O'Leary and Johnson Press Conference - Part One
Wednesday, 7th Apr 2021 23:32
New chairman Mike O’Leary and Brett Johnson from the American Three Lions element of Gamechanger 20 held a Zoom press conference this evening following their takeover of Town. Here’s part one of what they had to say.
Fourteen years ago, Ipswich Town fans were celebrating when Marcus Evans came to town, and the same fans will be celebrating tonight. Football is not a game of certainties, but what can you say to them, and what can you perhaps promise them?
MOL: With any football club, we’re not really the owners. It’s the fans who are really the owners and for us to deem that we’ve succeeded during our tenure, we have to make sure that the club is in better condition, better shape than when we start.
And if we can achieve that I think we’ll be happy. And that’s the measure. The measure of an owner is whether the club is in a better shape, in my opinion.
And Brett, how long has this been in the making and why Ipswich Town?
BJ: It goes back several years. From my perspective, I had the pleasure of living in England for five years and I came back to the States with the interest and aspiration of investing in professional football.
I started in Phoenix and I’ve expanded in several markets in the States beyond that.
But from my perspective, anyone who has invested in the sport of football England is the ultimate and it’s where you should need and want to be.
And I think when you take it from that landscape and you start to look at opportunities specifically in England with all humility and candour, I’m biased now, very biased, but there’s no better place, thank Ipswich.
I think it’s inevitable that fans want to know how much money you’re going to spend on players. That happens with takeovers. But you’d also agree that the ground, the training ground, the infrastructure and support staff, there’s an awful lot that needs the attention of good owners?
BJ: Yeah, I’ve never had the honour and pleasure, and I can’t wait to go and visit Portman Road directly. But that being said, yes, we intend on investing both on and off the pitch, consistent certainly with what we’ve been doing in Phoenix and what I’m doing in some other markets.
But we’re excited to roll up the sleeves and again invest both on and off the pitch to make this rightfully the incredible asset and pride everyone has in the club and continue to kind of take it up from there.
Mike, it sounds as though you’re going to be at the coalface or perhaps on the farm. What’s the plan, what’s the trajectory, what’s the timeline and, as I’ve just said to Brett, there are an awful lot of things that money needs to be spent on, aren’t there?
MOL: There’s a lot of competing priorities, absolutely. And one of the tasks we will have as owners will be to get those priorities in the right order, and usually, the team comes top of that list because as much as we would love to have a sparkling stadium that you could eat your dinner off the seats, it would not matter at all if we were not winning football matches.
So, the team will come first, and that in itself has challenges of differentiation between the academy and the first team and the facilities - we’ve got to keep people fit and all of the rest of those things. So lots of items trying to grab our attention for being first on the list.
And I think yes, I am at the coalface but I’m non-executive. I’m the non-executive chairman once we’ve hired a CEO who will be hands-on full time.
That doesn’t mean to say you won’t see me. Yes, I will be at the stadium for a couple of days a week and I’ll be at every single game I can make, so I’ll be part of it and I’ll be the sounding board for the CEO.
We both, I think Brett at Phoenix and I at other British clubs, have experience that is relevant for the management to draw upon. And I think all that helps.
And fair to say in the short-term, the hope is that with a fair wind Town will reach the play-offs and play Championship football next season. That’s certainly that’s the primary goal, isn’t it?
MOL: Well, I think you would say we’d be delighted if we went up this year. But you also have to say that we’ve got some work to do to achieve that too.
We haven’t been on the greatest of runs and momentum at this time of year is critical, so to make it this year, we need a little bit of luck, a following wind and a couple of results to go for us.
If we make it, fantastic. And if we don’t, well we’ll obviously target it next year and the year after and it’s a priority for us.
Paul Cook, where does he fit into your plans? We don’t know if he was your man or if he was the previous owners man?
MOL: We talked to Marcus about it. He wanted to make a change and we compared notes, and lo and behold, we discovered that Mr Cook was number one on both of our lists, so that was great.
