The endgame in Malcolm Glazer's battle for control of Manchester United was triggered yesterday when United's board said that it would not recommend a proposed 300p per share offer to shareholders, and the Takeover Panel issued the American with a 'put up or shut up' deadline of 17 May to announce whether he intends to make a formal bid.
The developments are a setback for Glazer but United's fate still rests, as it has done throughout this saga, with the club's biggest stakeholders, John Magnier and J P McManus, who own 29 per cent through their Cubic Expression company.
Glazer, who owns 28 per cent, needs their shares to make certain of reaching the 75 per cent ownership threshold he desires. City institutions would be certain of delivering him at least 20 per cent if he tabled a 300p offer.
At 75 per cent, Glazer can delist United from the stock exchange and rule the club as his personal fiefdom. Without Cubic's stake, that ambition will be in tatters.
Glazer will now try to persuade the Irish racing tycoons to sell, using 'fear factor' tactics to encourage them to hand control over to him. It is widely acknowledged that if Glazer's ambitions are thwarted, United's share price will tumble. It stood at 265.25p last night, down 0.6 per cent on the day, but some analysts believe that without a Glazer-inspired 'takeover effect' it could plummet to around 220p or lower.
Glazer will no doubt point this out to the Irishmen, hoping they take his money and run. If they agree, and talks will start within days, United could be all but American-owned even before the FA Cup final on 21 May. It is a big if.
Magnier and McManus have maintained a virtual silence on their intentions, aside from saying that their status as 'long-term investors' remains unchanged. However, sources in Ireland, familiar with their thinking, have also continued to point out that they sent Glazer packing when he offered them 300p per share last year, and nothing has changed.
That leaves two big questions. Do the Irishmen really believe United's long-term potential as a business is worth a roller- coaster ride on the share price for a year or three? And would they consider being minority shareholders in a Glazer regime, perhaps by selling him 10 or 15 per cent to help him towards 75 per cent, but keeping the rest?
If the answer to the first question is yes, they will not sell. They paid approximately 200p per share on average for their own holding and are rich enough to be flexible.
The answer to the second question is almost certainly no. That scenario would land them the double-whammy of long-term supporter fury as well as a potentially volatile relationship with Glazer.
That apparently leaves
the Irish in selling mood only if they doubt United's …