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Knighton: Football's greatest visionary?
Published : 19 Aug 2009 09:32:59
HOW will history remember Michael Knighton? A portly, moustachioed, UFO-sighting, shamed businessman - a failed football chairman, who was pretty nifty at keepy-uppy. Oh, and quite possibly one of sport's greatest visionaries of the last 20 years. It is two decades since the big-talking, former school teacher launched an ill-fated attempt to buy Manchester United for less than Sir Alex Ferguson thought was a reasonable price to pay for Carlos Tevez. Knighton agreed to spend £10m for then chairman, Martin Edwards' 50.6 percent stake in the club - and invest another £10m in rebuilding the Stretford End. That paltry sum for a club listed as the most valuable sporting franchise in the world earlier this year, is put in stark perspective by the £25m City paid for Tevez this summer. United supporters will most remember Knighton for his ball-juggling and volley into the back of an empty net in the pre-match warm up for the opening game of the 1989-90 season against champions Arsenal, 20 years ago today. It was overwhelming evidence that this was not your average chairman. But it was his vision for the future of the club and football as a whole that truly distinguished Knighton from just about anyone else in the sport at that time. Potential He was able to see beyond the doldrums of a football world still shaken by hooliganism, Heysel and Hillsbrough. Able to see the potential to capitalise on the innate loyalty of fans and turn clubs - United in particular - into global brands. The commercialism so reviled by a hardcore of United supporters today is a realisation of the future Knighton predicted. Doubts about his ability to fund the deal and the adverse publicity that followed his Old Trafford cameo all contributed to the collapse of his audacious coup. And that his predictions for the club's commercial potential were proved correct - with Malcolm Glazer buying United for £790m in 2005 - will be of scant consolation to Knighton, who has been considerably low-key since his acrimonious departure from Carlisle in 2002. Carlisle's alarming slump from Wembley finals and promotion to eventual administration during Knighton's ownership is reason enough for United supporters to be thankful that his association can be largely confined to that toe-curling pre-match cameo. Taking control at Brunton Park in 1992, he declared Carlisle would be a Premier League club within 10 years. Though they won the third division in 95 and the Auto Windscreens Shield in 97, he resigned from the board seven years after taking charge, amid demonstrations from fans, accusing him of running the club into the ground following the sales of key players like Matt Jansen and Rory Delap. In the same year as United were winning the treble, Carlisle needed an injury-time strike from on-loan goalkeeper, Jimmy Glass, to ensure Football League survival. His personal woes continued when a Leeds court banned him from being a director of any company for five-and-a-half years in 2000 over his involvement in the running of a private school, while previously he had made headlines when claiming to spot a UFO. Opportunity While Knighton was undoubtedly astute at spotting a business opportunity - as a headmaster he made millions buying and renovating houses during the 80s property boom - it is far from guaranteed that he would have been able to oversee the incredible success United have enjoyed since his failed attempt to buy them. A man whose ego appeared to match his ambition, Sir Alex Ferguson has spoken of his own misgivings about Knighton when seeing him parade himself at Old Trafford. "I was starting to have a terrible gut feeling about my new chairman," he said. And Clayton Blackmore, who was part of that United team that beat Arsenal 4-1 that day, shared his manager's feelings. "My memories of him were him coming into the dressing room with a blazer on and his hand tucked into the inside pocket like Napoleon," he said. "I didn't know him, so I didn't want to make a snap judgement, but going out on the pitch like that wasn't the cleverest thing to do. It was as if it was all about him, rather than the team. It's like he thought he was the most important thing at United. United were always a massive global name, but he's probably kicking himself now." Ever-bullish, Knighton's assessment of his time at Brunton Park, might not have been shared by the supporters who considered him a figure of hate by the end of his rule. "I leave Carlisle a better club than when I came," he said. Whether he could have said the same about United will remain unanswered.