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The Martin Edwards interview

The days following the news of Manchester United's possible takeover by BSkyB were frantic ones. As the news filled more column inches and broadcast hours than any other story in the entire history of Manchester United, one man was conspicuous by his relative absence from the intense glare of the media spotlight.

That man was Martin Edwards, chairman and chief executive of Manchester United Football Club Plc. Along with Mark Booth, his equivalent at BSkyB, Martin Edwards had the biggest individual involvement orchestrating the deal, and amidst all the opinions and conjecture being bounded around by concerned fans, I decided to write to him requesting an interview for United We Stand.

I did this in order to put to him some important questions and concerns about the takeover because it's a serious issue with ramifications for every Manchester United fan. Martin Edwards agreed to this interview, and for that we should thank him, not just because we have criticised him in the past, but because his interviews with the outside media are as rare as a city fan without a chip on his shoulder and a Geordie you can understand.

The interview took place on the Monday after the Southampton victory, in Martin Edwards' spacious third floor office overlooking the Old Trafford forecourt and the fragmented Manchester skyline.

UWS: Like other fans, my first reaction to the Sky deal was a bad one. I thought that the deal was riddled with conflicts of interest and I just had a bad feeling that the club had lost any independence. How would you respond to that?

Martin Edwards: In a way, the club lost control as soon as we went from a private company to a public company in 1991 . The structure of Manchester United before the Sky approach was such that the existing directors held 18% of the shares, members of the public held 22% and the other 60% were held by institutions. Manchester United, whether we like it or not, was already owned by institutions. Anybody coming in to make an offer for Manchester United didn't even need to approach the existing directors - they could have gone straight to the institutions. Had they accepted the offer, then Manchester United could have changed hands without the approval of the existing directors.
What happened with Sky is that they approached us and said that they didn't want to make a hostile bid, that they wanted to make a friendly bid and agree a price with us and also to give us some comfort about how we'll manage this business going forward. We were then given several assurances which we wanted. Sky didn't want to make changes with the board and wanted the existing management team to run the club. They do want Alex Ferguson to continue and they are going to support the team in terms of purchases.

UWS: But people have been known to renege on their promises before, not least Rupert Murdoch...

Edwards: Of course people can make promises today and I realise that the proof of the pudding is always in the eating. It's only in five or ten years time that you'll be able to make that decision and ask, "Have the club lived up to its promises?", "Is the club in a better position than before the takeover?" Our first duty as directors of a public company is to the shareholders and once a company the size of Sky approaches you with an offer, you are almost honour bound to listen. A lot of the supporters are shareholders so they'll have a chance to vote for and against the recommendation - only the shareholders can vote this through.
Our advisors said that when the offer was made of 240p a share, we should recommend it to our shareholders. If you don't recommend the offer to your shareholders and two or three years down the road the share price is languishing, then as directors we've not acted in the shareholders best interests and I would even suggest that we would be open to prosecution. We felt comfortable with all aspects of this deal.

UWS: Are United about to become little more than a subsidiary of a multi-national corporation for whom commercial interests take preference over all else, including football?

Edwards: There are two things there. Certainly we are a subsidiary of a large organisation - that is a fact. Secondly, you have to say that the price that Sky are paying for Manchester United - 623m is a good one. In isolation, United make good profits but the profits we make don't necessarily justify the price they've paid. They are paying it because they are a media company and they do see benefits from owning media rights connected with Manchester United in the future. The only way they can capitalise on those rights is if Manchester United are successful. If Manchester United aren't successful on the pitch then the attraction is going to be a lesser one. Sky aren't paying a premium price to run Manchester United down - what's the benefit in that?

UWS: Sky's primary interest is in television and there are clear conflicts that come with cross company ownership. Would Sky want United to be so successful that they want us to win the league by March because it certainly wouldn't make good television for the rest of the country? It's not in the interests of a television company to want one team to be by far and away the best in the country is it?

Edwards: Possibly, but does that ever happen where a team are so dominant?

UWS: It does in Scotland and Spain. Barca and Real win the league nine times out of ten because they're so much more powerful than the other clubs.

Edwards: It hasn't happened in the English league though. The English league is the toughest in the world.

UWS: Yes, but if United are so much more powerful than the rest it could happen and that's not in Sky's interests.

