O'Leary and Johnson Press Conference - Part Two
Wednesday, 7th Apr 2021 23:34
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 two of what they had to say.
Contacts are massive, mentioned Didier Drogba going to Phoenix Rising. The number of people the eclectic group you’ve worked with, that’s going to be a huge thing you’ll bring to the table.
BJ: I hope so. I feel very proud of all the relationships that we’ve been able to build up and my partnership with Berke Bakay, with Mark Detmer, the relationships that collectively the extended ownership group in Phoenix have. Hopefully we can bring that to bear.
I do think that increasingly the world of soccer, in the most positive sense, is getting smaller and so you want to find ways so that a club like Ipswich can leverage relationships in the States, relationships on the continent etc, and I think we’ll do that.
You spoke about talking to Paul Cook this morning, just wondered if there was anything you could tell us about that conversation.
MOL: Yes, of course, lots of things. For a start, we found out that we lived about a mile apart when we were younger.
The accents may sound slightly different but Paul was brought up in a suburb of Liverpool, which wasn’t very far from Ormskirk where I went to grammar school, so we had a few minutes reminiscing about Lancashire and Merseyside.
We also talked about the opportunity this year, and in the longer term of course. We had a very positive conversation about a lot of hard work that we’re going to be doing.
We got along really well. I could see the look in his eye when I walked in the room, he was thinking, ‘crikey, new owners, does that mean I need a new job?’.
But as soon as he discovered that actually he was number one on our list when we were thinking about finding a new manager when we did buy this club, he relaxed and he was I think very positive. We got on fine.
Did he hand you list of players at the end of the meeting?
MOL: Not quite, but I’m expecting that any time!”
Is one of the first things you have to do as new owners to come in and run and audit of different areas of the club to see where work needs to be done?
MOL: I think broadly you’re right. I think we need to make sure that the assumptions we’ve made are correct.
And that means getting input from the entire team that’s there. Clearly when you do due diligence you don’t have total access to people because otherwise your confidentiality would be out of the window and you can’t afford to do that.
Most of the due diligence that we’ve done has been either paper-based or talking to one or two people who were aware that we were potential investors without actually knowing that we were potential acquirers.
The position about the acquisition was very well maintained under wraps but now, of course, we’ve got completely unfettered access to all of the management, all of the people who work there, which allows us to have a real broad review of what areas that need to be addressed quickly, what are the things that we need to put on the back burner. What’s the prioritisation basically. And that’s under way. We literally started that today.
Fans have complained that the stadium has become rather run down, is that something you’ll look to make improvements on, will you want Town to stay at Portman Road, one aspect of a takeover is often a move to a new stadium.
MOL: Normally if you start to talk about moving a stadium, you get lynched. I’m not about to suggest that, no.
The point about investment in stadia is really tied in with league position. If you go to a Premier League club, they’ve got access to investment which is way, way more than anybody else and surprise, surprise, the stadia that you visit in the Premier League are pristine.
The lower you go down the leagues, the more rustic they become, and we’re somewhere in the middle right now.
We’ve not had the benefit of Premier League investment for a little while, so we’ve got some catching up to do.
And yes, there are places where it is a little tired and there are places where we’d love to have a 500-seater rather than a 225-seater restaurant etc. But that takes time. We’re not going to do that overnight.
I remember my previous club [West Brom], it took a decade for their stadium to really catch up and we did it a bit at a time. We didn’t do stupid things. I think there was one stand that we rebuilt in its entirety but apart from that we did that a piece at a time and it’s now it’s a very pretty stadium that’s fun to go to.
The pension fund that’s the money behind the investment, I understand it’s the pension fund of the fire and police services of a US state, believed to be Arizona. What can you tell is about that?
MOL: It’s a classic investment fund where you have a spread of investments so that you have some that are very blue chip, that are all about dividend, you have others that are higher reward type of speculative investments and everything in between.
And they try and balance where they invest so that if certain sectors do well, they will be OK, but if certain sectors do badly, they’re balanced by others that do better.
It just so happens that this market really fits with one of the sectors that is, if you like, part of their profile for investment. They’ve been looking at investing in UK football for a little while, so it’s a happy marriage.
We won’t see much of them, they won’t be involved in the day-to-day running of the club at all. They won’t even have a seat on the board, they’re happy to invest in the fund that ORG has put together so ORG is their custodian in many respects.
