Manchester United was formed as Newton Heath L&YR F.C. in 1878 by the workers in the Carriage and Wagon Works of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway's Newton Heath depot. In 1901, the club was in over £2,500 of debt and facing a winding-up order; however, they were saved by local brewer John Henry Davies, who changed their name to Manchester United in 1902. After Davies' death in 1927, the club fell into financial difficulties once again, but James W. Gibson stepped in as a new financial benefactor in 1931. Gibson himself died in 1951, but while ownership of the club passed to his widow, Violet, control of the club passed to Director and former player Harold Hardman.
Meanwhile, a local businessman named Louis Edwards began accruing shares in Manchester United and was eventually made chairman on Hardman's death in 1965. His son, Martin Edwards, purchased a percentage of shares from Alan Gibson – son of former owner James Gibson – and became the majority shareholder and chairman when Louis Edwards died in 1980. During Martin Edwards' time as chairman, Manchester United was the subject of several takeover bids; the first came from media tycoon Robert Maxwell, who bid £10 million in February 1984, but the sale fell through before any serious talks could take place. In 1989, property magnate Michael Knighton was on the verge of completing a £20 million takeover, but his financial backers pulled out at the last minute and he had to be content with merely a seat on the board.
The club went public in 1990 and was the subject of takeover bids from property trader Michael Knighton and Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB corporation before Malcolm Glazer's stake was announced in September 2003. By the end of the year, Glazer had increased his shareholding from 3.17% to around 15%, which he almost doubled in the year up to October 2004. His acquisition of John Magnier and J. P. McManus's 28.7% stake in May 2005 pushed his own up to around 57%, well over the 30% threshold that would force him to launch a takeover bid. A few days later, he took control of 75% of the club's shares, allowing him to delist the company from the stock exchange, and within a month, the Glazers took 98% ownership of the club via their Red Football parent company, forcing a squeeze out of the remaining 2%. The final purchase price of the club totalled almost £800 million.
Manchester United was floated on the stock market in 1991, and they received yet another takeover bid in 1998, this time from Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB Corporation. The Manchester United board accepted a £623 million offer, but the takeover was blocked by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission at the final hurdle in April 1999. A few years later, a power struggle emerged between the club's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, and his horse-racing partners, John Magnier and J. P. McManus, who had gradually become the largest shareholders via their company, Cubic Expression. In a dispute that stemmed from contested ownership of the horse Rock of Gibraltar, Magnier and McManus attempted to have Ferguson removed from his position as manager, and the board responded by approaching Investors to attempt to reduce the Irishmen's influence.
Following the Manchester United board's search for new Investors, the Glazers purchased their first tranche of Manchester United shares on 2 March 2003, spending around £9 million on a 2.9% stake, which they purchased through a holding company called Red Football. On 26 September 2003, it was reported that they had increased their share to 3.17%, taking their shareholding above the 3% threshold that required them to inform the club's management. There had already been considerable speculation about the possibility of a takeover of the club, either by the Glazers or by one of several other interested parties. By 20 October, they had increased their shareholding to 8.93%, and on 29 November it was reported that they owned around 15% of the club and had met David Gill, its chief executive, to discuss their intentions. On 12 February 2004, the Glazers increased their stake in the club to 16.31% and the following day's Financial Times reported that they had instructed Commerzbank to explore a takeover bid. The club's share price increased by 5% that day, valuing the club at a total of £741 million. The Glazers increased their shareholding to over 19% the following June, although they were still not the largest shareholders. Their shareholding continued to increase, nearing 30% by October 2004. Upon reaching 30%, they would have to launch a formal takeover bid.
Following the takeover, Manchester United continued to thrive, with the 2005–06 season seeing Old Trafford's capacity being expanded and a lucrative new shirt sponsorship deal signed in April 2006 with American company AIG (which had a large stake in a hedge fund company that helped to fund Glazer's takeover of the club). Increased revenue from TV rights to each competition the club participates in, as well as its various sponsorship deals, also boosted the club's profitability. This came despite fears among many supporters that the debt incurred in buying the club could lead to insolvency.
