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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s first month at Manchester United – communication, action and momentum

It is only one month since Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s investment in Manchester United was finally confirmed to the New York Stock Exchange on December 24, but the momentum he intends to bring to the club has already been evident.

He has rallied staff across United with pledges to raise standards, spoken directly to fans about his plans in meetings lasting several hours, attended his first game as co-owner alongside Sir Alex Ferguson, and, most significantly, appointed a new chief executive from the rivals across town.

Hiring Omar Berrada from Manchester City as United’s top official caught all but a small circle of colleagues in red and blue camps by surprise and it gave something of an answer to the big question left by that filing the day before Christmas — of how Ratcliffe and the Glazers will co-exist in practice.

Those documents to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission detailed that Ratcliffe was obtaining control of United’s football operation for his 25 per cent stake, but they did not put in black and white the function for decision-making on areas where sport and business overlap. Bringing in Berrada as a football-focused chief executive colours in the gaps, suggesting the collaboration between the Glazers and Ratcliffe is, at this stage, healthy.

That much could also be gleaned from Ratcliffe’s rhetoric at the meetings he had with fan representatives last week. He reiterated that the club has performed poorly over the past decade and acknowledged that any words of support for those at the top might not land well with an audience hostile to the Glazers, but he confirmed his respect for his American partners.

Ratcliffe said he has built up trust with them through several meetings across a year-long negotiation process and their relationship is strong, to the point where the legal agreement over his investment has been put “in the bottom drawer” and would not be coming out.

Ratcliffe’s sentiment at those meetings with the fan advisory board, Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, and the fans’ forum, provided a more empathetic tone on the Glazers than the one struck when addressing staff at the start of January. Ratcliffe, together with Sir Dave Brailsford, bluntly told workers that the club had been failing in its primary purpose of sporting success and his INEOS organisation had arrived to drive improvements. They said everybody should be recalibrated from a focus on raising revenues to winning trophies.

The strength of their argument on this theme left some to contemplate whether Joel Glazer had accidentally let the fox into the chicken coop and would be revisiting the clause in the SEC filing that forbids Ratcliffe or any representatives to “directly or indirectly, make or cause to be public any public statement that constitutes an ad hominem attack on, criticises or otherwise disparages” his co-owners.

Berrada’s appointment provided a quick, clear signal that the Glazers are recognising past failures. The statement announcing his arrival, signed off by Joel and Avram Glazer, made pointed reference to putting football “back at the heart of everything we do”.

Avram and Joel Glazer at Old Trafford in 2019 (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

It has been remarked internally that no amount of criticism of what has come before will upset the Glazers because if Ratcliffe can return United to the peak of Europe, then the value of their remaining shares will rise, and if the opposite happens, triggering unrest among supporters, then the British billionaire will be the lightning rod for blame.

This is the honeymoon period in a marriage of convenience and there are invested observers keen to see whether there is any strain if results do sour.

Whatever happens, UEFA will be paying close attention. Multi-club ownership is a hot topic for Europe’s governing body, with meetings on the subject involving president Aleksander Ceferin taking place in Nyon last week. UEFA is expected to be keen to understand the structures at United and Nice, the Ligue 1 team under the INEOS umbrella. More talks over the rules on sporting integrity are set to take place before next season’s Champions League and Ratcliffe will need to satisfy the regulators should both teams qualify for the same continental competition.

Having worked at City for 13 years, Berrada brings experience in a multi-club environment. His defection has also sparked a sense of cautious optimism at United. Staff at all levels are conscious of what Ratcliffe may go on to do given his first act was bold and decisive. Executives are said to be jockeying for position, with Ratcliffe’s arrival into the directors’ box suite for the Tottenham Hotspur match eagerly anticipated by those in attendance.

Last Thursday’s announcement of United’s partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University Institute of Sport was a timely example of the kind of forward-thinking Brailsford has been extolling. The facility, which opened 10 months ago, provides a space to research all manner of performance factors, from medical to nutritional to psychological, and United will assist on a series of PhD programmes with short- and long-term projects to “deliver insights which drive competitive advantage on the field”. The aim is to enable United “to benefit from the university’s world-class sports science expertise”.