Edwards: As Chief Executive of Manchester United I want Manchester United to be the best. I want us to win the league every year and succeed in Europe too. Winning the Premiership is only part of the story. We haven't won the European Cup since 1968 and if we're not going to start worrying about winning the league by March, that's the least of my worries. Sky want United to win the European Cup and more. FIFA are now talking about having the champions of Europe playing the champions of South America, Africa and Asia every two years in a competition. Sky will want United to win that too because it's in their interests.

UWS: How will the sale of Manchester United to BSkyB benefit anybody aside from those who personally stand to profit from the deal?

Edwards: United fans will hopefully benefit by having the best team in the future and that's the only way they can benefit. Fans will have the same management running the club with the same ambitions, only we'll have an 8 billion company behind us. That will give us a better chance of being successful.

UWS: Manchester United turned in a bigger profit than any other football club in Europe for the last financial year. Why did the club need to be sold?

Edwards: We had to look long term. If Sky didn't buy United then they would have gone in for another football club - that they told us, and it looks like other media companies are going to take over football clubs. Now, do we want to be left behind or do we want to be the first? If we sit back, another company could come in, buy a big club, make them so much more powerful than anybody else and then how would we feel, watching somebody like Liverpool win the league by March? We've got to be ambitious. If the Office of Fair Trading rules this bid out then fine, it will mean that other football clubs can't be taken over and we'll stay the most powerful club back on a level playing field.
If United hadn't been sold then I've no doubt that we would have continued to be successful - the successful formula wouldn't just disappear. However, we had a good offer on the table which we couldn't ignore and I believe that we are stronger with Sky than without Sky. We can never be complacent. Even last year I believe Arsenal overtook us on the field. After winning at Chelsea I thought that we had won the league and I was delighted. What happened? Arsenal won practically every game and beat us in our own back yard for good measure. So we had to put some resources to the team - and that's why Alec spent 28 million in the summer.

UWS: Were there any other offers for Manchester United?

Edwards: No.

UWS: How do you personally feel about the future of Manchester United?

Edwards: I'm no less positive than I was before - I'd probably say that I'm more positive in a sense that we've got a big company behind us.

UWS: What assurances have you been given by BSkyB about the future running of Manchester United?

Edwards: The assurances that were in the O.F.F.E.R document which was sent to all shareholders. Basically, that Sky will let Manchester United be Manchester United and leave the existing management in place because they're good at their jobs; that they realise we're not just another football club; that we have a phenomenal heritage and that we're not just another business but that we're part of the cultural fabric of Manchester and the nation.

UWS: United fans have been disappointed with the seeming inability to attract players such as Batistuta and Salas to Old Trafford and they believe that it is because of the clubs' refusals to make their wage demands. Is this the case and how will the takeover affect future transfer dealings at the club?

Edwards: Salas would not have been a problem. We knew what the terms were and if the manager wanted Salas he could have had him - we've said that publicly. Alec went to see Salas in South America, and came back impressed but it was just at the time when Cole had started firing on all cylinders. Alec felt that Salas was a risk and questioned whether he would settle in this country with the different climate and language. Alec felt he was a box player and that we already had a perfectly good box player in Cole.
In terms of Batistuta you're quite right. His terms were at least three times more than the highest paid player and quite frankly we weren't prepared to bust the wage scale for one player. We've made no secret of our wage scale and we adopt the policy whereby we budget sensibly in terms of the players we bring in and in terms of wages and we're not prepared to broker the club for one player and that's quite right. We haven't had many refusals with that policy. Batistuta was one and Ronaldo may have been another one.

UWS: Say we broke the bank for Ronaldo. We'd have the world's best player in the side, the share price would rise and surely there would be associated spinoffs in merchandise. Wouldn't the transfer pay for itself?