And in fact, I was able to share that information with Paul earlier today, and I think he was delighted by that because obviously, you get a change of owner it often results in another change of manager and that will not be the situation here. We rate Paul very highly.
Brett, I’m not going to ask you to name the 1981 UEFA Cup team or the 1978 FA Cup team, that’s not fair. But what do you know about the heritage of Ipswich Town Football Club because it’s something you’ve spoken about in the statements you’ve put out?
BJ: I know enough to have complete reverence and respect for what opportunity we have to be a part of.
It goes without saying the history and pedigree of the club, whether from Sir Alf Ramsey or Sir Bobby etc. What I would say is what’s clear and relative to the iconic stadium Portman Road.
And then I have a relationship, and I give a lot of credit to early on at Arizona United I hired Frank Yallop, which was a big hire and to Frank’s credit, he went from MLS the top league in the United States and he came down at the time to the United Soccer League [USL].
That was a huge vote of confidence to the USL, to that league and it meant the world to me. And it also started to give me an appreciation and respect for his history with Ipswich.
And so I like to think in some small part when Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer and I started thinking about an investment in England, we linked up with Michael and started to think about where we wanted to focus our attention.
I’m thrilled it’s led to this and to that point, I want to give a lot of credit to Michael O’Leary because he’s really done a brilliant job helping to put us into this position, and by extension I want to thank Marcus Evans.
None of this is for the faint of heart, and I like I said, we treat with absolute reverence and humility just how much effort you have to invest both financially and in time to try and make these things goes well.
And no one enters these endeavours with anything but hope and to expect the best, so I recognise and want to thank Marcus Evans for everything he has done for the club and appreciate his support for allowing us the opportunity for allowing us to take it forward.
We’re told it was a 14-month process. There have probably been ups and downs during that period, just how determined were you to get this deal over the line at this football club?
BJ: Could not have been more determined, could not have been more focused and again credit to Michael O’Leary, credit to Marcus Evans and the partners I’m part of, the extended Game Changer and my partners Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer at Three Lions.
It’s an absolute honour, it’s a dream state to be in to be sitting here today addressing everyone and having the opportunity to truly say we are at the starting line relative to this.
But it wasn’t for the faint of heart by any means and now the real work begins. But couldn’t be more excited for the fact and credit to Michael and Marcus Evans that we’ve been able to get to this point.
MOL: It’s probably worth noting that Covid interfered with the process. We began a discussion with Marcus pre-the first lockdown and when that lockdown took place, of course, we were in very uncertain times.
We had no idea how long it would be before revenues were restored to normality and that caused us to put a hold on things, and we put a brake on it for about three months, or it might of even been four.
And at the end of that break, we lifted the phone again and got confidence that things were likely to be OK eventually and reopened the discussion with Marcus.
That meant 14 months probably is a little bit extraordinary and stretched, but it never the less was a lengthy discussion and a lengthy negotiation.
Marcus always stressed that the club was never up for sale but said he would listen to anyone he felt could take the club forward. So what do you think he has seen in you, Brett, Game Changer and the Three Lions?
MOL: I think it’s a mixture. We’re well funded, so we have the capability to invest appropriately and wisely. We have a lot of experience in the teams, and we have a lot of drive and ambition.
And I think there was a very good rapport with Marcus right from the very beginning.
We were pretty open with one another about what was important to each of us, and I’m delighted that he’s kept a five per cent stake in it. I think that demonstrates a confidence in us as a group of people, and I’m going to enjoy meeting him on matchdays when he’s there to be able to shake his hand and say hello.
Brett, Mike said in his interview with the club that you’ve all got to know what’s here and what the opportunities are at Ipswich Town. What do you see as being the main opportunities?
BJ: I think to put the club back on its rightful pedestal in the world of football. In the short term, as Mike said, the Championship is absolutely our goal, but on that, I don’t know why anyone would be investing in English football if they didn’t have aspirations to get to the Premier League.
