Among wealthy people, it is said, it is vulgar to talk about money. Sir Alex Ferguson, football’s most famous manager, and John Magnier, one of the most powerful men in racing, may today wish that such etiquette had not been observed.
Their close friendship has been blown apart, and in the rubble seems to lie only bitter recrimination, embarrassment and, crucially, a sense of betrayal. It is a mix which, with Ferguson in particular – given his volcanic temperament and overdeveloped sense of injustice – is simply incendiary.
The bitterness that fuels this relentless drive towards litigation is, maybe, fuelled as much through his sense of being betrayed, of being let down, as by any sense of entitlement which, undoubtedly, has always been keenly felt by Ferguson, a son of the Govan shipyards in Glasgow and one of life’s scrappers.
And it is all about one horse: Rock of Gibraltar. And it is because of the Rock that these two intimidating men find themselves in such a hard place. Ferguson, the manager of Manchester United and arguably the game’s most successful boss ever, has started legal proceedings against Magnier, an Irish millionaire who has rivalled the mighty Godolphin operation as the dominant force in racing. Magnier is known as the head of the so-called “Coolmore Mafia” – Coolmore being the fabulously successful stud farm he owns in County Tipperary, from which he has made much of his fortune. And he is also known for his ruthless streak.
The dispute is a long and complex story, but at its heart is a simple question: who owns what? Ferguson is claiming half-ownership in the record-breaking stallion, which could be worth between £50m and £100m depending on its success at stud. Magnier, known as “Big John”, is fighting the claim and, after months of discussions, it appears the issue will have to be settled by the courts.
What has added further depth to an already unfathomable dispute is that Magnier and his business partner JP McManus are now the biggest shareholders in Manchester United (a publicly listed company as well as a football club), owning 23 per cent of the shares through a specially constructed business called Cubic Expression. A takeover bid is not impossible. Magnier could become the boss – Ferguson’s boss. And, with Ferguson now negotiating a new £5m-a-year contract at the club he has managed with great success for two decades, Magnier, as the largest shareholder, is already entitled to raise an objection to his wage demands (Ferguson currently earns £3m a year).
Furthermore, Magnier is no football fan. He is, or more accurately was, a Fergie fan. The Irishman did not even watch his new investment play until almost a year after he started buying the shares in the summer of 2001 – just after Ferguson had threatened to quit the club. Although Magnier undoubtedly regards his stake as an investment and the club’s shares were undervalued, many believe his presence was also aimed at shoring up the position of his then new pal. There was even talk of Ferguson eventually being installed as chairman. That seems a long time ago now, as does the evening when Ferguson stood before a dinner of the racing world’s high and mighty, two summers ago, and declared of Magnier and his wife Sue that “nobody could be blessed with better partners”.