The bizarre row that sparked Manchester United’s decline – and how it started with a horse

These days, the relevant people at Manchester United prefer not to talk about the wild, eccentric story that identifies a champion racehorse, Rock of Gibraltar, as the catalyst for everything that has gone so spectacularly wrong for the club ever since.

Sir Alex Ferguson, in particular, has made it clear the subject is off-bounds.

Ferguson’s achievements at Old Trafford make him the most successful British manager there has ever been. But the Rock of Gibraltar affair in 2003 was not one of his successes and, for United, the consequences are still being felt to this day.

A new generation of United fans, meanwhile, might think the extraordinary chain of events that led, ultimately, to the fall of a once-mighty team — Malcolm Glazer’s takeover, the fan protests, the debts, the years of decline, the rancour and recriminations — seem a bit far-fetched.

“The biggest football team in England,” might come the response, “and you’re seriously telling me it all started to unravel because of a racehorse?”.

Well, yes, though not just an ordinary racehorse, bearing in mind the achievements of ‘Rocky’ in happier times, when it was registered under Ferguson’s name via his friendship with John Magnier and JP McManus, aka the ‘Coolmore Mafia’, two Irish businessmen who turned out to be the hardest opponents the Scot ever encountered.

To introduce them properly, Magnier and McManus were the richest men in Ireland, and it hardly did them justice when the English media described them as simply racehorse owners. Their power and wealth went much further than that. Ferguson had befriended them through his love of horseracing and, in turn, persuaded them to buy their way into United as shareholders.

It was a formidable alliance. Magnier and McManus, operating from the Coolmore stables on 7,000 acres of rural farmland in County Tipperary, were at the top of their profession. So was Ferguson, managing the Premier League champions, and so was Rock of Gibraltar, developing a reputation as a serial winner on the biggest stage.

“I went into racing for the simple reason of the release and the enjoyment away from my own job,” said Ferguson in a four-page interview published by The Players’ Club, the official magazine of the Professional Footballers’ Association, in 2002. “It (football management) is a pretty exhausting job, it is demanding. Somewhere along the line, you’ve got to find a release.”

The association with Rock of Gibraltar began, he explained, after the then colt had raced in the Coventry Stakes at Ascot the previous year. It finished sixth. “Nobody knew how good Rock of Gibraltar was going to be, not John Magnier, not (trainer) Aidan O’Brien and not me,” said Ferguson in the same article. “I’ll probably never get a horse as good as this again.”

Ferguson with Rock of Gibraltar after it won the St James Palace Stakes in 2002 (Julian Herbert/Getty Images)

And then, as often happens with men of wealth, they fell out over money. Attitudes hardened. Ferguson started litigation and, almost certainly, under-estimated who he was dealing with. He was told it was a mistake, but went ahead with it anyway.

Everything since at Old Trafford can be traced back to that falling-out.

Would the Glazers have seized control of United otherwise? Unlikely. Would the club be in such a mess now? Unlikely. Does it all link back to Rock of Gibraltar? It’s a long story but, yes, absolutely.

All of which explains why the author and former newspaper editor Chris Blackhurst has a chapter titled “It all started with the horse” in his book ‘The World’s Biggest Cash Machine: Manchester United, the Glazers and the Struggle for Football’s Soul’, which is being published later this week, and why he writes in its introduction that the U.S-based Glazer family “have a racehorse and an almighty personal falling out to thank for their amazing good fortune”.

Today (Monday) is the first anniversary of Rock of Gibraltar succumbing to a heart attack, at the age of 23, and the fact the horse has its own Wikipedia page is a testament to the number of occasions it was paraded in the winners’ circle. It was, to quote former champion jockey Richard Hughes, “a wonder horse, the best in the world.” It was also running in Ferguson’s colours — the red and white of the football club he managed.

Ferguson, however, claimed he was entitled to half of Rock of Gibraltar’s stud rights — a breeding programme potentially worth tens of millions of pounds — as part of what he believed to be a gentlemen’s agreement with Coolmore when the horse was put in his name.

Coolmore’s view was that Ferguson had badly misunderstood, maybe because he was new to the industry. Magnier and McManus said no such deal had been put in place, and nor would it ever have been, given the huge numbers potentially involved.



Manchester United: Purpose, passion, profit – Sir Alex Ferguson, the businessman

“Ferguson, of course, was not really the co-owner,” writes Blackhurst. “The horse was registered in his name, but it was someone else’s property. No money ever changed hands, Alex Ferguson never bought and paid for a share in the horse.” It was, the author explains, an entirely different arrangement. “Magnier was grateful to Ferguson. He said it was good of him to do it, to put his name on the horse and, if it won, make the speech.”

Ferguson believed the stud fees for such a brilliant thoroughbred could make him a fortune and, knowing what we do now, he was not wrong (Rock of Gibraltar sired 256 horses that entered races, including 77 worldwide winners and 16 at the highest level). Relations soured. Legal letters started to fly about. A writ was served by Ferguson and an all-out war was declared between United’s manager and the club’s two biggest shareholders.