It can be revealed the partnership could have been finalised nearly two years ago, with United more involved in the subsequent construction phase. David Horrocks, United’s head of research and development for two years from January 2020, sourced and documented the idea, working with colleagues including Richard Hawkins, director of football insights and innovation, and Steve McNally, head of football medicine and science, and had the agreement ready to go in April 2022.

But he says he encountered difficulties getting approval over the line. “A long time in the making but finally, a positive decision has been made,” Horrocks wrote on LinkedIn.

Horrocks left United in September 2022 and Hawkins, together with deputy football director Andy O’Boyle, worked to see the project — which was originally slated to launch in November — through to completion. The initiative got impetus when Warren Gregson, a long-term colleague of Hawkins’, joined MMU in January 2023 as professor of applied physiology.

Many in the football department have been left “buzzing” by Brailsford’s introduction. He and Ratcliffe insisted on holding face-to-face meetings as soon as possible and their emphasis on elite performance struck a chord with people who had not heard that type of talk expressed from members of the hierarchy before. Brailsford is said to speak the language of coaches and support staff.

Sir David Brailsford

Brailsford in the stands on Boxing Day against Aston Villa (Nathan Stirk/Getty Images)

There is a level of circumspection, not least because nobody knows for sure what is good or bad for them individually. The mood is unsettled in parts, but there is also hope that INEOS’s arrival is positive for the club overall.

The hiring of a sporting director and head of recruitment to work under Berrada is expected to be the next task for Brailsford. Dan Ashworth, with whom Brailsford has an established relationship from their work together at the Football Association in 2016, has been linked but he recently gave colleagues at Newcastle United the impression he will continue in his role at St James’ Park.

As discussions continue over the identities of potential incoming executives, INEOS representatives are also strengthening connections with agents. Josh Thompson, INEOS Sport project manager, assists Brailsford and has been a presence at Carrington in helping to arrange logistics. Thompson was in the directors’ box at the DW Stadium for United’s FA Cup tie at Wigan Athletic.

Jean-Claude Blanc, INEOS Sport chief executive, was in Wigan that night, too. Although he was the quieter of the three main INEOS figures in Manchester, he impressed fans during their meetings by shaking hands with everyone and engaging conversationally.

Ratcliffe started those gatherings as he had done during the staff summits by stating he does not care about making money given he has enough from his oil and chemicals empire. He said he was at Old Trafford to win trophies, specifically the Premier League and Champions League, describing that ambition as “non-negotiable” and insisting it should be the only metric of success for clubs of United’s stature.

He also expanded on his plans for stadium renovation, expressing a desire to develop the site into more of a campus for the club and an asset to the community. He said there is untapped potential in land surrounding the ground that United own and feels that by establishing better links with local authorities and civic leaders, the regeneration can happen quicker than the projections he has seen.

Ratcliffe had asked United staff for guidance on who his initial meetings on this topic should comprise and a group including Andy Burnham, mayor of Manchester, and senior executives from Trafford Council and Greater Manchester Combined Authority was convened. Ratcliffe feels it is prudent to tap into Burnham’s experience given his expected re-election in May and knowledge of the expansion of City’s footprint, while there is time to connect with Trafford councillors, who were not invited to the introductory discussions but have the final say on building works, once the political picture becomes clearer.

United hold quarterly meetings with councillors on smaller issues, with chief operations officer Collette Roche the club representative, but Ratcliffe can bring a sense of urgency on something as major as the stadium given his position and drive. It was in April 2021, in the aftermath of the Super League collapse, when Joel Glazer pledged to improve United’s infrastructure in a meaningful way.

Although Ratcliffe must divide his time between Manchester and Monaco, he intends to hold talks in person when required and believes this approach should help United’s ambitions for gaining planning permission.

On the pitch, there is no sense INEOS is writing off this season. Ratcliffe and his team want United to qualify for the Champions League because of prestige but also to help significantly with financial fair play calculations. The tightness of the numbers is why there is so little movement around signings, despite loan approaches for Matthijs De Ligt and Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting being mentioned.

Once Premier League ratification arrives, with early February earmarked, INEOS representatives are expected to speak publicly, including on the future of manager Erik ten Hag.

If anything can be taken from the opening month of their reign, it is that communication will be as frequent and transparent as possible.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)

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