Edwards: Perhaps you're right but the transfer fee element is only one part of the deal and the wages have become a major element. If we bring in Ronaldo and pay him three times more than everybody else, when it comes to the other players renegotiating their contracts: the likes of Giggs, Beckham, Schmeichel and Keane, then they're going to want a huge rise too. They're not going to be too happy playing alongside someone who's earning three times as much as them. With our twenty first team players, we could end up doubling our total wage bill just for one player and we're not prepared to do that. In the last three years the salaries of all our players have gone up by 30% a year - it's incredible. We'd end up losing money and we are a public company who is answerable to our shareholders and expected to make money each year.
Look at Real Madrid - who won the European Cup last season. Real Madrid are millions and millions of pounds in debt - I hear all sorts from 25 - 50 million. They don't know how they are going to get out of that debt, whether they are going to mortgage the ground or whatever.
We'd hate to be in that situation at United because we've always run the club as a serious business and we've been successful along the way too winning championships and developing the stadium. You could say that if we'd gone a little bit further, then we might have won the European Cup, but last year we got to the quarter final and the year before we got to the semi. We're not far off and it's not worth putting the club in jeopardy because the day of reckoning always comes.
If anybody accuses me of pulling back on players then I would have to accept that but whilst I'm the chief executive, I will always do what is best in the long term for Manchester United and the long term interests may not coincide with the supporters short term interests. They might say, "win the European Cup this year at all costs," but I have to take a longer, more pragmatic business view on that one because I'm responsible for the club. I can't please everybody all the time.

UWS: Some fans are concerned that BSkyB could move United from its historical Manchester home to a new super stadium more accessible to United's nationwide support Can you allay those fears...

Edwards: Absolutely. There's no way we'd be spending another 30 million on the stadium if we were going to move. We won't move from Old Trafford.

UWS: Are the rumours true that BSkyB are to freeze ticket prices for the duration of three years?

Edwards: No. We're not going to freeze ticket prices but then we're sensible when it comes to pricing. Our policy has settled down now because we had quite heavy increases whilst we were rebuilding to make up for our reduced capacity but we've no need to do that again.
If you bang the ticket prices up you don't actually achieve anything. United supporters only make cutbacks in other areas; they don't buy a programme, they don't buy drinks they don't go in the museum. We've always adopted a sensible price on tickets because we want a full-house every week, a captive audience who provide the atmosphere, support the team and spend money in the shops too.
The average spending of United supporters was higher than any other club last year and that wasn't because of high ticket prices, it was because fans feel good about the team. We don't sting the fans on one item, we don't force them to buy shirts, we offer good products at the right price. The more money that United generate from all the commercial activities means the more money that goes into the club coffers.
O.K, a certain amount goes in dividends but out of the 27 million profit the year before last, only 4 million went on shareholder dividends. Where does the rest go? It goes into the players. We've just spent 28 million on new players. We've just announced that we're building a new 14.3 million training ground that will give United the best training facilities in the world and we've spent over 40 million on the North stand, buying the land, building the stand and fitting it out. What are we doing next? We're developing the West and the East Stands giving us another 12,000 seats behind both goals - none of which will be executive. We plough the money back into the club.

UWS: Have United lost their independence when it comes to negotiating the next television deal. Say, for example, ITV broke the bank to secure football's television rights, where would that then leave a Manchester United owned by BSkyB?

Edwards: Sky are not guaranteed to win the rights to Premiership football. Sky have said that it will still be our shout on how we vote and our vote is only one in twenty amongst the Premiership clubs.

UWS: You say that but isn't that like saying the United States only have one vote on the United Nations. Surely United hold sway?

Edwards: Not in Premier League meetings we don't. There are times when we are totally on our own. The last major vote the Premier League had was on ground advertising. United and Newcastle wanted to maintain our own ground advertising and we were outvoted by the other 18 clubs. On T.V issues you'll find that it's the smaller clubs against the bigger clubs and we don't carry any more sway than any other club. That's a fact. Very often when United vote one way it almost encourages the other clubs to vote the opposite way.

UWS: Where does the situation currently stand on the European Super League and also pay per view television?

Edwards: On Pay-per-view, Sky put forward a proposal at the summer meeting for pay-per-view of 160 games and the clubs voted it out. Since then there has been no further talks on pay per view but I would think Sky are anxious, particularly now they've done a deal with the Football league for six pay-per-view games, to do an experiment this year.
As for the European Super League, Media Partners approached 16 clubs, of which three were from the UK, us being one of them. They put certain proposals forward which were very attractive in terms of the number of games, the guaranteed income from those games and a place for six years in the league.

UWS: Surely clubs should be judged on their playing merits though and not just be guaranteed a place?