But the fanbase is exceptional. I’ve been positively overwhelmed since the rumours broke relative to outreach and now that it’s official in terms of all the outreach from the supporters and their gratitude and optimism and hope relative to what this new era brings.
So we’re very focused on it. It begins and ends with wins, that’s important and positive things accrue when you do that. But like I said, we will be investing both on and off the pitch, but a big part of improving everything really starts by improving the on-field performance.
You’d not long been involved with Phoenix Rising before the team won the USL regular season title in 2019. Do you have a timescale on success at Ipswich Town?
BJ: We’d like it to start immediately. We hope that we can get something done between now and the end of this current season.
Realistically we recognise [the position], but we’re eternal optimists on this side. But that being said, we look forward to working hard between now and the beginning of next season and would like to start to see immediate results.
We have a healthy impatience relative to the success that we intend and want to see.
But again, all that being said, we don’t come at this lightly. The success that I’ve been fortunate to be a part of relative to Phoenix Rising, we’ve won trophies the last three years.
You just recognise that it’s not an easy thing to do to ever win a championship, and I’ve been fortunate to be a part of it, but I’ve also been on the receiving end of a couple of bad seasons, which hurt and makes me appreciate every single win and every single cup etc.
But I don’t want to be shy about the fact that we intend to focus on putting a winning club on the pitch and really want to see us certainly and hopefully very soon move into the Championship.
I think a lot of supporters Mike, think that it’s important that there’s someone here that knows the game on this side of Atlantic, which you clearly do. And you hope to have a new chief executive with you soon. Can you let us in on that process and when you hope to have that finalised?
MOL: Well, recruitment is always a bit of a varying subject in terms of completion dates and timing. I’d love to tell you that it will be two days from now, but I’m not that good at predicting dates. It could be a week, it could be a couple of months.
But what we will do is make sure we get the right candidate and when we’ve found the right candidate, we’ll do our utmost to get them in position as soon as we can.
And how tough a job do you think this is to get the club into a position where you’re knocking on the door of, say, the Premier League? I noticed in the club interview you say that’s where Ipswich Town belong longer term. But given the club is toiling in League One at the moment, that’s going to be difficult to get there any time soon, isn’t it?
MOL: No leagues are easy. It doesn’t matter which league you’re in. There are opponents in there that are tough to beat.
The league we’re in right now, we have 23 opponents, and we have to strive to be better than they are at everything we do – everything we do. And that includes player trading, it includes performance, it includes fitness, it includes that tactical position that the manager chooses to play.
All of those we need to be the best. And if you can do that, you’ve got half a chance of winning something or getting promoted.
So there’s a lot to work at, and we know what all those issues are, and we know we’ve got very talented people already at the club.
I’ve spent time with a number of them today. And we’ll strive to recruit a really top quality CEO to help us push forward.
Brett, I gather you’re hoping to get to a game at some point during the summer and be over here. In the meantime, will you be spreading the Ipswich Town name Stateside, and how important is it that you do that?
BJ: You will see even though I live in Los Angeles and don’t need a scarf that often, this will be on me frequently.
Other than sleeping and a couple of occasions, I’ve had this on pretty much non-stop since yesterday, and it arrived yesterday, so the timing was good on that. I was worried that I might have jinxed it by ordering some swag, if you will, from the Ipswich website.
But we will be flying the banner and again, I think I won the award of the best American accent of the Three Lions or looked the best in blue.
I’m very fortunate to be able to speak on behalf of the extended group, but I have some exceptional partners that I look forward to joining me if you will on the stage.
And on that note, I think part of our success in the States in that we built a culture in a short period of time where players want to play for us and they want to succeed with us and talent wants to come and be a part of our organisation.
And we have every hope and expectation that will be the same now with our era at Ipswich, and we are beyond excited.
On that note, Berke Bakay ended up convincing Didier Drogba to come and join the USL and join Phoenix Rising, and I have that down as one of the greatest feats in soccer history, getting Didier Drogba to come and finish his career at Phoenix Rising and join our ownership group.