Contrary to the fears of many fans, the Glazers took action to ensure that Gill and veteran manager Sir Alex Ferguson remained at Manchester United, citing the duo's success with the club. In 2006, Malcolm Glazer's other two sons, Kevin and Edward, and his daughter, Darcie, were appointed to the Manchester United board as non-executive Directors.
Later that day, Manchester United announced that their gross debt for the final three months of 2009 totalled £507.5 million, a reduction of £30.6 million compared to the same period in 2008. They also reported pre-tax profits of £6.9 million, an increase of £9.6 million after making a loss of £2.7 million the previous year. This announcement was accompanied by a statement from the Glazers' spokesperson that the club was not for sale, as well as public support from David Gill, who claimed that the Glazers were "running the club the right way".
Given the amount of debt on Manchester United's books at the time, some analysts estimated in 2010 that any takeover bid would have had to total more than £2 billion, of which around £1.6 billion would be needed to match the Glazers' valuation of the club – double what they paid for the club in 2005. However, the Red Knights publicly stated that they would only pay "a fair price" when their takeover bid finally came. On 11 March 2010, the Red Knights appointed Nomura Securities Co. as their advisers for their takeover bid. Nomura previously advised the Manchester United board before the Glazers' bid to buy the club. The Red Knights later admitted that they would not make a bid for the club before the end of the 2009–10 season, but it was believed that their preferred bid option would have involved retaining the £500 million bond issued by the Glazers. Two-thirds of a further £700 million would be provided by 30–40 wealthy Manchester United fans, with the remainder provided by fund-raising from ordinary fans. Once the club was secured, shares would then be offered to fans, allowing them to take ownership of the club. Despite these plans, the Red Knights put their takeover bid "on hold" in June 2010, citing "inflated valuation aspirations" in the media as the reason. Having already stated that they would only pay a "sensible" amount for the club, the group was thought to have baulked at the suggestion that the Glazers' valuation of the club was significantly higher than the amount they were willing to pay.
In 2011, rumours surfaced that the Glazers intended to list a number of shares in Manchester United on an Asian market such as Hong Kong or Singapore, in an attempt to raise a potential £400–600 million. The Singapore flotation looked to be gaining traction in August 2011, when it emerged that the club had applied to list its shares on the Singapore Exchange; approval for the listing was given in September 2011.
The shares debuted on the NYSE on 10 August 2012, and initially showed a slight rise to $14.05 per share, but closed the day back at the offer price of $14 each, valuing the club as a whole at $2.3 billion, and making it one of the most valuable Sports teams in the world. One of the biggest Investors in the IPO was American Billionaire George Soros, whose investment company purchased about 3.1 million class A shares (1.9% of the club), valued at $40.7 million (£25.8 million) at the time. Club records announced in November 2012 revealed that gross debt had fallen to £359.7 million after the share sale paid off £62.6 million of bonds. The club's debts were further remedied in May 2013, after a new loan deal was agreed that would save the club £10 million a year in interest payments on debts now totalling around £307 million.
Ahead of the opening of the IPO, concerns were raised among both Investors and Manchester United supporters regarding the details of the share offering. Although the share prospectus specified that the proceeds from the sale would go towards paying down the club's debts, it was revealed that much of the money would go directly to the Glazers. Furthermore, holders of class A shares would not be entitled to a regular dividend, and the structure of the share issue meant that the Glazers' class B shares had 10 times the voting power of class A shares, essentially denying a controlling interest in the club to anyone but the Glazers. These issues drove down interest and forced a drop in the share price from the planned $16–20 each to $14 each, representing a potential total sale value of $233 million (£150 million).
Malcolm Glazer died on 28 May 2014 at the age of 85. His death was seen as unlikely to mean any significant changes to the running of the club.