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Sun 22 Nov 2009 04:00 AM

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Corporate speak

Peter Kenyon presided over Man U & Chelsea's most halcyon glory days in recent memory, but never won fans' affection. Why not?

Corporate speak
Corporate speak
Kenyon presided over the hiring and firing of a succession of managers, each of whom failed to live up to the expectations of Roman Abramovich.
Corporate speak
Corporate speak
Kenyon says David Beckham understood Manchester Utd’s decision to transfer him to Real Madrid.

Peter Kenyon presided over footballing giants Manchester United and Chelsea's most halcyon glory days in recent memory, but he never won the affection of the fans. Why not?

Peter Kenyon must wonder sometimes at his reputation. This man, who was chief executive of Manchester United (1999-2003) - then the world's richest football club - during a period of unprecedented success, and then CEO of Chelsea (03-09) - then the world's richest football club - during a period of unprecedented success, is widely regarded by football fans with distaste.

Despite the trophies and the titles, there's not much affection for Kenyon, neither at Old Trafford nor at Stamford Bridge. Why is that? At Chelsea, where he successfully took the vast power of owner Roman Abramovich's billions and applied it in such a way as to produce a sleek winning machine, he is remembered chiefly for bounding up the stairs ahead of the actual team, in front of an audience of billions, to collect a runners-up medal in the 2007 Champions League Final.

And in Manchester his name seems inextricably linked to the "prawn sandwich" culture of corporate hospitality bemoaned by then club captain Roy Keane and subsequently the thousands in the cheap seats (£50 a match these days, but who's counting?).

Perhaps that's exactly the problem: Kenyon has become, to the football loving masses at least, the public face of the corporate-makeover that top-flight football in Britain has undergone since Sky television acquired the rights to broadcast it in the mid-1990s. Once the preserve of the working classes, once Sky had got its hands on it football went up market - Division One was rebranded the Premiership and thereafter shoved down the throats of the middle classes by marketing men until they grew to love it.

Players' wages became borderline obscene, clubs became marketable brands and Plcs, and ticket prices went through the roof. Low income supporters felt they were being priced out of the game they loved and talked angrily about football losing touch with its roots. Kenyon, perhaps unfairly, came to be seen as the smiling face of this change: a cold-hearted businessman commodifying the passion and appeal of the sport.

Is that fair? Kenyon, who spoke to
Arabian Businesson the telephone from London days after stepping down as Chelsea CEO to work for sports agent firm CAA, pauses to think before saying: "For sport, is being a fan a pre-requisite of being a CEO? I don't think it is, but having said that, I think it makes the whole thing far more enjoyable and far more intuitive as to what are the important issues (if you are). There are many times when you have to distinguish between being a fan and being a CEO, so that you keep a level approach.

"I think sport is all about passion, so you need to be able to understand that, and understand clearly what is important to the fans, because ultimately they are the end user of the product. It is really important that you build a sustainable, successful football club, business and brand. And that is not always conducive with the fans' short term requirements. So it is about having that balance."

It is exactly that sort of corporate speak that many football fans profess to hate. But isn't that naïve? All fans want their team to be successful, but ever since the game went professional, success has been tied up with relative wealth. It seems so obvious it is barely worth stating: but once players stopped coming from their club's locality, and instead were recruited from any corner of the planet, money - as it is in all professions - became all powerful. And fiscal profits are certainly what Kenyon deals in.

"What motivates me? Success, and success ultimately means being profitable," he says.

Which brings us neatly to the question of when Chelsea will turn a profit. When Abramovich, then worth some six billion pounds, bought the club in 2003, he set about providing it with whatever money it took to buy success. At the time, nothing like it had ever happened in British football. Rival club Arsenal chairman Peter Hill-Wood talked memorably of "Chelsea parking tanks on our lawns and firing 50 pound notes." The fear was that if Chelsea didn't need to play by the financial rules all other clubs operated under, what hope was there for the competition? Not fair, says Kenyon.

"I look at where Chelsea was five and a half years ago, and I look at where it is today, and then on all the major metrics we set ourselves, it is successful. It is not yet profitable, but then we didn't expect it to be at this stage. I think the original plan was round about 2010/11, but I think that might have slipped slightly. But the important thing is that the objective is still real.

