Editor’s note: This article has been updated following news that Patrick Stewart is set to replace Richard Arnold as interim chief executive of Manchester United.
When Richard Arnold took over at Manchester United in February 2022, he set out to do things differently with his predecessor, Ed Woodward. His exit, however, is also being triggered by a seismic event associated with the Glazers.
Woodward resigned after the European Super League’s secret plan failed. Arnold is going with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s offer to acquire 25 per cent of United.
The launch of a “strategic review” last November raised the prospect of Arnold’s eventual exit. New owners usually want their people to be at the top and the CEO is at the top of the tree.
Ratcliffe isn’t effectively taking over United if the company’s INEOS deal goes through, but he will have a big say in the club’s progress and will therefore provide the right time for Arnold to leave.
It remains to be seen how long Ratcliffe’s bid will take to be approved.
Arnold, as a member of the club’s 12-strong board, was among those who pushed back against Ratcliffe’s earlier proposal, which would have only rewarded Class B shareholders – stock held exclusively by the Glazers. That offer has sparked fears of litigation by holders of Class A shares, the type traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Glazer said those on the board were concerned about these legal discussions.
At the time, Qatar’s bid, led by Sheikh Jassim, was to complete the full buyout, a more attractive deal for all investors, as well as providing several hundred million pounds for infrastructure improvements. But the price per share was less than that offered by INEOS and also the fact that some of the Glazer siblings were reluctant sellers.
Joel and Avram, the brothers who had personally invested in United, were keen to stay, while Brian, Kevin, Edward and Darcy were willing to cash out. The remaining six board members are three independents — Robert Litao, Manu Sawhney, John Hooks — plus Arnold, chief financial officer Cliff Baty and general counsel Patrick Stewart, who is set to replace Arnold as interim CEO.
When a vote is cast, Joel and Avram decide as co-chairs, meaning the Glazers are in control. But the difference of opinion on the repetition of Ratcliffe’s idea caused a conflict between the camps, as a cracked board at such a critical moment was considered a bad look.
Arnold played his role in the ownership process and greeted all interested parties during various visits in March. Outside the players’ entrance at Old Trafford, they shook hands with Ratcliffe and his INEOS entourage, including Sir Dave Brailsford, on a tour of the stadium. He did the same with Sheikh Jassim’s delegation and, together with executive colleagues, assisted in presentations on the club’s potential for growth both on and off the field.
At those meetings, it became clear that Ratcliffe would like to move in a different direction if he gained power. Ratcliffe’s future as John Murtaugh’s director of football is unclear.
United have been improving since Woodward left 21 months ago. Woodward’s resignation was announced to the New York Stock Exchange 20 minutes after the close of trading on April 20, 2021 – rules require news of that magnitude to be publicly communicated to the market – but was extended to February 1, 2022.
Arnold had a long lead time before taking on the role, but once in place, he immediately tried to make an impression. He was based at Old Trafford, not London like Woodward, and he empowered those working under him rather than directing football decisions personally.
Arnold participated in the process of appointing Eric ten Haag, giving final approval but delegating authority over the matter to Murtough.
Arnold brought in Sir Alex Ferguson and David Gill from the cold after Woodward left them out of the side.
Aware United’s recruitment performance was poor, Arnold asked Ferguson and Gill to review the club’s management structure from the ground up and also invited them to lunch with Murtough to discuss the club’s short and long term plans. Former United players Bryan Robson, Denis Irwin and Nemanja Vidic were also present at the meetings.
Arnold traveled to Barcelona and Amsterdam with Murtough in the summer of 2022 to try to complete deals for Lisandro Martinez and Frenkie de Jong, offering financial incentives and Carrington’s appearance after United started the Ten Hag’s first campaign with two defeats. Those familiar with the period describe an atmosphere of anxiety in its aftermath.
Arnold sat in on recruitment meetings, which lasted for several hours after the defeat by Brighton & Hove Albion, and those present decided to go for Casemiro. The chief executive scrutinized the finance package, knowing United were close to the wire on Financial Fair Play rules.
Arnold supported Ten Hag’s decisions in disputes with players, no matter the profile. Woodward signed Cristiano Ronaldo on the phone with Jorge Mendes in Gary Lineker’s back garden, and Arnold pushed Ronaldo’s departure 15 months later. He took a similar approach with Jadon Sancho.
For some fans, Arnold will always represent the Glazers because he was brought to the club by Woodward in 2011. In 2007, to launch the growth of United’s business unit. Arnold is seen as a success in this role, turning United into a sponsorship behemoth. His latest success is his 10-year, $1.2 billion kit deal with Adidas.
He was well paid for his work. Manchester United Football Club Limited accounts, posted at Companies House in February, show that the highest-paid director (believed to be Arnold) will earn £1.94m in 2022 (Woodward will earn £2.91m in 2021). Arnold owns Class A shares.
But he spoke to fans, appointing Rick McGaugh as head of fan engagement and rallying campaigners against the Glazer’s ownership at a local pub. He was a regular on fan forums and helped establish a fan advisory board. Following the sudden passing of lifelong United campaigner Ian Sterling in March, he moved quickly to ensure he was honored in a Premier League game. Arnold advised the Glazers to stop taking the dividend.
Arnold supported the introduction of rail seating at Old Trafford, the removal of executive seating from the Stretford End and a new players’ accommodation for Ten Hag. But the massive renovation promised by Joel Glazer the day after the Super League failed to materialise.
Arnold’s popularity has taken a toll on Mason Greenwood’s unit, and staff and fans alike are troubled by United’s ambitious plans to bring him back. Arnold’s statement that he freed Greenwood only added to this bad feeling. The strength of the feeling became clear when the workers were fired up on the issue at the general meeting in September.
As Ratcliffe’s bidding process faltered, Arnold continued to attend matches and represented the club at Sir Bobby Charlton’s funeral.
Although Manchester United prepares itself for more changes in the boardroom, Stewart has worked closely on the proposed minority investment in recent weeks.
Why did Sheikh Jassim leave United – and what can Qatar do next?