Two decades on, The Athletic has been told the United board were horrified by this position. They also took independent advice that came back to say Ferguson had little chance of winning his case. He pressed on, using a Dublin barrister.

Roy Keane also felt entitled, as United’s captain, to challenge his manager about it.

Keane, one of Irish football’s greats, advised Ferguson it was unwise to take on Magnier and McManus. “I told him I didn’t think it was good for the club,” Keane writes in his 2014 autobiography. “He was just a mascot for them (Coolmore). Walking round with this Rock of Gibraltar — ‘Look at me, how big I am’ — and he didn’t even own the bloody thing.”

Keane warned Ferguson about the risks of taking on the ‘Coolmore Mafia’ (Phil Cole/Getty Images)

All the while, the Glazers were watching.

The Americans already had a stake in United, as well as being owners of NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Nobody, however, could be sure of their motives at that point.

Instead, the media — unaware of the huge split between Ferguson and his Irish allies — were full of stories about Magnier and McManus solidifying their position by buying up shares, including entertainment magnate Rupert Murdoch’s stake, through a company they owned in the Caribbean’s Virgin Islands called Cubic Expression.

The common belief was that they were preparing a takeover in tandem with Ferguson, their friend who had a long-held ambition to own the club. In reality, they were turning the screw on Ferguson, establishing themselves as United’s majority shareholders, with all the politics and extreme awkwardness that caused the club employee who was suing them.

It was a power-play: tactical, aggressive and, for Ferguson, deeply unsettling. He had been fighting all his life, ever since his days growing up in Govan, at the heart of Glasgow’s shipbuilding industry. But this was different. It had quickly become clear he had bitten off more than he could chew.

Patrick Harverson, then United’s director of communications, spoke to an Irish journalist after the news came out about Ferguson launching legal proceedings against Magnier and McManus. “I am being serious,” came the warning. “Whatever you do, don’t mess with them.”

Blackhurst, an award-winning writer, heard more on the same theme while researching his book, which involved visiting the Coolmore stables. A friend of Magnier’s told him: ‘The softest thing about John is his teeth.”

Coolmore had a formidable PR company working on its behalf, which was adept at manipulating the English media and planting a series of stories to turn the newspaper headlines against Ferguson.

At United’s annual general meeting, several awkward questions were asked about Ferguson’s transfer activity by half a dozen individuals posing as shareholders when it turned out they were hired actors. It was never clear who paid them.

Magnier and McManus employed their own researchers too, and turned up the heat by hiring Kroll, an international private intelligence firm, to take a closer look at Ferguson’s involvement with United’s transfer dealings, and the frequent involvement in them of his football-agent son, Jason.

It was a hugely aggressive move and on January 16, 2004, they went for the jugular in the form of a letter, marked “strictly private & confidential”, to Sir Roy Gardner, then United’s PLC chairman.

That letter contained 99 questions Coolmore wanted the board to answer. Over eight pages, it was intended to make the club, and Ferguson in particular, squirm. Many of the questions were about player purchases and, devastatingly for Ferguson and United, the entire document found its way to Charles Sale, a prolific story-getter for the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper.

“It blew the lid off,” Sale says of his exclusive. “As JP McManus said of the relationship with Ferguson, ‘Once the toothpaste comes out of the tube, it’s very difficult to put it back in’. The 99 questions were Coolmore squeezing the toothpaste.”

Ferguson’s relationship with McManus, left, soured (David Davies – PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images)

Coolmore followed that up with another letter to Gardner, also leaked to the media, asking about Ferguson’s contract extension, his age and health issues. These were wounding attacks and, for United, a source of enough embarrassment for an edict to be passed that they could not allow the manager’s son to act for them in transfer negotiations again.

Ferguson was on the ropes and the regular journalists on United’s beat can recall seeing his vulnerability, close up, in a way they had never witnessed before or since. In one audience with Manchester’s football writers, he talked about people rummaging through Jason’s bins and, in a performance that felt strategically aimed at the club’s supporters, how distressing it was for himself.

“What amazed me was that Ferguson talked about it at all,” recalls Tim Rich, then the northern football correspondent for UK newspaper The Independent. “Usually, he shut down any conversation that veered from team affairs.

“When, in happier times with the Coolmore Mafia, the Daily Star (another British paper) suggested Magnier and McManus wanted to make him chairman, he rounded on the newspaper’s United writer, Bill Thornton. Now, instead of batting the question away or aggressively rounding on us, he talked. His voice was lower and more halting than usual but he explained this was something he had to do and he was doing it because it was morally the right thing to do.

“I don’t think there was a follow-up question — maybe we were too amazed at what we had got, maybe he didn’t allow one — but nobody questioned him on the absurdity of a club employee suing its major shareholders.”

It had an effect, though.

