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Juggling with an institution

Andy Mitten recalls when Michael Knighton almost bought Manchester United in 1989.

Michael Knighton could not juggle money as well as a football and lost his backers.
Michael Knighton could not juggle money as well as a football and lost his backers.

Andy Mitten recalls when Michael Knighton almost bought Manchester United in 1989 It is Saturday, August 19, 1989. It is an hour before kick- off and Manchester United are about to start the new season with a home game against champions Arsenal. United's long-time kit man, Gorse Hill born and bred former taxi driver Norman Davies, is tasked with finding a strip for United's new chairman-elect Michael Knighton.

In the rare sunshine, half an hour later, 47,000 watched as Knighton ran on to the pitch wearing boots and a United training top, before juggling a ball in front of an ecstatic Stretford End, who went home even happier after United won 4-1. United's supporters were so thrilled because Knighton, a charismatic property speculator, had come in with an offer to buy out the unpopular then-chairman Martin Edwards with the promise of pumping enormous sums of money into rebuilding parts of the ground.

Knighton's performance did not generate the same response elsewhere. As he watched Knighton on a monitor from his office alongside the Arsenal manager George Graham, Alex Ferguson had a bad gut feeling about this publicity stunt from someone who had yet to conclude any deal. The mood was far worse in the directors' box. "I was horrified, absolutely horrified. I was sat in the stand thinking, 'What the hell have I done?' I couldn't believe what I was seeing," says Edwards.

"I kept saying to myself, 'What the hell have I done?' I realised that I'd made a big mistake. The other directors felt the same. They cringed and began to turn on Knighton." Many still find it hard to believe that Edwards seriously contemplated the sale of one of football's prime assets, but maintains it made perfect sense. There were serious problems at Old Trafford. The 47,000 gate that day was almost 10,000 more than the average crowd from the previous season and a figure which would not be bettered all season.

United's average attendance had slipped below Liverpool's the previous season as the club finished 11th. The average was 38,000, but crowds as low as 23,368, 26,722 and 30,379 had watched United's three final league games of the season against Wimbledon, Everton and Newcastle. The club had taken just one coach of travelling fans to a league game at Queens Park Rangers, witnessed by a paltry 10,017.

Edwards told his under-fire manager Alex Ferguson that he was going to sell the club, saying: "If you know anyone who would be prepared to buy my shares for £10million (Dh59.1million), with a guarantee that he will spend a further £10m on renewing the Stretford End, then he can have it." Ferguson, who enjoyed a good relationship with his chairman, asked him why he wanted to sell and concluded that Edwards felt he could never win the fans over and had no other way out. Knighton appeared as a potential purchaser of United that summer.

"I wanted to sell the club to Michael Knighton for two reasons: I had a huge debt to the bank, almost a million pounds," says Edwards. "Since the rights issue in 1978, I'd put more than £400,000 of my own money into the club. My house was the security against that debt. "I couldn't go on feeding that debt forever and I wasn't comfortable. This was pre-Sky television, when the economic climate was very different in football.

"The second reason was that the Stretford End needed rebuilding and the price would have been around £7m. I didn't have the money. Something would have had to give. "Michael Knighton arrived out of the blue and was prepared to give me £10m, which was more than what my shares were worth. He also said that he was going to rebuild the Stretford End and would spend a further £10m on that. "It solved both my problems. And there's another thing - what if I had turned him down and it became public knowledge that I had turned down the money which would have rebuilt the Stretford End? In hindsight, it sounds ridiculous given the wealth of the club today, but at the time it wasn't a bad offer."

Edwards's first impression of Knighton was positive. "Michael Knighton is a very interesting guy when you first meet him," he says. "I thought he was serious, ambitious and I knew that he had backing from two very wealthy partners." Although later portrayed as a maverick fantasist, Knighton identified the huge potential in United. He said that the club had a major pulling power which had not been exploited.

He predicted that it would become a £150m business within 15 years (within 11 years United was valued at more than £1billion). He commissioned a study which identified several areas for development at Old Trafford such as television rights, merchandise, a magazine and a hotel - all of which were exploited in later years. With the club sale set to go through, Edwards relaxed and a previously parsimonious United spent heavily on Neil Webb, Mike Phelan, Gary Pallister, Paul Ince and Danny Wallace.

There was much optimism among red ranks, and Knighton's juggling act on the pitch was taken to show that he had a genuine love for United, projecting an enthusiasm and a warmth that the reserved Edwards rarely evinced. But now the directors began looking for loopholes to get out of the deal. Edwards is quick to point out that this was not purely motivated by their reaction to Knighton's tomfoolery.

