The Fighting Oirish
One of the unexpectedly frequent phrases of 2004 so far is "reclusive businessmen." Two weeks ago, it was the Barclay brothers emerging from their Channel Islands redoubt to make a bid for the crumbling Conrad Black empire. Now apparently it's two reclusive Oirish businessmen, John Magnier and JP McManus, showing their fangs at Manchester United Football Club.
The two skillful tax avoiders had always two sides to their role as the largest single shareholder in Man Utd: the public side of hobnobbing in the corporate boxes with the prawn sandwich crowd, including Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, but also a slow but steady build-up of their stake in the club to its current 25 percent. The latter signalled the duo weren't simply content with the ego-trip of sports team ownership and were either intending to flex the muscles that come with being big investors, or get a big payoff if another like-minded businessman wanted to buy the club (the most likely candidate in that regard being Tampa Bay Bucs owner, Malcolm Glazer).
Right now it looks like a muscle-flexing operation, with the first recipient of the robust shoulder being "Sir" Alex Ferguson, the team's long-time and hugely popular manager. As we posted about a little while ago, Ferguson had fallen foul of the horse breeder Magnier, in a dispute about the interpretation of his ownership rights in one of Magnier's horses. But now things are getting more serious. There has been a mysterious delay in finalising another contract extension for Fergie, accompanied by two weeks of revelations in the London Sunday Times about how Man Utd have played the transfer market.
In particular, the team's frequent purchases of high-priced talent seem to involve unusually large payments to self-appointed middle-men, one of whom happened to be Fergie's son. This BBC story reports that Magnier wants the club to fully investigate the dealings before Fergie gets a long-term contract.
There is already something strange about the sudden focus on Man Utd's player transactions -- they have been, to say the least, aggressive in their methods for a long time, and dealing with the little technicality of a player they desire being under contract to another club has been the central bone of contention. Man Utd engages in what US professional sports leagues would consider tampering -- interfering with a contractual relationship between a player and the other club. This happens via an approach to the player about their interest in acquiring him, when strictly speaking the approach should go the club holding the contract. The player then knows that Man Utd want him and demands that the club transfer him. Since he always has the option to sulk if he's not sold, the only real negotiations with Man Utd concern the price.
To avoid breaking the flimsy rules about getting permission to negotiate with the player, the initial approach will be indirect -- via an intermediary or a well-placed leak to a newspaper. Hence the mysterious side payments that accompany the final transaction. To the Sunday Times' credit, it seems to have its hands on some detailed paperwork, and Magnier sees his chance to get another big ego out of the way.
And it's risky to run a legend like Fergie out of town without having lined up a splashy replacement. Here's our guess, based on the fact that an important part of being Oirish is to show an occasional semblance of being Irish, most easily achieved by some populist gesture that will be lapped up by the Irish meeja. So -- out with Fergie, in with current Glasgow Celtic manager and Derryman Martin O'Neill.
O'Neill has been an excellent manager at Celtic and was recently himself a victim of MU's transfer market tactics, as his young Irish star Liam Miller signed a very odd "pre-contract" agreement with MU to go there when his current Celtic contract expires a few months from now. So Magnier keeps his Irish credentials alive by putting an Irishman in one of Britain's highest profile jobs, O'Neill gets to play on a bigger stage than Scottish football allows, and Man Utd attribute any unsavoury past dealings to the now departed Fergie. As they say in the Guinness ads, Brilliant!
And the Oirish icing on the cake: it's now official Conservative party policy, as communicated by their leader Michael Howard, that O'Neill is to be the next manager of Liverpool. How better to prove one's republican credentials than by screwing the Tories?
UPDATE: Here's the story from Monday's Sun. Note that the story is clearly setting up one pro-Fergie weapon for future use -- blame the Irish. Several references to the "Coolmore mafia," Coolmore being Magnier's stud farm in County Tipperary.