I don’t think we’ll bring Didier out of retirement and get him to Ipswich, but I do think it speaks volumes to just how passionate and committed that we are and, by extension, individuals like Berke Bakay and Mark Detmer, who are part of this endeavour, are relative to the ultimate success that we hope and expect and really will focus on bringing to Ipswich.
Mike, one thing you mentioned was visibility. People can see who you are, and that’s one thing that the fans didn’t have with Marcus Evans. So they’ll be hoping that you’ll be more visible and more accessible as we go forward.
MOL: I’ll certainly do my best. And in previous roles, I’ve really gone out of my way to try and do that. I think engagement of the fanbase is critical. I’ve already said on this call that they are the ones that really own the club – we don’t.
And it’s therefore a right of there’s to be able to have access to us so things like fans forums and things like radio phone-ins and all those mechanisms that allow the fan to have access to either the players to the management or the directors or whatever, that’s all part of building the family.
I’ve always found that if you get a football club where everyone is pulling the same way, you’ve got a much better chance of succeeding than if you’ve got in-fighting.
You can always tell clubs that have got in-fighting going on because it translates to what happens on the pitch, and you can tell those that are together, the fans just raise the atmosphere an extra notch, the players run a little harder, and it works. So I’m a huge advocate of that sort of communication to build the family atmosphere.
Brett, you’ve connected with quite a lot of the fans virtually, and it sounds like you’ve connected with quite a lot of the younger fans as well. One of the things we’ve seen visibly over the years is that the fanbase has been getting older. How confident are you at trying to mould the younger fans into the stadium as time goes on?
BJ: I’m excited at any opportunity to engage fans at any age bracket. Men, women, boys, girls in England and beyond.
I shouldn’t be surprised by it, but the support for Ipswich is global. I’ve had outreach from all corners of the globe relative to these rumours, and now that has come to fruition, I’m confident it will continue.
I think that’s a special part of this club, but a lot of these supporters came [to the club] decades ago, so I think for us it is a great opportunity to start to engage with the next generation, the upcoming generation and maybe a gap in a generation that just didn’t resonate with the club maybe because the success wasn’t where it has been historically.
So, I would love to see that, but I feel the club has a responsibility to be a very positive beacon in the community beyond and very excited for the opportunity for us to play whatever role we can as stewards of it in terms of engaging that kind of support everywhere.
What about the possibility of bringing some American talent over to East Anglia?
BJ: I would love it. It would be a dream. I’m very pleased with the success of American players over in England and Europe now. I think it portents well for when the World Cup comes back to our shores in 2026.
Conversely, I would love to see some of the talent in the Ipswich academy start to come over to the USL. It’s a phenomenal league and a phenomenal place for players to get true minutes. And as we know, there are only 18 that are going to dress, and that’s a lot of talent literally on the sideline. So I think that will be an exciting area for us to pursue.
And do you think the academy can play a big role in Ipswich’s future success as well?
BJ: For certain. It’s going to be an incredible area of focus for us. I think one of the many benefits relative to the broader catchment area that it gets to be a part of, so much talent there.
One of many things we were interested in was the potential of the academy, so that will be a big focus of ours and gain from my perspective I can’t wait to see how we can collaborate on both sides of the pond with talent coming here and vice versa.
Did you look at some other clubs along the way?
MOL: Sure we did. We probably spent about a year looking more broadly before we focused on Ipswich, so we looked at a number, but we liked Ipswich the best.
And could you just give us an idea of what you’ve actually acquired in terms of the training ground, the stadium and things like that?
MOL: Let’s start with the stadium. The club has a long-term lease on the area on which the stadium is built [from IBC until 2094], but it owns the buildings that are there. So that’s sort of an unusual mixture, it’s leasehold on the actual land but freehold on the buildings.