"Of course, there was an element of self-interest to them, as they wouldn't have gained from Knighton coming in," he says. Knighton did not have the money to take over the club. Edwards counters the widely held belief that Knighton had a made a fool of the United board. "He'd proved that he had the financial backing, but then he fell out with the other two partners because they would have sidelined him eventually," says Edwards.

"Knighton realised what was going on and he wanted to be number one. The backers pulled away. When the pressure came on, Knighton couldn't deliver the money." Knighton exited, Edwards stayed. Over the next 10 years or so, Edwards would get rid of his United shares bit by bit for a total of £85m. Knighton was not the first outsider with whom Edwards had negotiated about selling United. The controversial publisher and Daily Mirror owner Robert Maxwell had boasted about buying the club in 1984. A rampant egomaniac, Maxwell already owned Third Division Oxford United but they were a long way from the perceived glamour of the top flight.

"He approached me. He was a really big noise at the time," says Edwards. "I agreed to a meeting with him, only because Roland Smith was involved in the deal. He had been on the board with my father, Louis Edwards, and was his friend. "He wanted me to meet Maxwell. I agreed, but as far as I was concerned, it was private. What did Maxwell do? He announced to the world that there would be talks about him buying Manchester United."

Edwards met Maxwell at his London office, Maxwell House. "We had little common ground, and I didn't particularly like him," he recalls. "I felt that he was trying to get United on the cheap and we were miles apart. When I was leaving, he said, 'We'll do a joint press release'. "I was in the car going back to Manchester when I received a call from Maurice Watkins [the club solicitor and director] who was at the meeting. Maurice said 'Maxwell has issued a press release.' It was very one-sided, covering himself and against me."

Edwards was strongly criticised by fans. "I look back now and I realise one thing: I never won the PR battles," he says. "I didn't win it with Maxwell and I didn't win it with Knighton, did I? I was never interested in public relations and I'm still not. "I'm disappointed in today's world in the sense that with people like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown it's all about image and PR. Where's the substance? Did Winston Churchill need a PR man? No. If I had to make a statement then I made it personally to the press.

"I wasn't good at dealing with supporters. I didn't want supporters running Manchester United, that was my concern. I knew what the supporters thought because I read all their correspondence. I would get hundreds of letters on big topics. "I had a lot of friends who were supporters, too, so I knew what was going on, what the supporters wanted. I wasn't prepared to give a lot of what they wanted, nor did I feel that having a regular dialogue with supporters was going to help."

Even his biggest detractors would probably admit that the long time United chairman and current club president Edwards was the scapegoat for United's problems throughout his 20-year leadership. As chairman of the club and major shareholder, the buck stopped with him. If ticket prices increased - as they often did in the 1990s - then Edwards was blamed. In addition to the debacles with Maxwell and Knighton, Edwards took the flak for floating the club on the Stock Market in 1991, for the rebuilding of the Stretford End and for the ill-fated deal to sell the club to BSkyB.

He was savagely criticised for being parsimonious in wage negotiations, for not communicating with fans and for being a former rugby-playing rich kid into whose lap fell one of the greatest football club's in the world. By the late 1990s, the "blame Edwards" culture had even become ironic. One letter writer to the fanzine United We Stand made him culpable for everything from his wife's moods to the fact that the plants in his garden were not flowering as expected.

Edwards was capable of communication, if he was so minded. If, as editor of United We Stand, I wrote a letter to him then Edwards answered immediately. If we wanted an interview then we got one, usually in his office overlooking the Old Trafford forecourt. If we saw him on pre-season trips he would always come over and say hello, no matter whom he was with. I helped the writer Jim White, another United fan, on his excellent 2008 book Manchester United - The Biography. Jim told me that he had written to Sir Alex Ferguson, David Gill and Edwards requesting interviews as a matter of course, but that he was not expecting a yes from any of them.

I had a hunch that, of the three, Edwards would agree. And he did, prompting White to think that I had mystical powers. Whatever fans say about Edwards, he seldom fought his corner. He presided over the biggest, most successful club in British football in the 1990s, a club who attracted admiration and envy, yet he remained loathed by many hardcore United fans. He made key appointments, from Ferguson to Edward Freedman, which would revolutionise United. He was responsible for signing Eric Cantona.

And while many clubs botched up their stadiums with uneasily juxtaposed rebuilding after the Taylor report, Edwards oversaw the continued redevelopment of Old Trafford which stayed consistent to the plans laid down by his father in 1962. @Email:sports@thenational.ae