Sunday, June 23, 2024

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.
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“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…

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