It’s thirty years ago this year since I launched my bid to buy the best-known football club in the world, Manchester United. A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then. But, even today, I’m still asked about the events of that momentous time. Oddly, still hardly a day goes by whereby some reference to that time is not mentioned on social media. It must be said; little did I know then that it would be an event that would, at least for many, turn out to be an event that would come to define my life.
Looking back on that wonderfully sunny afternoon – 19th August 1989 – a day that saw – “ a small tubby bloke with a moustache, the sort of chap you might mistake for a (door) commissionaire ” – at least that is how one journalist likes to describe me – brazenly trot out onto the sacred turf at Old Trafford fully kitted-up for a spot of ball juggling light entertainment. It is a day I can never forget. It is also a day that my wanton showmanship was enjoyed by some and loathed by others. But it is a day that I would, given half the chance, repeat again if I thought the situation warranted such an occasion.
It is the beginning a new football season 1989-1990 – and just before the big kick-off in front of a crowd not far short of 50000 excited fans eagerly awaiting the appearance of their respective teams – I raced on to perform the now well-known juggling act. A short spell of sheer self-indulgence that climaxed with my belting the ball into the goal in front of delirious fans at the Stretford End. The fans thought the Club had just signed a new player!! One, I might add, not on £350K wages per week you understand, but, nevertheless, a man with a kit bag full of commercial tricks that would one day lead to the club being able to fob-out such absurd weekly wages to attract the football cream of the world.
I have absolutely no regrets over my decision to perform that rather showy, and, I admit, somewhat egocentric entrance, no, none whatsoever. Why would I have?
My bid to buy the club for a cool £20m in 1989 (a lot of money in football in those days and the biggest bid for a club in history at the time) was not only the bargain of the century, a fact that no one nowadays in their right mind could argue against, but, I also reasoned that my unannounced pitch invasion was rather a novel method of introducing myself as the club’s new chairman elect.
It was an act that certainly captured everyone’s attention. Indeed, I don’t think it’s too far fetched to say that the event seemed to catch the imagination of everyone in football at the time. For fans of a certain age they still have vivid memories of that day – it is no sepia memory – it is as if it had happened only last week. Certainly, nothing like that had ever been seen before at Old Trafford, indeed, anywhere else for that matter.
Even the critics must admit that every schoolboy and every grown man on the planet who loves football would secretly have wanted to do the same thing as I did given half the chance. The difference is of course is that I actually did do it. And, I honestly believe that my going on to the pitch to juggle the ball before smashing it into the Stretford End net on that memorable day was, in fact, exactly the right thing to do at the time and under the then circumstances.
This is because I was determined to show the fans that I was not simply another cash-hunting businessman coming after their club. That I was a fan just like they were. I needed to show the fans that I was a man who loved the game for itself and that I was not just in it for the business side of the sport – such as the ‘business ’ side was in the football industry back in those dark 1980’s days.
Of course, I can fully understand why the likes of Martin Edwards the Club’s then chairman and owner – the man who had just agreed to sell me the club – would have been “ horrified ” at my somewhat unorthodox and indulgent actions on the day. And, yes, I agree, Martin must have thought,“ Good God, what have I done? ” I can forgive him if he might have thought that he had sold the club to some kind of fantasist maverick and that he had made a massive mistake. I do empathise with Edwards in that respect. Such behaviour was all simply too much for his personal demeanour and his rather conservative personality.
But, Martin Edwards should not have panicked. We all know that for one Martin Edwards the whole episode worked out rather better than he could ever possibly have anticipated. Little would he know then as he slowly bowed his head and wished a hole in the ground would quickly swallow him whole that the episode would see him go on to reap the personal riches of avarice. I’m sure that the near £100 million pounds that he eventual clawed in for himself when he did finally sell his shares a few years later would rather sweeten the smell of any embarrassment that he may have suffered on the day that I had my bit of fun wooing the fans of the great club back onside.
