Swagger, soul … and patience: inside Ratcliffe’s plans for Manchester United

<span>Jim Ratcliffe has floated the idea of public money being used to help the club replace Old Trafford.</span><span>Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images</span>
Jim Ratcliffe has floated the idea of public money being used to help the club replace Old Trafford.Photograph: Ash Donelon/Manchester United/Getty Images

On the second floor of the Ineos office in west London, there are lingering reminders of Manchester United’s glory days. You see it in Eric Cantona’s No 7 shirt, collar upturned, hanging in the main meeting room. In the pristine match programmes from those famous European trophy nights. And, most of all, in the eyes of Jim Ratcliffe, as he promises to restore a swagger and soul to the club he has supported for 65 years.

“The Manchester United style of play is attacking football, exciting football, bringing the youth through,” he says, speaking publicly for the first time since acquiring a 27% stake in the club. “You want players that are committed. You want players that play 90 minutes or whatever the number is. At the end of the day we are in the entertainment business. You don’t want to watch bland or characterless football.”

Related: Sir Jim Ratcliffe says Manchester United culture not set up for success

At this point the 71‑year‑old billionaire, who now has control of football operations at Old Trafford, glances at the Cantona shirt. “There has always been a bit of glamour attached to Manchester United, which has been lacking a bit in the last few years,” he says. “George Best, Bobby Charlton, Eric the King. He was a maverick, the catalyst for change in Sir Alex Ferguson’s era … and that kickstarted everything.”

Soon afterwards, Ratcliffe talks about wanting to knock Manchester City and Liverpool “off their perch”, channelling Ferguson’s famous words. And there are also warm words for supporters, who he calls the “custodians of the club”. It also quickly becomes clear, though, that he doesn’t want only to massage supporters’ erogenous zones but also show them a path back towards greatness.

It starts, Ratcliffe believes, with getting the right organisational structure in place. Then finding the right people for key roles – “those who are best in class, 10 out of 10s” – especially when it comes to recruitment. And finally, creating a competitive but warm environment, where people are encouraged to take risks.

“There’s a lot of organisations in the world where if you make a mistake you get shot, so nobody ever puts their head above the parapet,” Ratcliffe says. “But at Ineos, we don’t mind people making mistakes – but please don’t make it a second time.

“We have made mistakes in football so I’m really pleased that we made them before we arrived in Manchester United. If we hadn’t, this would be a much tougher job for us. Because it is huge and it’s very exposed.

“It’s going to be intense at times, but equally it needs to have warmth and friendliness and be a supportive structure because the two things marry together well,” he adds. “They probably haven’t had that environment for the last 10 years. If we get those three things right, then you have to believe the results will follow.”

The second message Ratcliffe wants to convey is that success will not be immediate. Not when the club have not won the Premier League for 11 years and have drifted so far behind their rivals. “It’s not a light switch. I know the world these days likes instant gratification but that’s not the case with football really. Look at Pep at Man City, it didn’t happen overnight.”

Ratcliffe would not be drawn on player signings. But, intriguingly, he says that everything will follow on from the style of football the club want to play – something that has yet to be decided. “But we are not going to oscillate from Mourinho style to Guardiola style. Otherwise you’re changing everything all the time – you change your coach, you’ve got the wrong squad, the wrong trainer, we won’t do that. In modern football you need to decide what’s your path and stick to it.”

Ratcliffe’s willingness to engage with fans and the media could not be more different than that of the Glazers. However he insists that, behind the scenes, he has a good relationship with Joel and Avram Glazer. “They obviously are very comfortable with us running the sports side of the club. We’re obviously going to be on the ground, whereas the Glazer family are a fair way away. I don’t think we’re going to be taking the legal agreements out of the bottom drawer.”

Ratcliffe stresses that he is not a “football professional” but it is clear he has a strong grasp of all the key issues including financial fair play. Unusually, he is also happy to answer any question, however thorny: whether it is over Mason Greenwood’s future, which is to be determined, or his decision to appoint the Ineos director of sport, Sir Dave Brailsford, to a key role at Old Trafford.

Brailsford earned huge kudos after guiding British Cycling and Team Sky to extraordinary success but he was then criticised by MPs after becoming mired in the jiffy bag scandal. However, for Ratcliffe, Brailsford is among the smartest minds in sport – regardless of whether that is in cycling or football.

“I am not interested in the past,” Ratcliffe replies, when asked about jiffygate. “I’m interested in the future. My view is he is a really good man and is really good at his job.”

Ratcliffe also dismisses suggestions that the failure at Southampton of Clive Woodward, England’s Rugby World Cup-winning coach, may offer a cautionary tale. “Dave is not Clive Woodward. He’s a very different animal. He’s a very talented man and he’s a very good guy as well.”

There is also no backing down when Ratcliffe’s decision to live tax‑free in Monaco is raised. “I paid my taxes in the UK. And then when I got to retirement age, I went down to enjoy a bit of sun. I don’t have a problem with that.”

It is clear that Ratcliffe is a man prepared to roll with the punches, as well as roll his sleeves up. But he is also clever enough to use his leverage. When talk turns to whether Old Trafford might be revamped, which would cost about a billion pounds, or whether the club might build a new stadium that would cost £2bn, he floats the idea of the government helping him to fund the latter option.

“The people in the north pay their taxes like the people in the south pay their taxes. But where’s the national stadium for football? It’s in the south. Where’s the national stadium for rugby? It’s in the south. Where’s the national stadium for tennis? It’s in the south.

“So there is an argument you could think about a more ambitious project in the north which would be fitting for England, for the Champions League final and act as a catalyst to regenerate southern Manchester.”

Before he leaves, Ratcliffe has one final message for United supporters. “I have a very simple view of a football club,” he says. “It’s a community asset. The club is owned by the fans, that’s what it’s there for: for the fans. We’re guardians or stewards for a temporary period of time.”

It is clear the PR battle has already been won. But, as Ratcliffe knows, achieving success on the pitch will be an entirely different challenge.