Edwards: Just to pick 16 teams is unpopular both with the clubs and the fans so there has to be some criteria involved. The criteria shouldn't just be over one season, it should be taken from on the field performances over five, ten or twenty years. There are other ways of cutting the cake that will be more acceptable to the big clubs.
We're currently under the guise of U.E.FA and what these negotiations with Media Partners have done is spark U.E.FA into action because they don't want to run the risk of the clubs going with Media Partners. For the first time ever, clubs can talk directly to U.E.F.A rather than going through the Football Association. U.E.F.A are now reformulating their plans for the European competitions next year and they are hoping to put something forward by Christmas. They are talking about the Champions League group stage being over ten games so things will evolve.

UWS: Why did the United board see fit to drop the words 'football club' from the club badge?

Edwards: It's a compliment to us because nobody thinks of Manchester United as anything but a football club. If you look at the strength of the the badge now, with the brighter red, it's a much bigger and bolder statement. Do Manchester United badges need the words football club? We don't believe they do because worldwide everybody knows what Manchester United is.
If we were at Manchester City then that might have been important because people will have been saying, 'what is Manchester City? Is it the city of Manchester, is it the council?' Nobody can tell me that anyone can ask, 'What is Manchester United' unless they are an American living out in rural Wyoming or somewhere.

UWS: People talk about the move being about the reinforcing of the brand so why lose those two words which are the heart and soul of Manchester United? Without the football club we are nothing. It's almost symbolic that in today's commercially minded world, these two words have been removed.

Edwards: There's no doubt about it, when you put the new badge on a commercial product it looks much bolder and that does come into it. We made the decision because we looked around the ground and saw something like twelve different ways that Manchester United was portrayed. There was no uniformity and we streamlined it right the way down. It's an evolution. Manchester United are only a football club.

UWS: Can we be assured that the new parent company does not interfere with team related matters at Manchester United? At P.S.G, who are owned by the French broadcaster Canal+, the team is in disarray, the new owner sits on the bench and he's had a very public row with the star player. It's everyone's worst nightmare that this will happen at Old Trafford.

Edwards: The football board at Manchester United will be responsible for the running of Manchester United - that's it.

UWS: What was your motivation to remain on the Manchester United board as chief executive, despite having sold your controlling interest?

Edwards: My controlling interest doesn't take away my buzz for United.

UWS: So you still buzz off going to the matches?

Edwards: Yes. It's been my life for the past 28 years and I've not done this deal because I want to get out. I've done it because I believe it's in the best long term interests of the club and I believe that I had a duty to consider the offer. I didn't approach them, they approached us and I wasn't looking to sell the club but in the back of my mind I knew that one day somebody bigger was going to come along. When they did approach us and said that we could keep the existing management, it seemed like we could have our cake and eat it.

UWS: I read John Pilger's book on Rupert Murdoch on holiday this summer and came home disillusioned to be British, such was the power that Murdoch has in this country. Through his press, he can effectively elect governments and destroy people whilst being a hypocrite at the same time. Next thing he's taking over your team.

Edwards: There's more anti-feeling about this deal because of Murdoch than anything else. The only thing I would say is that Sky is a British company, it does have other shareholders. Murdoch owns 39% of Sky's shares and whilst he's the most powerful shareholder he doesn't have the final say because there's seventeen people on the board at Sky and he's the only representative of News Corporation so it is possible for him to be outvoted.

UWS: But he's such a powerful man, that's what worries me.

Edwards: He is powerful, there's no doubt about it.

UWS: Does that not concern you?

Edwards: Not when we've had the assurances we've had.

UWS: What will your exact role be at Manchester United?

Edwards: Just the same. I'll be Chief Executive of the group and I think I'll be chairman of the football club board which won't alter at all. The Plc, which Sir Roland Smith currently chairs, might be taken over by me and there will be some representatives of Sky on that board.

UWS: You're also to take a seat on the board of Sky - what will that entail and will it detract from your responsibilities at Manchester United?

Edwards: No, that will be a monthly board meeting and I'll attend so that I can represent Manchester United on the Sky board. I certainly won't be getting involved in new technology and all the rest of it, I'm just reporting on Manchester United's business.

UWS: Do you think there will be any improvements at the club, such as with the way they deal with the media. I appreciate that United are inundated with requests from journalists but they should have a properly run press office to deal with the media and I'll give you an example why: Three months ago, Mellor's Task Force criticised United for not including any disabled places in the new North Stand whilst forgetting the fact that at the time of building the North Stand, United had doubled the size of their disabled enclosure. United's disabled supporters are perfectly happy with their arrangements and yet the club refused to defend their position and were subsequently criticised. Why?