There were others at the club too who nearly died the day I waltzed onto the pitch. Indeed, poor old Bobby Charlton must have just about suffered a major heart attack. Knowing Bobby as I do he will have cringed back into his seat from he feeling nothing but sheer embarrassment at it all. But that’s just good old Bobby’s personality. He being ever the low-key, non-showy man if ever there was one. That’s all part of why Sir Bobby Charlton is a football icon and a man that is so loved in the British psyche complete with his ultra modest style of conducting himself. That characteristic is one that is so appealing to everyone in the game – indeed – to everyone in the world. Bobby is not just one of the greatest players of all time he is also a man perceived to be a person who is one of the most humble and modest of men, one not prone to be found boasting over his truly commendable footballing achievements – a man certainly never to engage in a bit of trifling buffoonery that I myself might enjoy from time to time.
But what Martin, Bobby and everyone else involved needed to understand was this: it was an undeniable fact at the time that there was a massive gulf between the boardroom and the fans at Manchester United. This bitterness centred on a huge disconnect between the two groups. A disconnect which manifested itself in a gargantuan distrust between boardroom and the terraces. This negative feeling of intense distrust was directed especially at Martin Edwards in particular and the boardroom in general. Poor Martin, he had become the whipping boy of everyone at Manchester United. Yet, on the whole – Edwards had performed not too badly as the club’s chairman and therefore I believe that some of the criticism has been unfair against him in that respect. For he to sell the club to me for a mere piffling £10million pounds of course is a completely different story.
I liked Martin and I got on with him very well .To be fair, I liked virtually everyone at the club. Despite what has been said by some in the media it is a fact that I got on well with all my boardroom colleagues – obviously some better than others. It is true that I got on especially well with co-directors Martin Edwards, Maurice Watkins and the lovely Les Olive the latter being such a sweet and genuine man – sadly now no longer with us. The great Sir Matt Busby, too, was another wonderful colleague with whom I would spend many an hour. Sir Matt would often take me to one side for a lovely, warm little chat. Here Matt would proffer his amazing football wisdom on all things to do with the game. My relationship with Alex Ferguson too was also an excellent one as far as it went.
No one is more pleased than myself to see the great success that Sir Alex and the club went on to achieve from 1989 and in the process building for himself the reputation of being the greatest manager of all time.
Indeed – I never had a cross word with anyone at the club in all my time as a director during the whole three years that I was there actively involved in the running of the club as a club director. Well, sorry, actually, I confess, that last little bit is not quite the case.
It is not true that I never had a serious argument with anyone involved and working at the club. It is true that there was just one individual that I really did have a blasting, fearful row with and it happened on one Saturday Match day morning. This was a row that would remain as sour for me to this very day as the day it happened. Clearly, I’m not going to reveal that person’s name here or what the argument was about. For that one, if you’re interested at all, you are going to have read the account of that particular story in the forth-coming book. It is a book (written by others) that reveals the whole Manchester United – Michael Knighton story. I hope that this book will see the light of day quite soon. I have not been given a set date for its publication but I’m sure to let you know when the book is about to be released.
In the final analysis and for all of Martin’s claims that he was cringing with embarrassment on that day of 19 August 1989 in respect of my cameo ball-juggling act – he still invited me on to the Manchester United board of directors a few weeks later. I was a director at Old Trafford for three years, 1989-1992.
For certain, and again despite Martin’s claims, I know that he did very much welcome my football blueprint for the commercial development of the club. A document that set out how I saw the future development of everything connected with how it would be possible to push the club onto a new commercial plane.
I had set out in my blueprint how best I saw fit to capitalise on the club’s brand positioning and foster its future potential. This was to be achieved by employing a strategy that would exploit the commercial opportunities that I knew would soon be exploding within the wider industry as a whole.
To myself these future opportunities were as plain as a pikestaff. I had realised what the commercial future held for a club like Manchester United several years before I had even approached Martin Edwards to buy his shareholding.
I also knew that once everyone else in the football business had seen the opportunities and potential that I had so readily identified in 1989 – everyone in the game would be making sure that they joined in the pending gold rush which would provide the cash resources to improve and develop their respective clubs.
My intention was to make Manchester United the strongest team in the whole industry from every possible perspective simply by exploiting those commercial opportunities before anyone else did. My aim and goals were never to line my own pockets. My job was simply to make sure that Manchester United was the leader and at the very forefront of that pending vanguard sea change.
