMs – the company would be reduced to a footnote in the Murdoch empire’s accounts.

Crick drew cheers for his demand for the resignation of Roland Smith. Crick backed the board into a corner for failing to make clear to shareholders that opposing the Murdoch bid was even an option in their letters sent to every investor. When Smith refused to guarantee that it wouldn’t happen again, Crick said he wasn’t fit to hold the position, and the aud­ience loudly concurred.

Andy Walsh, chairman of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, said fans would lose out if Murdoch took control. IMUSA has been organising the fans against the bid, including a well-attended lobby of parliament in October. The board has recently hired a top firm of Westminster-based lobbyists to give them “strategic advice”. They will have a job persuading MPs, 140 of whom have already signed a Early Day Motion against the takeover.

 Many more MPs, including those representing Manchester and Salford constituencies like Terry Lloyd, Keith Bradley and Hazel Blears, are privately against the takeover but cannot say so publicly because they are part of the government.

In the face of this assault, the board just sat and took it, looking more and more uncomfortable as the morning wore on. Media boss Greg Dyke, believed to be against the deal, sat silent throughout. Martin Edwards made things worse whenever he opened his mouth. When quizzed on the millions he would personally make from the deal, Edwards said that once you had a certain amount, money doesn’t matter.

The Murdoch bid has been defeated – for now. The shareholders made sure it couldn’t go ahead, and football fans of every hue made sure that Peter Mandelson referred the bid to the Monopolies and Merger Commission. The MMC will now look at the proposals and report in March 1999. Any new Murdoch bid will meet even greater opposition.

From WSC 143 January 1999. What was happening this month