At opposite ends of the Football League, he was involved in events which bookended the 1990s, and his failure to take control of one of the biggest football clubs in the world remains one of the great “what if” questions of that last couple of years before the introduction of the Premier League. Michael Knighton, however, was much more than just a cartoon character. His actions led to a near-death experience for the only Football League club in Cumbria, and his departure from the game in 2002 was related to business dealings that earned him a disqualification from acting as the director of any company.
Michael Knighton was brought up in Derbyshire. He was a reasonably talented footballer, good enough to get a trial at Everton – where he didn’t make the grade – and Coventry City, before a serious leg injury ruined any chances that he might have had of become a player. He studied at Durham University and became a teacher before moving into the property market, but the desire to get involved in football was, apparently, a flame that couldn’t be extinguished and 1989 a once in a lifetime opportunity came his way, an opportunity to buy into a football club that was a global institution that had fallen upon tough times. And Knighton nearly pulled it off.
By 1989, it was more than twenty years since Manchester United had last been the champions of England. Martin Edwards had been a director of the club since 1970, but critics claimed that he had never shown much interest in football prior to his arrival at Old Trafford and that he preferred to play rugby on Saturday afternoons than turn up for matches. He had tried to sell his shareholding once before, to Robert Maxwell in 1984, but Maxwell had baulked at paying the £10m valuation that Edwards had put on his shares and the deal fell through. Edwards, however, remained relatively unpopular amongst the support at Old Trafford and by 1989 the club was still very much in the shadow of Liverpool and Arsenal in the First Division – the 1988/89 season had ended with Manchester United finishing in eleventh place in the table, between Millwall and Wimbledon in the table.
The start of the following season, however, began with a possible exit strategy for Edwards. Knighton had foreseen the possibilities of making money from both football supporters and increased television rights money and, backed by business associates Robert Thornton, a former chief executive of the Debenhams store group and Stanley Cohen of Parker Pens, he submitted a bid of £20m to buy the club, with a promise of a further £10m to spend on redeveloping Old Trafford. It seemed as if Manchester United was to be sold, but on the opening the day of the 1989/90 season the deal suddenly fell flat on its face after one of the most infamous publicity stunts of the era.
Knighton appeared in the dressing room prior to Uniteds match against Arsenal, introduced himself to the players as the new owner of the club and requested a kit. He then ran out onto the Old Trafford pitch and, in front of a crowd over 47,000 people, juggled with the ball before shooting three times into the empty Stretford End goal. Within days, the bid to buy the club was dead. This publicity stunt had caused a considerable amount of bad publicity for Knighton, and Thornton and Cohen were concerned enough by it all to withdraw their backing for the bid. Edwards remained in charge at Manchester United, although Knighton was offered a place on the board of directors of the club which he held until 1992, by which time Manchester United had floated on the stock exchange with a valuation of £47m.
His departure from Old Trafford came in preference for a humbler venue – Brunton Park, Carlisle. Knighton felt that Carlisle United offered an opportunity. The only Football League club in a vast county and with a potentially huge catchment area, he felt that Carlisle United had the potential to reach the Premier League and initially the club, which had finished the 1991/92 season at the bottom of the Football League after the collapse of Aldershot FC, was successful, winning promotion from what is now known as League Two 1995 before getting relegated back and reaching the final of the Football League Trophy twice. Away from the pitch, however, Knighton was involved in controversy again.
In what he claimed to be an off-the-record conversation with a journalist from the West Cumbrian Evening News & Star, Knighton claimed to have seen a UFO during the summer of 1976 which had left him with a telepathic message urging him, “Don’t be afraid, Michael.” Knighton was furious at the reporting of the story, despite newspaper claims that he was sufficiently co-operative to draw a sketch of the craft in the reporter’s notebook, stating that, “I feel deeply betrayed. This was a very private story and I made it perfectly clear to the reporter that it was not for publication. The damage has been done now and so I’ve decided to resign at the end of the season. I have a nine-year-old son and it’s not fair for him to be ridiculed.” The threat of resignation was enough for the newspaper to issue an reserved apology on its front page, and Knighton reconsidered.
It was a decision that Carlisle United supporters perhaps came to regret. Having been promoted again in 1997, the club was relegated again the following season and this time popular manager Mervyn Day didn’t survive a poor start to the following season and Knighton sacked him, replacing him with a rookie manager whose own career as a footballer had stumbled with injury at a young age: Michael Knighton. From being a club that was aiming – whether unrealistically or not – for a place in the Premier League, Carlisle United were now a club that seemed to be perpetually struggling to hold onto its place in the Football League. They finished second from bottom in the Football League in 1998 and Knighton finally resigned the managerial position in December of 1998 to make way for Nigel Pearson.
Still, though, the team struggled on the pitch and Carlisle United went into their final match of the 1998/99 season against Plymouth Argyle needing a win to stay in the Football League. The score in the match was tied at one-all going into four minutes of stoppage time, when goalkeeper Jimmy Glass – and emergency signing making only his third appearance for the club – was urged by Nigel Pearson to go up for a corner kick, and after the Plymouth goalkeeper had saved a shot from Scott Dobie, Glass volleyed a sensational goal to keep Carlisle in the Football League, a position that the club had proudly held since 1928, when they were voted into Division Three North in place of Durham City.