Ferguson had brought happiness to millions of United fans. He had, to use his own quote, “knocked Liverpool off their f***ing perch” after being appointed in 1986 and re-established United as the leading team in the country. Now it was those fans’ turn to come out fighting for him.

Protest groups by the names of Manchester Education Committee and United 4 Action sought to target Magnier and McManus where it would hurt them most.

A vendor sells anti-John Magnier merchandise outside Old Trafford (Michael Steele/Getty Images)

The first demonstration took place the following month at Hereford racecourse in the south west of England, when 30 or so protestors ran on the track before a race featuring Coolmore-owned horse Majestic Moonbeam, hung banners over the fences and threw glass into the paddocks, where horses are paraded before races. A follow-up protest was planned for the Cheltenham Festival, the pinnacle of the British jump racing calendar, in the March, only for Ferguson to go public and ask the fans to back off.

The legalities over Rock of Gibraltar were eventually settled out of court, with United’s manager receiving £2.5million ($3m), tax-free, if he agreed to drop all claims over the horse. Ferguson admitted there had been a “misunderstanding.”

But the whole process had been gruelling on both sides and McManus explains in Blackhurst’s book why, by the time that settlement was made, he and Magnier had already decided to sell their stake in United and get out of football.

“It was part of my life for a while but, for something that was meant to be a bit of pleasure at the start, it ended not being so pleasurable,” he says. “I couldn’t get far enough away from it quickly enough.”

The final straw? “When the fans stopped the racing that day in Hereford. I said, ‘I’ve had enough’.”

One problem: who was waiting in the wings?

“Riding the speculative boom caused by Coolmore’s huge share purchases was Malcolm Glazer,” John-Paul O’Neill, founder of FC United of Manchester, the breakaway club formed by United supporters in response to the Glazer takeover, tells The Athletic.

“After Ferguson embarrassingly backed down in the public spat, and with Coolmore looking to divest, Glazer was forced to stick or twist on his own investment. He chose the latter, (with) Coolmore’s holding allowing the only real viable way to a full leverage buyout.”

Malcolm Glazer seized his opportunity at United (Peter Muhly/AFP via Getty Images)

And so, a new era for United was about to begin.

On May 12, 2005, Magnier and McManus sold their stake to the Glazers, making nearly £100million profit. The Americans moved into power at Old Trafford and, while history will always remember Ferguson as a manager of authentic greatness, many fans on the front line of the anti-Glazer protests came to feel let down.

“Ferguson’s support was crucial to the banks lending Glazer the money,” O’Neill says of the takeover. “He rejected supporters’ private appeals to quit in protest, claiming he had to think about the staff he worked alongside.

“This faux solidarity would, in future, only be extended to the Glazers. ‘Wonderful owners,’ he would laughably suggest. ‘No value in the market,’ he would say to excuse the absence of funds for meaningful transfer dealings, as the emergent Manchester City hoovered up the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Vincent Kompany for relative peanuts.”

Ferguson, who now attends matches as a director of the football board and highly paid ambassador, retired as manager at the end of the 2012-13 season — after delivering United’s most recent Premier League title. “Even then, there was no desire (from him) to side with fans increasingly disillusioned with owners crippling the club,” says O’Neill. “The supposed Socialist backing the arch-capitalists to the very end.”

Supporters protest the Glazers behind Ferguson in 2010 (Andrew Yates/AFP via Getty Images)

In Ferguson’s most recent book, Leading, published in 2015, there is not a single word about Rock of Gibraltar, the split from Coolmore and what it meant for the club he managed for 26 years.

His previous book, a 2013 autobiography, does touch upon it, but only for a few sentences. “I have to say that at no point was I sidetracked from my duties as manager of Manchester United,” he wrote. “It didn’t affect my love of racing and I am on good terms now with John Magnier, the leading figure at Coolmore.”

That last line comes as a surprise to some of the people who are familiar with this story and suspect there is, in fact, no relationship, or contact, between the two men. So why say it? It is difficult to know — Ferguson chose not to be interviewed for Blackhurst’s book.

As for Rock of Gibraltar, its last years were spent at the Magnier family’s Castlehyde Stud in County Cork. A plaque commemorates the horse. There are pictures on the walls at Castlehyde and, even if nobody at Old Trafford likes discussing this part of the story, its impact is still being felt in Manchester

Just over a week ago, a takeover bid by Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar’s royal family collapsed because the two parties could not agree on money. After 18 years of ownership, including a decade since the last Premier League trophy, the Glazers continue to run the club amid a backdrop of spiralling results, fan protests and open hostility.

They are said by some associates to value United at close to £10billion.

The last line of The World’s Biggest Cash Machine neatly sums it up:

“It’s not known if the Glazers ever look heavenwards and give thanks to Rock of Gibraltar for their immense good fortune.”

(Additional reporting: Phil Hay)

(Top photos: John Magnier and JP McManus & Sir Alex Ferguson with Rock of Gibraltar; Getty Images)

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