Match made in heaven

Maurice Watkins

Maurice Watkins stands to gain £16m if the MMC approves BSkyB's bid for his famous client. Tim Watkin interviews the senior partner of James Chapman.

Maurice Watkins had no idea that a death would change his life and make him one of the most envied men in the legal profession.

It was 1976 and he had been a solicitor at Manchester firm James Chapman for eight years. "[Partner] Bill Royal dropped dead at a Law Society meeting. Somebody sent me his file to deal with the following day. It was just a coincidence."

In that file was a client that was to take him to the so-called "Theatre of Dreams" – Old Trafford, home of Manchester United.

It meant the end of his playing days in a Lancashire amateur league because the games clashed with United's.

"The sacking of [manager] Tommy Docherty was one of my first jobs," says Watkins.

"Still, there wasn't necessarily a lot of work at that particular moment. It was from the early 1980s onwards that things started to get more complicated."

And how complicated they have become. Television rights, corporate takeovers, disciplinary bodies – Watkins has been at the helm throughout, carefully manoeuvring his beloved United through the legal shallows. In 1981, United was valued at more than u40m. Last year BSkyB bid u623m.

Manchester lawyers say Watkins can take a great deal of credit for making United far and away the richest club in the world. "You can't underestimate the contribution that he's made," says fellow fan Michael Morrison, a partner at Gorna & Co.

"It's always been a massive club in football terms, but in commercial terms its potential has only been realised over the past 10 to 15 years, and Maurice has been the consummate professional in the club during that period," he says.

There are many in the legal profession who would endure a thousand Everton games (or a hundred at least) to get into the inner sanctum of the world's most popular club. Standing outside the door to the directors' box at Old Trafford, you begin to understand the magnetism of the United elite. Every tenth fan who walks past makes as if to enter through the directors' entrance, then rejoins their mates, laughing at the originality of the gag.

Watkins is the second largest shareholder after chief executive Martin Edwards, owning two per cent of the club. The Manchester Evening News describes him as the club's "voice of reason".

Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel are among his clients, and he represented Eric Cantona after the "most famous common assault in the history of the British legal system".

Such glamour is like a siren to young lawyers and firms chasing the nouveau riche clients generated by sport. Watkins shrugs his shoulders: "It's just another client. I've been involved with the club for so long that perhaps one takes it for granted."

Watkins grew up in Manchester as the son of a legal executive, and returned to the city after attending University College, London.

He did his articles at Skelton & Co – on a salary of u10 a week. "I was the first person to be paid as an articled clerk," he says.

After a brief spell as an in-house lawyer, he joined James Chapman in 1968. On 1 May, he takes over as senior partner.

For a key member of one of the most loved and loathed football clubs in Britain ("Stand up if you hate Man U" is always in the football terraces' hit parade), Watkins is remarkably popular.

That doesn't stop him, like the club, from being a little paranoid. When The Lawyer refused to show him this piece before it went to press, he was taken aback and suddenly became coy. "I've never had anybody write anything about me that's not nice," he said, worriedly.

It is understandable. Without exception, he is described as "nice" by other lawyers. But do not underestimate this quiet, "disarmingly courteous" man. The next-most-popular words used to describe him are "astute" and "shrewd".

As an adviser to the Football Association and Premier League, and a founding member of the British Association of Sports and Law, Watkins is a player in football's games behind the scenes. Freshfields partner Raj Parker calls him "an influential figure in the game. Any big issue, he's part of it."

His influence is usually exerted in the semi-shadows, and he is cautious with his views. Nevertheless, his devotion to the club is clear when he refers to himself in the third person as "one", but to United as "we".

His role as a lawyer, director, shareholder and fan makes his position in the BSkyB bid complex. Despite standing to gain as much as u16m in the takeover, and with a guaranteed place on the new board, reports suggest Watkins was a "dissenting voice".

He is quick to point out that the board's recommendation to accept the bid was unanimous. But he then adds rather mysteriously: "Of course there's always a healthy debate and discussion among the board members."

Even with u16m hanging on the result, speculation by The Daily Telegraph that the Monopolies and Mergers Commission has refused BSkyB's bid elicits a typically reserved response from Watkins. It will "be good if it takes place", he says, but if it has been denied, "we continue as we are".

A second later, he's turned the conversation back to United's next game. He immediately relaxes, never happier than when talking about the team he has served for 23 years and looks set to serve for many years to come.