Thursday, 4 March 2010

Soccerex: teak, catsuits and David Gill

How many trade fairs are there that have the guts to have a stand manned by a Hollyoaks actress dressed in a skin tight lycra catsuit?  And if that wasn't too distracting, you could discuss investing your fans’ hard earned money in a teak plantation or you could spend it at the bespoke tailors stand.  Burnley FC had a stand too but they were wearing moustaches not catsuits.

Of course the main business of the day at Soccerex was Matt Lorenzo's interview with David Gill, arranged before the Red Knights' announcement.

As a jilted pen pal of David's, I had a chat with Matt Lorenzo at lunchtime to try to find out what the format would be and whether he would pick me to ask a question in any question and answer session.  At that point even Matt hadn't been told what the format was, but I was confident enough to spend the next three hours trying to formulate the question.

Unfortunately about five minutes before the session started, it was announced that there would be no questions. To be fair to David and Soccerex, this was a private event at which he was an invited guest so they could have whatever format they wanted (not to mention the fact that they allowed the BBC and Sky to record it).

It is frustrating however that the big issues about the Glazers impact on United can NEVER be debated with either the club or its owners.  If everything really is so rosy, what is there to hide?  When so many of your customers are worried, isn't it good business to speak to them?

Although it has given the media some good copy, David's comments on the Red Knights should come as no surprise.  He clearly loves the job of running the club and is very good at it.  He is (as he reminded the audience), an employee and I imagine he wants to keep his job.  I don’t know what he really thinks about the Red Knights, but as we are at such an early stage, it would be inconceivable for him to say anything positive in public even if he was secretly in favour.

I would like to touch on one issue he raised.  How the club would be managed if acquired by Red Knights/fans (I've taken the following quote from the Telegraph because they had a more expensive dictaphone than me):

“The Red Knights’ idea of having 20, 30 or 40 very wealthy people owning and running Manchester United, I just don’t know how it would work in practice,.

“The best clubs, the better run clubs have clear single-decision making that is quick and efficient. I don’t see how if you’ve got a number of very wealthy people being involved [that can happen].

“They don’t become wealthy through luck, those sort of people want to be involved in the decision making, The key clubs, Abramovich at Chelsea, Mansour at Man City, Berlusconi in Milan, even the president, the key decision maker at Madrid is not all those fans, it’s the president.”

Let’s not dwell on the Madrid point, suffice to say most United fans would have liked a vote on the Glazers.  The “single owner = quick decision making” argument is frequently made by both David Gill and Sir Alex Ferguson.  From their point of view, I can see that it does make life easier, but it’s hardly the most important factor when thinking about who should own United.  Is it really worth the £266m the family have cost us?  I bet they don’t even have to dial the numbers themselves.

Some clubs owned by one individual are run very well and some are run very badly.  Think of such visionary leaders as Robert Maxwell, Ken Bates or Vladimir Romanov.  The same goes for clubs with a broader ownership structure, what the Spanish clubs show, is that management can be separated from ownership, the same can be seen in Germany.  Berlusconi is a curious role model for good governance, would Keith Harris really be worse than a man who had to change the law to avoid being convicted on numerous bribery charges?  Holding Manchester City up as a model for anything is of course laughable and I put it down to David’s stressful week.  Not only is it far too early to assess the “project” at the council house (we'll have to wait another three or four managers before we can do that), but Sheikh Mansour appears to have already succumbed to City disease with his decision to keep Gary Cook in place.

I know where David is coming from of course, he is picturing some hellish “Dragons Den” to decide transfers with multi-millionaires quizzing potential signings.  Of course it wouldn’t be like this.  There would be a board of directors (on which the Red Knights would want David to sit as Chief Executive) which would set budgets and so forth.  I imagine the Glazer family do a similar thing now and then, the meeting where they voted to borrow £10m from the club must have been a hoot.

Maybe it would take more than one phonecall to Florida to buy a player under a new ownership structure, but the person at the end of the phone won’t be the same person who is stripping cash out of the club in dividends and fees and charges.

David said the Red Knights would want to be involved in the decision making because that’s how they became wealthy.  Nobody would put a penny into a Red Knights offer if it was a club class version of Ebbsfleet United.  And successful business people well understand the importance of delegating and appointing people with the right skills to do the specialist roles. The owners would elect the board and the board would run the club.

When the only thing the club’s (presumably expensive) PR machine can come up with is “but we’ve got a streamlined decision making process” it does make me wonder whether things may be worse than we thought. Are the supporters really expected to think that the club's ability to tie up the signing of Chris Smalling very quickly outweighs ticket prices rising over 45% in 5 years? 

So goodbye Soccerex in sunny Manchester, the next one is in Rio I think.  Too warm for catsuits there.