Yet even though the only reason why Glass was even at Brunton Park that day was Michael Knightons responsibility, there was little for Knighton to be proud of, that day. Carslisle United had been in possession of a perfectly good goalkeeper until earlier that season. Tony Caig had been with the club since 1991 and had made over two hundred and eighty appearances for them when, on transfer deadline day in 1999 he was suddenly sold to Blackpool for a tiny fee, reported variously as being between £5,000 and £10,000. A loan replacement, Richard Knight, was brought in from Derby County, but Knight got injured and the Football League allowed the club to bring Glass in as an emergency signing after the transfer deadline had closed.
By this time, Knightons other business interests were in serious trouble. He had previously been a teacher and subsequently headmaster at a private preparatory school in Huddersfield called St Davids, which he later owned through a company called Knighton Holdings, which also owned Carlisle United. In a statement which Knighton did not contest, the court heard that St David’s had difficulties in the early 1990s, and it went out of business in 1997 owing £474,000. Knighton paid Knighton Holdings £203,000 in preference to other creditors, “in particular the Inland Revenue” – which was then owed £288,000 – money which, by Knightons own admission, “used for the football club, because that had become my principal interest.” In September 2000, Leeds County Court banned acting as a director or being involved in the management of any company for five and a half years.
Knighton had resigned his place on the board of directors of the club earlier that year, but attempts to find a new buyer for the club were by this time taking several – unless you happened to be a Carlisle United supporter – comical turns. In May 1999, he came close to selling out to Brooks Mileson (who would later go on to bankroll Gretna to the SPL before his health caught up with him and the club folded), but the two were unable to agree a valuation for the club. Another prospective buyer was one Stephen Brown, who claimed to have recently sold a hotel in Spain for £6m but turned out to be a barman in an Indian restaurant. Knighton would later describe Brown as, “at best foolish and in need of a psychiatrist or at worst he is a cunning con-man who has been rumbled.”
Most intriguing of all, however, was Mamcarr Investments, a Gibraltar-based front for a group of apparently anonymous investors. It was first noted on an internet messageboard that “Mamcarr” was an acronym for Michael and Mark (his son), Chevonne (his daughter), Albert (his father), Rosemary (his wife) and Rory (his younger son), but few took this particularly seriously until it became apparent that there was more to this take-over than met the eye. Eyebrows were further raised when it was revealed that the Mamcarr was ‘conditional on the approval of the Inland Revenue and the Football League’, and by May 2001 the bid was dead, with many supporters of the club by this time of the opinion that Mamcarr was little more than either a hoax or worse. At the same time, the local press discovered a £1m loan that had been taken out with Bristol & West Investments plc and secured on Brunton Park.
The FA’s financial advisory and compliance unit had arrived at Brunton Park in May 2000, and cleared Knighton of any wrong-doing relating to his possible involvement in the management of the club’s affairs after his disqualification as a director in July 2002. How they reached this verdict is not something that has ever been made public, but it is clear from local press reports from the time that Knighton was effectively running the club during the period subsequent to his disqualification. By May of 2002, it was reported that the club owed £416,000 in unpaid tax and had applied to enter into administration. Brooks Mileson’s name was still occasionally appearing in connection with the club, whilst another offer saw Knighton using George Reynolds, the owner of Darlington FC, to lease the club to CCUIST (the supporters trust which had formed in reaction to alarm at goings-on within the club) for £100,000 a year.
The trust had previously expressed dismay when the administrators, BKR Haines Watts of Barnsley, stated that they had no plans at that stage to sell the club as a going concern, but a threatened supporters boycott proved to be unnecessary. At the end of July 2002, it was confirmed that the club had been sold to a Dublin-based businessman, John Courtenay. After seven years of struggle, Carlisle United did finally fall out of the Football League in May 2004, after having finished in second from bottom place in the Football League. The clubs stay in the Football Conference, however, proved to be short-lived and the club was promoted back to the Football League via the play-offs after just one season, following that up by winning the League Two title. Meanwhile, Michael Knightons disqualification from acting as a director ended in 2006, and hasn’t been seen in football since.
How different might the entire landscape of English football have ended up, had Michael Knighton successfully purchased Manchester United in 1989? As recently as 2009, the Manchester Evening News was describing him as “footballs greatest visionary.” It’s not an assessment that many Carlisle United supporters are likely to agree with, still less Knightons self-assessment of his time at their club that “I leave Carlisle a better club than when I came.” And perhaps the club benefitted from Brooks Mileson not getting involved with it, whilst the eventual fall into the Football Conference eventually gave the club an unexpected fresh start which led to its ascent back into League One, where it continues to reside today. Undoubtedly eccentric, occasionally visionary, Michael Knighton ended up having his career in football. It just ended up not quite being the one that he might have expected having when he was a teenager.
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