Big Sir Jim and his Old Trafford problem: just don’t let public money pay to fix it | Barney Ronay

There’s an advert on TV at the moment for generically going somewhere on a train. It doesn’t matter when or to what end. Just travel on a train. Go anywhere. Just do it.

This seems a bit odd in a time of diffuse, franchised operators. But adverts for general “things” were common in the last century, when even in asset-stripped, organ-harvested Britain a lot of the things-infrastructure was still publicly controlled.

Consume beef. Drink any available type of milk. In the late 1960s there was an advert for going to the pub, just as a general idea, with the World Cup aces Bobby Moore and Martin Peters going to the pub in suits and ties and playing darts with a glower of patriotic reproach.

The most striking thing about the current train adverts isn’t this generic quality, however. It is instead the fact passengers are depicted sitting down, smiling and surging towards their destinations at lightning speeds, as opposed to the more accurate real-life experience of desperation, impoverishment and occasionally spending six hours stuck outside Bogden Cheeseworth wedged upright into a luggage rack inside a carriage that smells of tyrannosaurus foreskin.

It is a prospect supporters of Manchester United and Manchester City will be hoping to avoid this weekend en route to a really fun-looking FA Cup final, a game shot through with delicious subplots and swooping story arcs that will, as ever, be taking place in the London borough of Brent, 200 miles south of Manchester, and venue already for both semi-finals.

This is a fairly easy journey when the dots align. On every other occasion, which is quite a few of them, it can be hellish. And no doubt at some point, perhaps during the vomit-squelching journey home, thoughts will turn to some version of the words of Sir Jim Ratcliffe during his unveiling interviews at Manchester United in February.

Ratcliffe took that opportunity to propose the construction of a “Wembley of the North”, funded by public money, the entire venture situated, by pure happy coincidence, on the patch of underinvested land he, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, has just bought a massive stake in; and all of this couched in the classic Brexit-entrepreneur style as some kind of grand, altruistic, tribally rousing act of levelling-up.

There is of course zero chance future Cup finals will be staged anywhere but the existing Wembley of Wembley, not while the FA is still required to keep on paying for it (the whole thing should have been reconstructed as the Wembley of Birmingham back in 2002, but that’s another story).

But an all-Manchester final is also the perfect moment to unpick the key part of those statements, hidden within the self-serving fluff about regeneration, which is the chance to unlock public money.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe (right) talks to Avram Glazer in the Old Trafford directors’ box last month. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

This has already received a quiet rebuff from the current government. But let’s see. Ratcliffe is an extraordinarily powerful person, capable of spinning the heads of Tony Blair and David Cameron on his personal set of plates down the years. Keir Starmer has been seen shaking hands awkwardly at Old Trafford, looking like he’s applying for the job of Don Corleone’s footman. This is not just one of Britain’s richest people but Britain’s richest person in a field that literally keeps the lights on. Displease him at your peril.

There are two things worth saying about this now. The first can be dealt with quickly. There is no way on this Earth or any other that public funds should be used to regenerate the site at Old Trafford. And yes, we know this is not about the actual stadium, but that’s just a way of haggling the deal. Anything built there directly increases the value‑of the Glazer/Sir-Jim asset. Any London homeowner will tell you that. Build a tube station here so that my house price can double. It’s not for me though. It’s regeneration.

Even the former sports minister Tracey Crouch has pointed out the problems around the stadium stem from the Glazer ownership failing to invest while raking money out of the club. That problem is now Ratcliffe’s problem. He bought it. He also lost £6bn this year and will barely notice it. That part of town does need some help. Level it up yourself, old bean. We look forward to the results.

It should also be pointed out that the man asking for public money to pump up his investment value, Sir Big Sir Jim, also avoided a projected £440,000-£4bn of UK tax by moving to Monaco. Having chosen not to fund healthcare and infrastructure in this country, he now wants your tax to fix the underinvested thing he’s just bought.

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It is a thrilling glimpse into the ruthlessness and chutzpah required to become a billionaire in the first place. And also just classic tribalism to try to sell this as a regional justice issue, Big Sir Jim out there on the cobbles, shirtsleeves rolled, Eccles cakes tumbling from his pockets, punching away for The North against The Man.

But this isn’t the really interesting thing here. That thing is Ratcliffe himself and the future of Britain’s largest football club, both of which remain essentially opaque. Ratcliffe has successfully presented himself as the transparent, locally-reared, marathon-running billionaire of your dreams. He literally looks like King Arthur. He’s surrounded by shrewd, frowning bald men, whose current role simply involves looking on disapprovingly at the present, being the thing that this is not.

The ‘Old Trafford waterfall’ cascades down after the recent defeat against Arsenal. Photograph: Michael Regan/Getty Images

History shows that he is above all else an extremely clear-eyed and ruthless operator. Nothing wrong with that. If Logan Roy’s eulogy has taught us anything it is that powerful men also break things up with their own brutal super-sized dad hands, or some such.

But it is also something to be aware of. This is an empire built on snapping up distressed assets and making them pay. Buy something with hidden value run by idiots. Don’t be an idiot. Extract the value. Cut back and save costs. Squeeze till it squeaks. And wherever you can, get someone else to help pay for it.

You have to say again this is just masterful stuff from the Glazers, who have the cash cow but not the will or clout to make things happen around it, so have managed to outsource this work to Big Sir Jim. But to get what Ratcliffe really wants, beyond a fun project, it is necessary to take that wider view of Manchester United.

Why are people so obsessed with this club? Because it is basically England, a deathbed empire, gloriously decayed, copper wire still intact, brand power still operational for all the mould and the leaks, the post-industrial-style stands that make every sound and every song sound like an achingly empty Joy Division bass riff.

Like the trains, what we have here is prime heritage infrastructure ready to be jazzed up and made to pay by an investor who really does know exactly how to do that. As ever success on the pitch will make everything else work, and United have their most capable-looking executive being winched into place since Alex Ferguson was present to take all that out of the club’s hands. Just don’t expect it to be gentle.

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