My blueprint document was a piece of research that I had personally carried out into how the game could be developed in the coming years from the commercial perspective. It was clear to me that there were soon to be golden opportunities presenting themselves for any club to harness. All those clubs required were the people that had the vision and foresight to apply their focus towards harnessing and exploiting this future commercial potential.
I gifted this blueprint document to Martin Edwards once I joined the board on 25th October 1989.
Martin always likes to tell the story that this document was part of the accountant’s report that I had also commissioned at the time as part of my bid to buy the club. But Edwards is wrong on that point. Absurdly, Martin tends to get the accountant’s due diligence report that I had commissioned as part of my bid to buy the club confused with my own personally researched football blueprint document for the commercial development of Manchester United. Mad, but true.
That is the real situation of the matter. Perhaps I should sit down with Martin Edwards one day and remind him of those facts. Or, perhaps I should just explain to him how things really developed in reality instead of the wild fantasy that has been allowed to be created in relation to my 1989 bid to purchase the club.
Martin Edwards should have been grateful for my timely intervention in 1989. The club was certainly failing both on and off the pitch within the context of its size and following. And, all observers must admit that for the following twenty-five years from the very day that I had so brazenly trotted out in front of the Old Trafford faithful the Club has never looked back both on and off the pitch. Certainly, the club has achieved stupendous success in both areas in the intervening decades. That is undeniable.
Even today – despite the recent playing disappointments in terms of results on the pitch under David Moyes and now even with new Dutch manager Louis van Gaal’s shaky start to his reign – the club is still by any measure hugely financially successful. Manchester United can go out and spend staggering sums of money on any player in the world without it even really touching the sides. And, I make no apology for being once again so bold by claiming that that situation is the true legacy of one Michael Knighton’s time at Manchester United FC.
Whether Martin Edwards (or anyone else for that matter) believes or wants to accept that as a fact – then their views are irrelevant to me. I know the true facts. And, that is the true reality. Further, if Martin Edwards is the man that I think he is, then he will know that to be the real case in respect of the Michael Knighton – Manchester United era. Whether Martin will ever have the strength of character to tell it how it really was/is in that regard, and, acknowledge that fact to a wider public would, I’m afraid, that would mean that he must suddenly change the habit of the previous quarter of a century.
That said, Martin Edwards is only human: it has been easy for him over the last twenty-five years to hide behind the name of Michael Knighton. This convenient screen has provided the perfect prop for he to account for his own failings. Martin Edwards, together with many others, has made sure that Michael Knighton was the go-to-name in respect of any negative Press – for myself to be seen as the fall guy in relation to the take-over bid of 1989. One can easily understand this strategy. You only need to put yourself in Martin Edwards invidious position to understand that that angle of approach would need to be employed to save him any embarrassment. It was and is an easy option to adopt.
I believe this why poor old Martin has always been only too eager to hide behind the former showmanship antics of Michael Knighton. In so doing he had hoped that this strategy would continue to serve as a useful smokescreen helping him to disguise the fact that he, for himself, not only did he massively under value the club in 1989, Manchester United had never made a profit under his tenure throughout the previous ten year track record. And, worse of all – Edwards was oblivious and blind to the real future commercial potential of Manchester United back in 1989.
When I arrived at the club there was a distinct lack of vision. A blindness that prevailed with such blanket darkness throughout the whole fabric of the club that it was clear that the club had become stale. It was a club running on past glories and not much else. Those are the hard and real facts of the case in 1989.
Martin Edwards, indeed, everyone else involved with him at the time – not one of them could see or understand the true commercial potential of the Manchester United football club that I knew twenty-five years ago. Otherwise, why was I even allowed to set foot in the place?
