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How Ineos could rebuild Manchester United – with controversial former cycling boss David Brailsford centre stage

Jim Ratcliffe (left) and Dave Brailsford (right) with four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome at a Team Ineos press conference in 2019. Photo: Getty Images© Getty Images


Manchester United and Ineos are posh neighbours living in different ages. The football club’s business HQ, across the road from the Ritz in central London, is just a one-mile stroll up Piccadilly from Ineos’s base next door to Harrods.

Inside, however, work life is incomparable; United’s wood-panelled office is a vision of tradition, while the petrochemicals giant is all sharp edges, glass panelling and modern art.

Business operations are in different galaxies too. Heavy debt has been loaded onto United amid steady decay over 17 years, but Jim Ratcliffe – according to his brother – runs his operations “lean”.

It was at Ineos’s futuristic Knightsbridge base that Bob Ratcliffe, Jim’s brother, outlined the business’s modus operandi last year.

“If you look at the way my brother, Andy (Currie) and John (Reece) run the business, the assets acquired were undervalued and they operationally improved them,” he said. “Then you put the pieces together and it becomes a successful company. It runs very lean as a business.”

A United takeover by Ratcliffe is still at a hypothetical stage. But if and when the situation gets serious, there is a distinct approach which would see Ineos draw on expertise from its other sporting investments to stop the rot.

Bob Ratcliffe had been speaking seven months before his brother Jim tabled his 11th-hour bid for Chelsea, let alone declared his interest in United. However, in using their investment at Ligue 1 club Nice as an example, he described how they drew on expertise but remained autonomous from their vast array of investments spanning F1, cycling, rugby and sailing.

“The businesses are all federal so they are run on their own but are expected to compare,” Bob Ratcliffe explained. “That is the way we look at football.”

This time last year, Ineos was planning on buying up another club in Portugal, having been put off previous asking prices in England’s top tier. But, with the controversial figure of Dave Brailsford now in place as director of sport, there has been a shift in positioning back to more ambitious projects.

The market values United at $2.2bn (€2.18bn) currently, although the Glazers have placed a much higher price on United with some estimating that it will take £5bn (€5.91bn) to secure the wealthiest club – by revenue generation – in English football.

Ratcliffe, a United fan and one of Britain’s richest men, demonstrated during his failed attempt to buy Chelsea that he has the stomach for such a massive bill.

Unlike the Glazers who pay themselves via shareholder dividends each, Ratcliffe claims he is in sport for other reasons.

“We are making this investment as fans of the beautiful game – not as a means to turn a profit,” Ineos had said in its failed approach to Roman Abramovich. “We do that with our core businesses.”

If the United offer progresses to talks, Brailsford – who is also rebuilding his reputation with involvement in English cricket’s high-performance review – would be certain to play a central role on the planning side.

The former coach, who won a BBC Sports Personality Coach of the Year award for guiding the British Olympic cycling team to 12 medals in 2012 and helping Bradley Wiggins win a Tour de France, had first declared in 2014 that he was interested in helping football tackle some of its “inner-chimp” complexes.

However, those hopes had looked remote recently when MPs questioned whether he should face action after a 2018 select committee report claimed British Cycling unethically used medical exemptions to give performance-enhancing drugs.

The disgrace of former British Cycling and Team Sky doctor Richard Freeman for obtaining testosterone “knowing or believing” it was for a rider also posed serious questions for Brailsford’s stated ‘win clean’ philosophy.

Brailsford declined to respond to the furore, although Team Ineos (nee Sky) released a statement saying “the team does not believe that any athlete ever used or sought to use Testogel or any other performance-enhancing substance”.

Brailsford’s appointment by Ratcliffe in December has coincided with his re-emergence as a major influence in sport. One of his first tasks was to lead an audit at Nice, and he appears to be in a prominent hands-on role now, having posed for pictures with Aaron Ramsey when he signed for the French club.

At United, Brailsford can claim to know a good deal more about football than some of the executives past and present in the Glazer era.

Instead, the main challenge facing Ratcliffe would be in attempting to enter talks with the current ownership, who appear more enamoured with the prospect of releasing funds via a minority stake sell-off to a US private equity firm.

If anyone in the UK has the funds to turn the Glazers’ heads over the coming weeks, it is Ratcliffe. Bloomberg’s 2022 billionaire index conservatively listed his personal wealth at £7.1bn (€8.4bn), while the Ineos Group is worth well over £60bn (€71bn).

Bob Ratcliffe, however, maintains the firm – which entered into the world of football five years ago with the purchase of FC Lausanne in Switzerland – is not in the market for paying completely over the odds.

“Some of our early purchases in Lausanne made us look slightly naive but then we learn businesses very quickly and that is what we did,” says the company’s head of football.

“People think it’s a chequebook play. We don’t want it to be that so we have to fight pretty hard for value and do objective research. We want to primarily invest in appreciating assets.”

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