Football Manchester United sportsbiz

The Devil is in the detail for INEOS

May 29, 2024

In this week’s Member Insights piece, David Alexander, the founder and MD of Calacus PR looks into ups and down of Manchester United.  

Running a football club is never easy.

The fans are demanding, the media makes a drama out of every incident and results are everything.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United more than 10 years ago, the Red Devils have struggled to compete for the Premier League and Champions League, trophies they were always contenders for under the Scot.

American owners the Glazer family could not longer rely on the mercurial Sir Alex to bring them regular success and leveraging their takeover through debt and receiving dividends into the bargain hardly helped matters.

At last count, eight different coaches have been given control of the United first team, with limited success. 

The United brand endures, though, and according to Deloitte’s Football Money League, they remain among the most commercially viable clubs around, raising commercial revenue to over £300m in 2023. 

British Billionaire Sir Jim Ratcliffe has already shown his interest in sport by taking over the former Team Sky cycling team and backing the British America’s Cup bid as well as Ligue 1 club Nice and one-third of the Mercedes Formula 1 team.

Sir Jim has been incredibly successful in business and understandably wants to bring that United after taking a 27.7% stake in the club.

“We will bring the global knowledge, expertise and talent from the wider INEOS Sport group to help drive further improvement at the Club, while also providing funds intended to enable future investment into Old Trafford,” said Sir Jim at the time.

“We are here for the long term and recognise that a lot of challenges and hard work lie ahead, which we will approach with rigour, professionalism and passion.”

Football is an emotive sport, but regardless of his minority stake, it was clear that Sir Jim has ambitious plans to help the club compete for the biggest trophies once more.

A quick win among his initial reforms was to announce that he would instigate a three-year freeze on dividend payments, bucking the controversial trend set by the Glazers.

A central part of this journey, says Ratcliffe, is investing in the right people to ensure success can flourish, leading to changes in the club’s leadership team including the inclusion of Dave Brailsford, the director of sport at INEOS.

Brailsford is a veteran in the world of competitive sports, having supercharged British Cycling to unprecedented heights during his role as Director of Performance with Team GB cyclists winning eight Olympic golds at the London 2012 Games while Team Sky, rebranded INEOS Grenadiers in 2019, won the Tour de France in the team’s third year under their new name.

Former Manchester City Commercial Director and Chief Football Operations Officer Omar Berrada was appointed as the new Chief Executive of the club in January as a precursor to Sir Jim’s official arrival the following month, a post he will most likely assume this summer after his gardening leave

Berrada has an extensive background in football, particularly when it comes to player contracts and transfers, which will be crucial for United in the coming months and years.

But it hasn’t been all plain-sailing for Sir Jim and INEOS, with some clumsy communication underlining the scrutiny United constantly finding themselves under.

The proposed appointment of Dan Ashworth and United’s poaching of Technical Director Jason Wilcox from Southampton, further underlines Sir Jim’s intention to transform the club.

The pursuit of Ashworth has been controversial, after details of his covert email negotiations with Berrada were discovered, highlighting the fact that Ashworth was being tapped up, breaching Premier League guidelines and confidentiality agreements. 

An audit of United staff and the club’s facilities has led to some clumsy communications that further underline the importance of listening to expert PR support.

In late April, Sir Jim made the decision to cut staff perks as part of his money-saving measures ahead of the men’s FA Cup final. A company-wide email outlined that while staff would be given a free ticket to the final, employees would have to pay for their own travel to and from the stadium. 

Other perks such as the pre-match party, hotel accommodation and the ability for employees to bring friends and family to the match were also scrapped. 

This was just one of many announcements Ratcliffe made to staff, detailing his cost-cutting programme and general displeasure at the way the club was being run

In early May, after a tour of the Trafford Training Centre, Sir Jim sent another email to staff condemning the state of the training ground: “I had a good tour around some of the facilities. I am afraid I was struck in many places by a high degree of untidiness. In particular the IT department which frankly was a disgrace and the dressing rooms of the U18 and U21 were not much better. These standards would not come close to what we would expect at INEOS and we are a chemical company.”

Sir Jim also cited email traffic statistics to Manchester United staff as the basis for a ban on working from home and told them to seek “alternative employment” if they are not willing to come to club premises, despite United’s lack of sufficient office space and some consultants on contracts whose terms do not require them to be in the club’s Manchester or London business complexes.

According to reports, these communiques have turned the atmosphere at the Carrington training centre ‘toxic,’ although it is understandable that Sir Jim wants to get the basics right and fix United’s organisational challenges.

When United lost 1-0 to Arsenal in May, it created a raft of further embarrassment.

With the rain pouring down, the dilapidated Old Trafford could not cope, with 41mm of water cascading through the roof, later dubbed the ‘Old Trafford waterfall.’

Sir Jim has made his plans for Old Trafford clear from the start, with a vision to create the ‘Wembley of the North’ and provide a stadium that the club can be proud of after years of neglect under the Glazers.

Sir Jim spoke of claiming funds from the public purse to help upgrade the stadium, which lacked self-awareness seeing as he has officially moved to Monaco to avoid paying UK tax.

By attending the game against the Gunners, Sir Jim also missed the women’s FA Cup final at Wembley, which United won 4-0 against Tottenham to earn their first major trophy. 

Many disgruntled fans took to social media voicing their concerns over this alleged favouritism, presenting Sir Jim with a further communications set-back, this time with the fans, despite INEOS representation at Wembley.  

On X, @TheUnitedWayyyy posted: “Zero excuses for INEOS, Ratcliffe & his representatives not attending the Women’s FA cup final at Wembley.

“The game against Arsenal is not going to decide anything for us. The men’s team’s fate has been decided & is done for. Think it reeks of biased priorities. Not a good sign.” 

Sir Jim was keen to right this wrong, sending a message of congratulations to the women’s team later that day calling it a “wonderful achievement” and a “historic moment” for the club. 

For many, this was compared to the Glazers’ reign of operational disinterest, and when it was later revealed that the women’s end-of-season awards dinner was to be cancelled, it raised further concerns that the women’s team is not an INEOS priority.

Given that United finished eighth in the Premier League in the 2023-24 season, their worst finish since 1990, and with a goal difference of minus one, the future of manager Erik ten Hag has been under scrutiny.

Ahead of the men’s FA Cup final, there were reports that the Dutchman was almost certain to be fired, regardless of the result. 

The shock 2-1 win over Manchester City prompted a delay in that potential development, with fan groups writing an open letter to INEOS urging them to have patience with ten Hag’s project. Either way, the timing of the story was embarrassing and avoidable.

Ratcliffe has certainly made an impact during his early leadership, with executive appointments, cost-cutting measures and his overall strategy for Manchester United’s governance. 

These drastic measures demonstrate an unwavering commitment to getting Manchester United back on track in the long-term, and any attempt to instil a degree of vigour should be welcomed with open arms. 

But it’s also a reminder that senior leaders, however successful they have been in their professional lives, would do well to work closely with their communications teams so that unpopular but necessary decisions can be planned and communicated sensitively. 

So often we see that the best intentions, clumsily delivered, can do more harm than good that undermines credibility, trust and the support of those key audiences that leaders seek to engage.

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