A visionary plan did not exist for the club’s future. That is not at least until the club had been given a copy of my personal blueprint for the commercial development of the club. A plan that would soon set about turning this sleeping commercial football giant into the vibrant commercial operation that everyone sees today. To quote the much-respected Manchester businessman and my one time club co-director, Michael Edelson, the then Manchester United Deputy Chairman:
“ We (the directors of Manchester United) we pretty much followed the plan that he (Michael Knighton) had laid down. ” (Daily Telegraph 2004)
Edelson is here referring to how I had expressed in my blueprint how I intended to promote and develop the commercial activities of the club. The aim was to turn the operation into a financial juggernaut – a footballing fiscal powerhouse. A club that could one day go out and buy any player in the world that the Team Manager wanted to capture to improve the strength of the playing side.
The erudite, well respected journalist, Michael Crick, a man considered an expert on all things Manchester United and the current Political Editor of TV Channel 4 News goes even further than Edelson when he writes:
“ there is a strong case for saying that Michael Knighton had a more influential role in the recent history of Manchester United than many of the club’s managers, directors, or footballers.” (The Boss 2002)
That conclusion coming from the pen of one of the ever-prominent critics of the more showmanship tendencies in my makeup should speak volumes. A brilliant journalist who has been quick to point out the many flaws to my character, but such objective criticism from a man like Crick rather makes the above observation an even more potent and telling statement. Michael Crick is a man whose opinions can rarely be ignored on the subject of his beloved Manchester United.
In respect of my bid to actually buy the club, no, it is not true that Michael Knighton’s, “ backers pulled away. ” This is another false notion that Martin Edwards claims in his clearly confused version of events that he often tends to portray when interviewed. Martin Edwards made such claims in an interview that he gave to a well-known Manchester journalist in 2009. Comments that have only just been released by that journalist in an article published on-line only a few weeks ago on 19 August 2014.
In that same 2009 interview Edwards espoused several other bits of ‘confused’ information that he had so readily given to the same writer. The actual facts are these: the two initial interested parties that had wanted to be involved with my 1989 bid to buy the club had long since been cast aside by myself. This happened well before the final phase of the bid process to buy the club was coming to a conclusion. These would-be ‘backers’ had been discarded by myself – not the other way around – as Martin Edwards apparently tends to believe.
Further, again, and in direct contrast to the claims of Edwards, the funds that had been put together to purchase Manchester United FC in 1989 had been brought to the table solely by myself as an individual together with my then bankers support.
Therefore, the money to purchase Manchester United back in 1989 had got absolutely nothing to do with Bob Thornton (the one time Debenhams Plc CEO) and Stanley Cohen (the onetime owner of Parker Pens) the two, “ wealthy backers ”, to whom Martin Edwards is referring to in that recently published on-line article. Again, this is Martin’s muddled memory playing tricks upon him. They are tricks that also just so happen to help support his version of events that he wishes to portray to the wider public. Tricks of a muddled mind? Or, in the alternative, the deliberate twisting of the facts to suit a certain version of events? This trickery matters not to me. The results have been the same throughout the years – to portray Michael Knighton as the fall guy of the piece throughout his time at Old Trafford.
Everyone who understands anything about the real story of my time at Manchester United and the Michael Knighton era in general can see that to be the case. Such a view especially becomes clear once anyone with the slightest interest to the back-story is given the actual facts of the case rather that the myths and half-truths which have been allowed to come to dominate the hitherto written ‘history’. Myths that have been deliberately perpetuated by some simply to create a false ‘history’ and to colour my involvement with the club in a somewhat negative light in order to simply protect their own position.
I am very proud that I played my full part in the rise and rise of the greatest football club on the planet. No one has been happier than myself to have watched Manchester United go on to plough its way on from one success to another throughout the whole of the nineteen nineties and the first decade of the new millennium.
As for my day on the pitch: no one can ever take those magnificent memories away from me. I was there, I did it and I absolutely loved every precious single second of that sunny, 19th August 1989. The day will live with me forever. It is a day that started it all. It is and was the real rebirth of Manchester United.
A day that absolutely triggered the fabulous commercial future development of the club. And, once given all the facts – I will defy anyone not to see that that time was the day that the ‘new’ Manchester United FC was born. It was the birth that delivered the club that we all see today. A birth delivered by a… “ small tubby bloke with a moustache, the sort of chap that you might mistake for a (door) commissionaire.”
MK – September 2014
Updated February 21st 2020