CEOs come and go, but clubs can't live with or without them | South China Morning Post
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  • Jan 28, 2015
  • Updated: 1:10am

CEOs come and go, but clubs can't live with or without them

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 September, 2011, 12:00am

The setting was a fitting tribute for a legend of the club: more than 500 fans gathered under a marquee tent at the stadium to see their chief executive induct a decorated German striker into the Manchester United Hall of Fame.

One small problem: Uwe Rosler never played for United. He was a former star for arch rivals, Manchester City, scoring 50 goals in 152 games in the 1990s.

You could have heard a pin drop when Garry Cook made his infamous gaffe in December 2009, 18 months after taking up the top job at Eastlands. Then there were murmurs of discontent at the function as incensed supporters looked at each other in disbelief and angrily shrugged their shoulders.

The Citizens' faithful never forgot it and many were pleased to see the one-time Nike executive leave the club last week in the wake of a leaked e-mail mocking the cancer-stricken mother of defender Nedum Onuoha.

The search goes on to fill the now vacant position of executive director on the blue side of Manchester. With all the riches provided by owner Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al-Nahyan and the Abu Dhabi royal family plus a fantasy soccer squad, comes a huge weight of expectation for the suit in the front office.

Cook was reportedly paid an annual salary of ?1.5 million (HK$18.4 million) per year. But even on that kind of money, it's a job that brings an instant headache at a rapidly changing club, full of rampant egos and impatient owners, sponsors and fans, not to mention the continental quirks of their Italian manager, Roberto Mancini.

'He was never the right person for that job,' said a Manchester City insider, who's been associated with the club since the 1960s. 'Garry Cook was naive yet cocky, with all his American ideas, and didn't want to know who the northern people were.

'As much as Man City is a modern club, it also has strong, traditional northern English roots that anyone in charge must be aware of and respect.'

Cook had earlier been blamed for his error in judgment in defending disgraced former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a previous owner, as 'a good guy to play golf with'. One wonders how much damage these kind of mistakes made to City's global brand, which remains a small blip compared with the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, not to mention market leaders Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid and Barcelona.

In his defence, Cook tried to court the club's traditions by introducing the 'My first City game' campaign in which the written recollections of fans were placed around the interior of the Etihad Stadium. But others would point out that Cook was a Birmingham City supporter who had zero emotional investment in his job.

So how important is it for sports executives to have a strong connection to the club where they work?

Lifelong Manchester United fan Peter Kenyon left Old Trafford to become chief executive at Chelsea, overseeing a highly fruitful period backed by the Russian riches of Roman Abramovich. He was succeeded at Stamford Bridge by Ron Gourlay, a passionate supporter of Scottish club Dundee.

A previous Manchester City boss, he was a Londoner with a business background, known to be partial to one of the southern teams. In an infamous episode a decade ago, he banned Manchester-born comedian Bernard Manning from the club after his brazen humour at a testimonial dinner that had offended his wife.

'Bernard had been a City fan for more than 60 years and came up with a joke that had the whole room laughing at the woman's expense, something like she looked like a bulldog who swallowed a wasp,' the City insider said. 'The next thing we know Bernard wasn't allowed to come to games and we'd have to smuggle tickets to him via his son.'

Manning, perhaps best known for the British television variety show The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, died four years ago, before the Abu Dhabi riches flowed into Eastlands.

The increasingly cut-throat nature of professional soccer means that the shelf-life of the men and women in the boardroom is getting shorter. There is even less loyalty to club executives and directors than there is to coaches and star players.

Even a generation ago, the legendary Liverpool manager Billy Shankly observed: 'At a football club, there's a holy trinity - the players, the manager and the supporters. Directors don't come into it. They are only there to sign the cheques.' It was a sentiment echoed by another coach of the times, Brian Clough, who made his name at Nottingham Forest and Derby County.

Len Shackleton, a journalist and former England international of the 1950s, perhaps summed it up best in his autobiography, The Clown Prince of Football. One chapter of the book, entitled 'The Average Director's Knowledge of Football', consisted of a single blank page.


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