Manchester United fans were excited for a fresh start when the Glazer family announced a year ago that they would be open to selling the club. Instead, they’ll be getting Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s minority investment, which is expected to be formally announced within the next week.
The British billionaire, who is chairman and CEO of chemical company INEOS, will spend around £1.3 billion to get his foot in the door with a 25% stake, the first significant ownership shake-up since the Glazers’ takeover in 2005.
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Most supporters are split between disappointment and frustration that the American family — hugely unpopular owners for nearly two decades — are staying put versus a hope that it might signal the beginning of a new era. The Glazers will remain as majority owners, but Ratcliffe and INEOS, who have football experience at OGC Nice in France and FC Lausanne-Sport in Switzerland, are set to have influence over the sporting side of the business.
It’s Ratcliffe’s opinion according to those close to him that United, who have gone 10 years since without a Premier League title and 15 years without success in the Champions League, have become a sleeping giant, and he arrives at Old Trafford with the intention of waking them up. But what will he have to address when his stake is confirmed, and can we learn anything from his previous work at Nice?
Ratcliffe’s to-do list: Improve Man United player recruitment, update facilities
It’s obvious to almost everyone that after 18 years of Glazer ownership, United are in desperate need of new direction. Ratcliffe offers that, but with the Glazers staying as controlling owners, the big question remains: What kind of influence will he have? The 71-year-old has built up a reputation of being a careful planner and a dominating figure in boardrooms, but he may have to operate in a different way at Old Trafford given that he will only own 25%.
The two main issues on his to-do list are improving the club’s aging infrastructure — predominantly, Old Trafford itself and the team’s training facilities at Carrington — and modifying the way players are transferred in and out.
Fixing the stadium and the training ground is relatively easy, but it will require time and money. Early suggestions are that Ratcliffe is willing to invest around £250m beyond the £1.3bn to buy his stake, but that has caused some concern. United have already researched improvements to Old Trafford and have been told the most viable plans will cost anywhere between £800m and £2bn depending on the plan.
Ratcliffe’s initial £250m is a lot of money, but only a third of the minimum amount United believe they need. He has all but ruled out building a new stadium and would instead like to increase the capacity of Old Trafford from 76,000 to 90,000. However, the cost of doing that would run into the billions.
The second issue around recruitment is more complicated.
United executives left a meeting with Ratcliffe and his team in March believing they had impressed the British billionaire, but those close to him note that he holds a dim view of how the club have operated in the transfer market over the past decade. He believes that money is the biggest correlation to success in football, and finds it hard to understand how United — among the highest revenue generators in the world — can perform so badly on the pitch. According to sources, he will make it his mission to solve the problem.
Sources close to Ratcliffe have been quick to distance themselves from Richard Arnold’s decision to step down as United CEO, but there will be changes to the structure and key personnel. Current football director John Murtough, in the post since 2021, has allowed Ten Hag to sign a number of his former players and those with a background in Dutch football, but he is expected to leave as part of the shake-up.
Sir Dave Brailsford, who helped transform British Olympic cycling, has become Ratcliffe’s sporting guru since taking up the role of INEOS director of sport in 2021, and is set to be involved. Brailsford believes in a philosophy of “marginal gains,” but he has had little sporting success outside cycling, and it remains to be seen how his influence will marry up with that of manager Erik ten Hag.
Ten Hag has been granted a lot of power since his appointment in 2022 and according to sources, he won’t give it up easily. The Dutch manager was given a number of guarantees following his arrival from Ajax — notably, that he would have a veto on all transfer decisions — and he expects those to be honoured whether the Glazers or Ratcliffe are calling the shots.
There is an argument that part of United’s problem with recruitment over the past 10 years is they’ve signed players for the incumbent manager, and not as part of any long-term plan. But Ten Hag is opinionated and headstrong — Ratcliffe and Brailsford will find it hard to strip him of the influence he has enjoyed in his first 18 months.
What Man United can learn from Jim Ratcliffe’s time at Nice
Julien Laurens looks back on the good and bad of Jim Ratcliffe’s time at Nice since taking over in 2019.
Ratcliffe is a fan of Ten Hag and, despite a poor start to the season, believes he has credit in the bank after winning the Carabao Cup and qualifying for the Champions League in his first year. But a lot will depend on whether they can develop a smooth working relationship that’s acceptable to both sides.