Edwards: The chairman of the disabled supporters club did respond but you are probably right when you say we could improve the public relations side of things because Sky are a much more RR led company and would want to respond more. Then again, too much RR can damage a company. Look at the Football Association, they are so P.R led that you wonder who's running the F.A. because you rarely hear a quote from Graham Kelly.

UWS: Can you see a time when the club take on recommendations by the Independent Supporters Association?

Edwards: The difficulty we have with IMUSA is that they are a fairly new body and they have alienated existing members of this club. I'm not just including myself there because I don't think that the manager is over the moon with some of their antics and certainly some of the senior managers here are not happy with the way they go on. IMUSA have been very critical of the club and they have alienated a lot of our supporters clubs who say, 'what right have they got to spout off about the club, we've been in existence for over forty years.' Why should IMUSA suddenly become the spokespersons for the fans of this club? If they'd had their way, Alex Ferguson would have gone in 1995 when Hughes, Ince and Kanchelskis were sold.

UWS: I think as an organisation they didn't, and as an organisation IMUSA have learnt how to deal with the press much better. Secondly, IMUSA don't, and have never claimed to represent all United fans and titles like, 'Fans' leaders and 'fans' spokesman' are given by the media. They only speak for themselves and their members.

Edwards: We have to be careful because if we suddenly open a dialogue with IMUSA and give them preference over all our other supporters clubs we will be criticised.

UWS: Yes, but unlike United's own supporters club IMUSA are both Independent and democratic.

Edwards: Another thing is that IMUSA won't let issues such as standing drop. Standing is out of our hands, the government won't allow it, that's the law, and yet members of IMUSA in the East Lower continue to flout that by standing up. Do I sit down with people who are openly breaking the law? I don't think I should. I'll tell you what, they really piss off the other people in that stand because the majority of people in the East Stand want to sit down.

UWS: That said, I was at the Football Task Force meeting when it came to Manchester and there was a real groundswell of opinion for terracing and you came away from that thinking that the Task Force have to listen to the public and do something about it. Would the Poll Tax ever have been abolished if it wasn't for public opinion?

Edwards: Mellor is dead against standing and the government will not change the law. I came out and supported standing and I got the biggest rocket from other Premier League chairmen, the Police, the council and other people at United.

UWS: But people only want the atmosphere to improve inside the ground and they see standing as a means to achieving that.

Edwards: People have got to get away from thinking that they will win the argument on standing because they won't.

UWS: Do you feel that Manchester United are any closer now to winning the European Cup than they were five years ago?

Edwards: The experience of playing in Europe will help players and I thought we were very unlucky against Dortmund. Last season we had bad injuries and I think we are getting closer. I'm disappointed at the two draws against Barca and Munich because we'd led in both games. Whether we can qualify is another matter but I'd like to think so.

UWS: People will always have opinions on how tickets should be distributed but something that I've noticed is a marked decline in the number of youngsters attending games? Does this not concern you?

Edwards: When we expand the stadium we have to think very carefully about how we allocate those seats. I don't think we should just sell them all as season tickets. We've got an opportunity where we can rethink our strategy.

UWS: The youngsters are the reds of the future, we can't lose them and other clubs have introduced schemes to cultivate their young support. If you United don't get the kids in then they can go to the ice hockey, the basketball and, God forbid, even Maine Road.

Edwards: It is difficult for kids, both in terms of price and the logistics of getting tickets and we should look at measures of getting them inside Old Trafford.

UWS: What message have you got for United fans who are concerned about the future of the club?

Edwards: We had to consider the offer, we got the assurances we wanted and we didn't want it to be another club that was taken over because it would make it tougher for Manchester United. We've come a long way since going public in 1991 and we've got a long way to go. Europe still has to be conquered and it shouldn't stop there because there will be more world-wide competitions in the future. With Sky, we'll be in better position to compete.

UWS: Finally, can you name United s left back?

Edwards: First choice; Denis Irwin, second Phil Neville, third John Curtis. I'm glad Mark Booth answered that question honestly - I would have been a bit worried if he'd known all about the team.

Andy.

 


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