Latest Mark Booth News
Oct 15, 2023
Manchester United takeover and the £600m story of 1999, Fergie, politics and power Sir Jim Ratcliffe is closing in on a stake of Manchester United in the latest takeover news from Old Trafford but 24 years ago the news of a club sale made waves across football and politics Bookmark Manchester United fans protest against Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB ahead of a Premier League match with Charlton in September 1998 Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the day's biggest stories sent direct to your inbox Invalid emailSomething went wrong, please try again later. More Newsletters We use your sign-up to provide content in ways you’ve consented to and improve our understanding of you. This may include adverts from us and third parties based on our knowledge of you. More info Thank you for subscribing! Group 28 Sign up for our daily newsletter to get the day's biggest stories sent direct to your inbox Invalid emailSomething went wrong, please try again later. Sign Up × It might have been dwarfed by events at the season's end but Manchester United's most successful campaign could easily have been derailed by takeover talk. An incredible treble, achieved in staggering and scarcely believable circumstances means that 1998-99 only means one thing to United supporters. It was the crowning glory for Sir Alex Ferguson as the Premier League , FA Cup and Champions League were won in a remarkable couple of weeks in May. But rewind to the opening weeks of the campaign and the prospect of such an historic year looked a little way off. On the pitch United had recorded just one victory - against LSK Lodz in Champions League qualifying - and had been swept aside by Arsenal in the Charity Shield before drawing their opening two matches of the Premier League campaign against Leicester City, where they came from two down in the closing stages, and West Ham. A goalless second leg against Lodz was enough to seal United's spot in the Champions League group stages but as Charlton Athletic arrived at Old Trafford in early September it had not been plain sailing. United had ended the previous season without a trophy and, prior to the visit of the Addicks, news had broken that the club was set to be sold to Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch for around £600million. It was a staggering story that sent shockwaves through football and politics. From Fergie, to Martin Edwards and Tony Blair to Peter Mandelson, it involved major players from both spheres. Murdoch had revolutionised football on TV in the early years of the Premier League, transforming it from a sport that was potentially in danger of being marginalised during the 1980s, to a commercial juggernaut. Murdoch and Sky benefited, but so did United who timed their return to dominance perfectly. They became one of the biggest brands in the world, perhaps pioneering global football marketing as they launched a TV channel and began to open retail outlets across Asia. On the pitch, Ferguson had transformed the club in his then 13-year stay but in July 1998 BSkyB chief executive Mark Booth invited United's chief executive Martin Edwards and club lawyer Maurice Watkins to a London lunch where he dropped the bombshell news of the intent of BSkyB to buy the Reds. By September a deal had been struck and a price agreed. A press conference was scheduled and it appeared all systems go. Ferguson was, according to most accounts, out of the loop on the initial conversations. The summer of 1998 saw him clash with Edwards over the fall-out of the previous campaign and the prospect of a new contract. There were even rumours of Fergie putting together a consortium to buy the club himself as well as management jobs elsewhere. Martin Edwards and Sir Alex Ferguson look on It was an incredible off-field topic of conversation. Fergie wouldn't talk about it in public during press conferences and media briefings while the news was met with a fan backlash and sparked the formation of the Manchester United Supporters' Trust. The deal would need to be agreed by the government but there was a belief in the BSkyB camp that they be given the green light. The BSkyB press conference is most remembered for Booth being asked a question he couldn't answer - who is the United left back? It came from a Daily Mirror reporter via then editor Piers Morgan who was concerned the takeover would be bad news for his publication given Murdoch owned their biggest rival (The Sun). In his memoir The Insider, Morgan wrote : “A mischievous thought came to me,’” he recalls. “I called in the News Editor and said: ‘Right, their chief executive Mark Booth’s going to take questions. He’s a big chunky American who I bet knows nothing about football. If we get the chance, ask him who plays left-back for United. “The instructions were instantly forwarded to our man at the conference. Vic Wakeling, the boss of Sky Sports looked horrified sitting next to his boss. He realised this was potential disaster. Booth looked bemused and quizzical, then eventually spluttered. ‘Er, I’ll pass that on. The football side and naming players is not my area of expertise.’ The room exploded with laughter, as did our newsroom. This wasn’t a car crash moment, it was a full M5 pile-up. We’d ruined their whole day. Our man pursued Booth afterwards and got him to confess he had never even seen United play.” There was concern from United supporters, from fans of other clubs who feared it would give the Reds a competitive advantage, from some inside Old Trafford and from politicians. As the Reds took to the field against Charlton in September 1998 there were fan protests inside and outside the ground. United trailed 1-0 but ultimately prevailed 4-1. The Manchester Evening News headlines in September 1998 The talk of the takeover continued to rumble on as United made inroads into the campaign. Around 1,000 fans attended a meeting in Bridgwater Hall in the city centre ahead of the thrilling 3-3 Old Trafford draw with Barcelona in the Champions League. Opposition to the deal was growing with even Prime Minister Blair involved. Ultimately the takeover was referred to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission in October 1998. On the pitch United were embarking on an historic season, and off-pitch matters were threatening to make headlines as well. But, on the eve of that incredible FA Cup semi-final against Arsenal, the government report was released - more than 250 pages of it - which ultimately boiled down to the bid being blocked. Fans celebrated - something they would do plenty more of in the coming weeks - and BSkyB were left angry and frustrated. The deal was off. Ferguson, writing in his 2000 autobiography Managing My Life, gave the incredible timeline just one sentence, writing: “My own feeling is that the club is too important as a sporting institution, too much of a rarity to be up for sale.” Five years later the Glazer family took charge. Ferguson's ability and aura kept the trophies rolling but his retirement and years of neglect by the American owners, means that, 24 years after the BSkyB bid, United are desperate for new ownership to come forward. The Reds remain one of the biggest names in world sport, they might not have the trophy cabinet to show for it in recent years but it doesn't change how much interest and money the club generates. Manchester United fans have long protested against the ownership of the Glazer family The Glazers know that, it's been their modus operandi, and supports why they are seemingly on the brink of allowing Sir Jim Ratcliffe a reported 25 per cent stake in the club which could bring sporting but not overall control. For the Glazers, that is fine as long as they can benefit commercially. A process that has dragged on for close to 12 months might finally have an end in sight. It's not the one supporters wanted and it may well not halt the protests. Old Trafford takeover talk is a tale of Premier League era United and history tells us it will run and run. Story Saved You can find this story in My Bookmarks. Or by navigating to the user icon in the top right. Follow Manchester Evening News
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