Again, though, it goes back to the same question: what kind of influence will Ratcliffe get with his 25% stake? He’s not the type to sit back as a silent partner, but he also won’t own enough of the club to do everything his way. His arrangement with the Glazers and his relationship with Ten Hag will be key. — Rob Dawson
What can we learn from Ratcliffe, INEOS and Nice
Of the whole INEOS football galaxy, Nice is obviously the most interesting of Ratcliffe’s projects to look into, given their status in one of Europe’s top leagues, to see what kind of (co-)owner he is. He bought the Ligue 1 club in summer 2019 for €100m and had high ambitions. “In the next three years, we will compete with Paris Saint-Germain for the Ligue 1 title,” he said after his takeover.
That hasn’t quite happened; the club have finished 6th, 9th, 5th and 9th again in the table over those four seasons.
INEOS’ willingness to excel was there from the start, and it was reflected in their level of investment. Under Ratcliffe, Nice got upgrades and modernizations at their training ground for €13.5m, and have spent over 250m euros in players recruitment.
There have been some expensive signings — like forwards Terem Moffi, for a €25m fee last January from Lorient, and Kasper Dolberg, who moved from Ajax for a €20.5m fee in summer 2019 — but of all the players signed in the past 4½ years, only a few have been successful. It’s true that the likes of goalkeeper Marcin Bulka, defenders Jean-Clair Todibo, midfielders Hicham Boudaoui, Kephren Thuram, Hicham Boudaoui, Youssouf Ndayishimiye and Jeremie Boga and forwards Gaëtan Laborde and Amine Gouiri have made a positive impact, but not so much for the rest.
There have been some interesting choices since Ratcliffe took over. Despite living just half an hour away in Monaco, he has not been a daily hands-on influence, nor does he attend many games each season. He named his brother Bob as the CEO straight away, only to fire him after two years. He let Sir Dave Brailsford come in and run things in his stead while doing an audit of the club, which was a mistake, too. Brailsford hired Iain Moody as an unofficial sporting director, which led to some of the worst signings of the Ratcliffe tenure.
The three men brought defenders Mads Sorensen, Mattia Viti and Joe Bryan; midfielder Ross Barkley and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel to Ligue 1. All had experience in other top leagues around Europe, but each struggled to acclimatize to the pace of the league as well as the nature of the Nice project.
Ratcliffe is not scared of overseeing a proper overhaul of a squad, something he may need to do in Manchester. During his four seasons, 50 players joined Nice and 40 left, with a net spend of -€130m. Those kinds of changes can be a net negative, too: In September 2022, club captain Dante even complained about the constant and too-numerous changes in the squads.
“Do you remember how many players came in at the end of the transfer window last summer?” Dante said. “Six left, six arrived. It’s difficult in these conditions. Simply, we mustn’t make the same errors. If someone wants my opinion, the earlier we organise ourselves, the better it will be. If we want to aim higher, we have to anticipate things and put the values of the organisation in place. … There is a lack of coherence somewhere. I am sorry to say that.”
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Ratcliffe has also shown little hesitation in making coaching changes too, though his record there is also mixed. Patrick Vieira, who was already manager at the club when the INEOS takeover happened, lasted 18 months under Ratcliffe; Lucien Favre, who had guided Nice to a third-place finish back in 2017, made it just six months before being sacked in his second spell at the club. Adrian Ursea and Didier Digard, who both did an interim job for six months, were not retained, while Christophe Galtier — who led Lille to a remarkable Ligue 1 title in 2016 — left after one season.
Francesco Farioli has been in charge since the summer and doing great — Nice are second in the table — but it says a lot that Ratcliffe’s club is already on its sixth manager in a four-year spell. Even if they all admit he was largely hands-off as a boss, that kind of turnover is a concern. Of all of them chosen by the billionaire, Galtier was the only “good” choice, having lifted Nice to a fifth-place finish and a Coupe de France final. Meanwhile it’s still too early to judge Farioli or the latest sporting director, Florian Ghislofi, who has been in for a year.
Based on various moves at Nice, it seems clear that Sir Jim Ratcliffe will not be too hands-on, that his brother Bob will not be expected to take a role at United, and that Brailsford will have a major role in the football strategy, for better or worse. It is also clear that Ratcliffe will spend money in a bid to improve things, even if progress is messy and nonlinear. United fans will be hoping that he and his close allies have learned from past mistakes. — Julien Laurens