Bank's chief economist under pressure over his involvement with Red Knights' bid for Manchester United
Jim O'Neill, Goldman Sachs' chief economist, is part of a group seeking to wrest control of Manchester United from the Glazer family Photograph: PR handout
Goldman Sachs is considering forcing Jim O'Neill, the bank's chief economist, to choose between his job and his involvement with the Red Knights group of financiers and businessmen, who are seeking to wrest control of Manchester United football club from the Glazer family. O'Neill is thought likely to respond to such an ultimatum by resigning.
The Glazers, who insist that the club is not for sale, are clients of Goldman and have threatened to withdraw their custom from the bank. It is understood that senior figures at Goldman believe O'Neill has overstepped the mark by taking a leading role with the Knights, and that his involvement threatens to embarrass the bank, which in January helped United raise £500m via an issue of bonds.
O'Neill has insisted that he has taken the role in a "personal capacity" but Goldman has been irritated by his failure to seek clearance from bosses to work on what this week became a high-profile deal.
Tensions were first inflamed when O'Neill, an avid United supporter and a non-executive director of the club before the Glazers' takeover, told the Bloomberg news agency at the time of the bond issue: "There is too much leverage going on with Man United. It's not a good thing. I'm not a buyer of the bond. I value my long-term support for Man United better than anything else."
Those remarks are said to have angered Lloyd Blankfein, the bank's chairman and chief executive.
The son of a postman, O'Neill grew up in south Manchester, where he studied at the local comprehensive and developed a passion for football, turning down a place at a private school because they didn't take the game seriously.
Today, O'Neill is regarded as one of the world's leading commentators on global economics, having devised the acronym Bric in 2001 to underline the shift of economic power from the west to Brazil, Russia, India and China – a trend that defines modern, international economics.
Persuading the Glazer family to sell United is no easy task, and today a spokesman for the Glazers said: "Manchester United is the most valuable sports asset in the world. Why would we want to sell unless we were considering an exit from sport altogether?" In the US, the Glazers own the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the American football team.
Other members of the Red Knights group attempting to put together a £1bn-plus bid for United include Keith Harris, a former football club chairman and head of the broker Seymour Pierce, and Paul Marshall, founder of the London hedge fund Marshall Wace. Also involved are Mark Rawlinson, of Freshfields, the law firm, and Richard Hytner, of the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi.
But the Red Knights face opposition from David Gill, the club's chief executive, who has cast doubt on their ability to table a firm bid.
"They hope to bring together 40 high-net-worth individuals, each contributing upwards of £20m towards the buyout, the balance of a £1bn offer being made up of debt," he said. "I don't know how it would work. I've been to a lot of clubs in Europe and the best clubs, the better-run clubs, have clear, single decision-making [processes]. It's quick and efficient.
"I don't see how if you've got a number of very wealthy people being involved, [they would also] want to be involved in the decision making."
The Glazers acquired United in 2005 via a highly leveraged deal that left the club and family with borrowings in excess of £700m. The Red Knights are backed by tens of thousands of fans who are angry that so much of the club's cashflow must go towards servicing debt, which they say impairs its ability to buy star players.
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