At the training ground, the club owns pretty much all of it outright. There is a little chunk of about three acres that Marcus has retained and not sold to us, but the vast majority of it has passed over to us, and I think in property terms, that’s about it.
And the majority of the debt has been written off. Marcus has said in his statement, can you give us an idea of figures on that?
MOL: We have repaid approximately £20 million of debt. Marcus has waived the balance of all other debts that were there. Sorry, Marcus hasn’t waived it all, there’s a tiny bit left, about £400,000 of debt that remains, and that’s debt between Ipswich Town PLC and Ipswich Town Limited. That’s the only debt that’s left, and apart from that, the club is debt free.
Have you got an initial investment figure in mind?
MOL: Other than saying it’s substantial, I’m not sure we’d want to say much more, really. We don’t want to hamper our negotiation ability when we come to buy players.
Brett, you’ve had success in the States, but I guess English football is another ball game, so to speak.
BJ: I think literally and figuratively it’s a whole other ball game. But we’ve been at this for several years in terms of wanting to make something happen, and as Mike has talked through, we’ve been very focused on Ipswich for a great part of that time.
And so, at the risk of repeating myself, we approached this with complete humility. We have enough experience to recognise that I don’t care where you are in the world if you’re invested in football and you’re trying to win, it’s not for the faint of heart.
It requires a lot of time, and it requires a lot of money, but all that being said, money isn’t the answer to everything. I’m very fortunate to be involved and a part-owner of a club in Denmark [Helsingør] that is one of the lowest payrolls in that league and we’re sitting in fourth place.
So money is important, coaching is important, pride in winning is important, and it’s not always going to work out well, but if not, you’ve got to take accountability for it and continue to make the changes to hopefully get those results.
Can I ask about your time living in London when you fell in love with football?
BJ: I played growing up, I did recognise when I got into high school that my future in sport lay elsewhere, there was way too much talent out there.
I had the pleasure of running a company based in the UK, I ran the international division for a company called Targus, and so I spent five years there, five incredible years, and I had a front row seat, not just in England of the beautiful game, but everywhere I travelled around the world.
The common denominator, the religion of this sport globally, I brought it back to America and I was really focused on trying to find a way to start to get involved with the sport in the States and now again I’m really proud to bring it full circle back to England where I would say, for me, it all began.
I have a good family friend who is arguably Arsenal’s number one supporter, so a long, long time ago went to Highbury, saw that first hand, I’ve been to the Emirates.
My allegiance probably shifted over time to Chelsea because of my relationship with Didier Drogba, and now I’m all in on Ipswich. I’m going to leave any prior loyalty to those clubs well behind.
They deserve credit, my time over there deserves credit relative to what I would say was the genesis of my initial investment in recognising that Phoenix is a great untapped soccer market.
But once I broke the seal and was able to find the right geography, right partners and start to make this happen.
And this is not an ego play for me, I’m invested in this to succeed. I bring partners in it to succeed, and to succeed from my perspective means winning.
And, as I’ve said, I take it with complete reverence and humility and hope to make everyone proud and will certainly do everything that I can and by extension my partners will, to make this a success.
A wider development in Ipswich with the Pawtucket, Rhode Island project, it goes far beyond the sports team. Are there plans from an Ipswich perspective to have an impact on the town and the society in general?
BJ: The quick answer is that I hope so. Rhode Island and some other areas, Phoenix market, Tucson, I looked at the social and economic impact that professional soccer can have on communities and started to find ways to invest what I call multi-asset developments can really create jobs and economic change.
Aspirationally, I would love to start to see that be part of the calculus with Ipswich specifically.
That being said, from inception, the focus has been to acquire the club and to start to change the trajectory, get it back up to the Championship and then ideally start to look at getting it up to the Premier League.
A disproportionate amount of the focus is going to be in winning games and investing in both the on and off-field experience and investing in the academy etc, so the development would solely be if that were the right thing for the broader community. Candidly, it’s not part of our business plan, of you will.
Part two can be found here.
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