Manchester United’s Jim Ratcliffe fears for future of Premier League

It’s been just over six months since Ratcliffe won a tortuous battle to buy 28 per cent of Manchester United, once the prime asset of English football and still among the world’s biggest names. What the 71-year-old has found since completing his $1.5 billion deal is a club in turmoil and the Premier League in chaos.
Last Updated : 20 June 2024, 06:24 IST

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By Francine Lacqua and David Hellier

Jim Ratcliffe, the billionaire co-owner of Manchester United, warned the people running the Premier League are in danger of ruining the world’s richest football competition.

“We’ve got more accountants than we’ve got sporting people at Manchester United,” Ratcliffe said in an interview. “If you’re not careful, the Premier League is going to finish up spending more time in court than it is thinking about what’s good for the league.”

It’s been just over six months since Ratcliffe won a tortuous battle to buy 28 per cent of Manchester United, once the prime asset of English football and still among the world’s biggest names. What the 71-year-old has found since completing his $1.5 billion deal is a club in turmoil and the Premier League in chaos. 

While Manchester United recently claimed the FA Cup against its fierce rival Manchester City, the past few months have seen the club under siege, with negative stories about its head coach, leading players, and dilapidated stadium dominating coverage of the once all-powerful side.

Meanwhile, English football itself has been in the crosshairs. The ownership of clubs by everyone from US investment funds to Gulf states, their finances and how the league is governed are under increasing scrutiny by various authorities.

In a wide-ranging interview from his base in Monaco, Ratcliffe discussed his opposition to the incoming UK football regulator, his spending plans, and how long it will take to rebuild arguably the planet’s most famous football club.

“There's room for improvement everywhere we look at Manchester United, and we will improve everything,” he said. “We want to be where Real Madrid is today, but it'll take time.”

While he has been grappling with the club’s politics, the Premier League has been dealing with its own.

Parliamentarians from all sides have called for the introduction of a football regulator, while clubs have been penalized for breaking financial fair play rules. Serial champion Manchester City launched an assault on the legality of Premier League’s so-called Associated Party Transactions — regulations that are designed to prevent teams from signing inflated sponsorship deals with companies linked to their owners.

Manchester City, which is also fighting charges of over a hundred financial fair play breaches dating back over a decade, has been backed by Abu Dhabi since 2008, and has a number of deals in place with Etihad Airways, the airline owned by an Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund.

“I can understand why they are challenging it,” said Ratcliffe. “You can understand why they would say that they want an open market, free market.”

The Labour Party, which polls show is on course to form the next government after an election on July 4, this week backed plans to push forward a Football Governance Bill.

The legislation would attempt to establish checks and balances on how clubs are managed to ensure their financial stability and protect fans. Any new rules would come on top of financial regulations from the Premier League and UEFA, which attempt to limit club spending on player transfers and wages by tying it to revenue.

“If you’ve got a government regulator at the end of the day they will regulate and that won’t be good,” said Ratcliffe. The system of so-called “anchoring” set to be trialed next season, which would peg spending to a factor of the lower clubs’ revenues, also came under attack.

“What would anchoring do?” Ratcliffe said. “It would inhibit the top clubs in the Premiership. The last thing you want in the Premiership is for the top clubs in the Premiership not to be able to compete with the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and PSG.”

His advice to the Premier League on trying out even more rules: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

Against this backdrop of regulation, Ratcliffe and his team have been tasked with turning around the fortunes of a club that once relentlessly challenged for the biggest trophies and now last lifted the Premier League trophy in the 2012/13 season. Working with renowned British cycling coach David Brailsford, Ratcliffe has hired a new chief executive officer, technical director, and sporting director. 

However, the club has faced a battle to pry the new hires away from their existing roles. Ratcliffe bemoaned the extensive gardening leave that is commonplace in football, when personnel leave posts but remain on the payroll during their notice period. Only one of Manchester United’s three major hires — technical director Jason Wilcox — currently is in place.

“We’re sort of a bit handicapped in that sense, so I think we’ll do a fairly good job,” Ratcliffe said. “It will take two or three summer windows to get to a better place.”

Much of the focus has been around the potential appointment of a new coach. Yet, the club decided to stick with Dutch manager Erik ten Hag after a post season review. 

“The coach isn't the central issue at Manchester United,” said Ratcliffe. Instead he pointed to the “environment” at the sporting side of the business. “It’s a sports club. It needs to be competitive, it needs a degree of intensity, but with a supportive side to it because you are dealing with players who are relatively young. It hasn’t had that type of environment historically.”

The key is also to look after them, he said. Plans for a new world club tournament are a step too far. The sport was in danger of overplaying footballers. “You can't just keep taking more from footballers.”

The goal for Ratcliffe is Real Madrid, the current holder of the elite Champions League and one of Europe’s most successful clubs over the past decade. Since Manchester United was last victorious in the Champions League in 2008, Real Madrid has won it another six times. 

The Spanish giant recently undergone a €1.76 billion ($1.9 billion) renovation of its iconic Santiago Bernabeu stadium, and has acquired players including French star Kyilan Mbappe and English talent Jude Bellingham. 

“Manchester United doesn't have any players that are valued at €100 million or more,” said Ratcliffe, who noted that buying one superstar “isn’t going to solve the problem at Manchester United.”

Ratcliffe amassed a fortune of $15.2 billion through his chemicals company Ineos, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. But he’s had mixed results with his sporting investments, including the Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team and Tour de France team Ineos Grenadiers.

New regulations concerning how much clubs can spend on players, along with profligate spending by Manchester United in previous seasons, have limited the ability of Ratcliffe to buy success in the Premier League.

“I’m not confident that we’ll solve all the problems in the first transfer window,” he said.

There’s also another complication. Ratcliffe controls French team OGC Nice, but multi-club ownership is being targeted by UEFA. Ratcliffe said he will need to put OGC Nice into a blind trust after Manchester United qualified for the Europa League. One owner can't have control over two clubs in the same competition without some restrictions, and he has no intention of selling Nice.

UEFA has also increased its scrutiny of groups trading players among their teams if they play in the same competition and stopped Nice selling one to Manchester United, said Ratcliffe, declining to name them.   

“They’ve said we can sell him to another Premiership club, but we can't sell to Manchester United,” Ratcliffe said. “But that's not fair on the player and I don’t see what that achieves.”

At Manchester United, he remains focused on redeveloping the Old Trafford stadium, using both public and private money to regenerate it and the surrounding area, including potential new hotels and housing and facilities for education and healthcare. That’s all part of burnishing a brand that’s been struggling of late. 

“Everybody in the world knows of Manchester because of Manchester United,” he said. “Manchester United is like Coca-Cola, isn’t it? Everybody knows it. I’m not sure I know why, But it’s a fact.”

Published 20 June 2024, 06:24 IST

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