"I would think it (profitability) will be scheduled around the 2011/12 era. The whole business plan was predicated on a major investment, and we have invested over 500 million pounds in terms of players and facilities and with that level of investment, it is not going to become profitable for a period of time. But at the same time, over the last five years we have doubled our revenue and the business is going in the right direction."

The pressures on all managers, CEOs and chairmen of leading football teams are immense. Kenyon likens the job of CEO to that of CEO of any corporation, with the exception "that the only difference at a football club is that everyone else knows how to do your job better than you."

In comparison with Chelsea, Manchester United must have seemed like a cake walk. At Chelsea Kenyon presided over the hiring and firing of a succession of managers, each of whom failed to live up to the expectations of Abramovich. Avram Grant, for example, was let go after leading the team to the finals of the Champions League. Jose Mourinho, too, won back to back titles but was eventually ushered to the door.

Did the pressure ever get too much? Were there ever times when he felt like resigning from Chelsea? "No, never," he says. "Never. And, you know, part of my reason for moving on was after fourteen years on the frontline, I wanted to only have good memories on balance."

But what about when Brazilian manager Phil Scolari was fired in February? The press crowed that he was Kenyon's man, and that his sacking had been done by Abramovich without Kenyon's knowledge. Was his position at the club thereafter untenable?

"It wasn't untenable. Scolari was my man just like Mourinho was my man. As I say, you have got to deal with things as a chief executive, the one difference with a sporting franchise is it's very public and everybody has got an opinion. The only people who knew what had gone on was Roman and the board.

"The Scolari thing I was fully involved in, because I wasn't physically there it didn't mean I wasn't fully involved. I knew it was happening and I was involved from that point of view. I was also involved in the Carlo Ancelotti recruitment."

And how about the sale of David Beckham from Manchester United to Real Madrid? Beckham said subsequently he had been sold against his will. Does he now hold a grudge against Kenyon, the man who must have overseen the deal?

"No, David and I spoke a lot during that time, it was my role to conclude that deal once the decision had been taken that it was time to move on. I think it was time for him to move on given the circumstances. David and I have spoken on many occasions since then and are friends. So I think football is pretty forgiving and understanding on these things. I don't think he really wanted to go, but I think he understood it was the right time for him to go for him to progress his career."

Kenyon is due to come to Abu Dhabi in December to speak at the 2009 Arabian Sponsorship Forum on the 14th and 15th. He is open about his assessment of this part of the world in terms of its importance to British football (although he point blank refuses to offer any advice to Abu Dhabi-owned Manchester City), and of the potential pitfalls of buying clubs as purely as investments. He is also dismissive of Qatar's bid to host the World Cup in 2022.

"I think beyond the Premier League every road seems to be towards the Middle East in terms of, you know, it's one of the last bastions standing of cash. I think that's the perception... The sport is clearly developing out there. I mean Qatar bidding for the World Cup is an interesting piece. I think it may be too early, but all credit to them for pitching. You have got to believe that in the near horizon the Middle East has got be considered seriously as a contender.

"2018 or 2022 is probably a bit too early. But what it does demonstrate is that people are seriously thinking about the sport.

"These things are about rewarding the growth that has occurred, and that is probably one area where it is too early (for Qatar). But I think it is a brave move, and I think it is a positive move for the sport, and clearly what is being demonstrated out there is that from an infrastructure point of view, you can really make a difference quickly."

Referring to the recent fiasco at Portsmouth football club where wages could not be paid under the brief ownership of Emirati Suleiman Al Fahim, and the subsequent sale of the club to Saudi businessman Ali Al Faraj who said he had bought the club purely as an investment, Kenyon said: "I don't think that is good for anybody. It is not good for football, it is not good for the club, and it is clearly not good for the region where the owner has come from." He added, however, that English football's biggest problem was not the issue of foreign ownership.

"One of the biggest disasters at the moment involves English ownership, not foreign ownership, so it is not about that. But I do think we need to be very careful and critical of people's intentions. I think proper testing is important. I think real proof of funds is critical, because without funds in this game it is really very difficult to do what is required."

Thankfully for him, a lack of funds was never a problem for Kenyon.  A lack of respect, maybe, but that didn't seem to hold him back. Besides, posterity will probably rectify that. Sport's fans love a villain, but history tends to be more kind.

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