And even with ORG, Ed Schwartz, who is the lead there, he’ll sit on the board of GC20 but he’s not going to be spending a lot of time here, he’ll probably visit two or three times a year. Most of the running of the club will be the CEO.
And the CEO position, there’s been a lot of talk about Mark Ashton at Bristol City.
MOL: I’ve said as much as I really want to about the CEO recruitment. We’ve got a process under way and we’ve got people we’re looking at, and the timing of when we can recruit really hinges on circumstances for the people that we’re examining.
I know Mark very well, I have done for a long time and he’s a good guy. But, no I’m not going to speculate further on people at this point, it’s too early.
There’s been a perception that Ipswich under the previous ownership haven’t operated smartly enough in terms of thinking outside the box in looking at ways of making marginal gains and getting better. I wouldn’t expect you to comment on that but will you be looking at innovations that have been popular in the US, such as the use of analytics and certain sports science and conditioning? Anything in particular that’s worked for you at Phoenix that you’d want to bring to Ipswich?
BJ: Sport is evolving rapidly and any club that’s not leveraging data and evolving to recognise how to make that a competitive advantage is behind the times.
I think that will be part of the DNA that we instil into the club and as we talk about and fill the role of that CEO, which is critical, I’m confident that whoever it is will be forward-thinking relative to really adopting best practices and new technology etc.
It’s evolving so quickly and you’ve got to try to find every single competitive advantage you can and the ways that things were done in the past can’t be relied on in the future for success, you’re going to have to evolve in that regard.
Going back to what you were saying about perhaps bringing academy players to Phoenix and things like that, there’s quite a vogue now for club networks, Barnsley in the Championship are part of a very successful one. I know that you work with Helsingør and other clubs in the States as well, have you considered making Ipswich part of a formal network between clubs like that or perhaps something more informal?
BJ: For sure right now, it’s informal. Up until 24 hours ago, we didn’t know whether this would truly come to fruition.
I think longer term, I’d love to see something even more formal, of you will. I’m blessed now that I look at the landscape, I’m involved with Phoenix, with Tucson with Rhode Island, with Helsingør and now with Ipswich.
Informally, I would love to leverage the talent that’s in the broader ecosystem and figure out where to place it.
Formally, if there’s a way to make that connectivity and the affiliation more direct, fantastic. But I’ve just got to be very careful with it because I’m on every single side of the ledger, if you will.
All that being said, I think there’s so much phenomenal talent and I take pride in anything. I think every single club that I’m associated with has a history of treating players well and being a great place for them to further their careers and have every interest and intention of that being the case at Ipswich all the way down and especially with the academy.
I really want it to be a place where players want to come and play and where their extended families feel very comfortable that regardless of where they go in their future, that their time with us and as part of our organisation and culture has been well spent and invested.
You started out at Phoenix from nothing and everyone over there has only got good words to say about the job you guys have done. Can you talk a bit about the philosophy that has underpinned that from the start.
BJ: I like to appropriately give the credit to Berke Berkay, to Mark Detmer and to the incredible partners that we have in Phoenix Rising in which we’ve got a very active board. The leadership that’s part of that, they all dedicate an incredible amount of their time to making that club a success.
We feel very fortunate with our relationship with USL, the league. In the six or seven years that I’ve been involved with them, it’s been extraordinary how well that league has done and the quality and calibre of the players, the teams etc. I think all that’s been very positive.
From my perspective, my first two seasons as owner of Arizona United, they were difficult seasons. The team didn’t do well, and there were a lot of reasons behind that.
Everything started to change when I met Mark Detmer and Berke Berkay and I convinced them along with some others to come and invest in this franchise, to rebrand it to Phoenix Rising.
We built a stadium in a great location and Berkay convinced Didier Drogba to come and join us and finish up his career and join our ownership group.
All those things I think we can rightly be very, very proud of. But I don’t want to maintain that just because we’ve been successful in starting up Phoenix, that all of a sudden makes us the panacea for anything that ills Ipswich relative to their past.
I feel confident that we will be tireless in terms of investing both the time and the money and the culture and character to make Ipswich the special place that it is, the special club that it truly is.
I hope with complete humility that we can do that starting today and start to see the results immediately, but recognise it takes a lot more. Sometimes you just need a little luck, sometimes that ball just needs to [fall for you].
On a related note, Helsingør got promoted up to the second division in Denmark. In the last minutes of the last game of the season it hit the cross bar and didn’t go in. If it had gone in, we’re still down in the lower division.
None of this is easy, none of this is for the faint of heart and sometimes you need the ball to literally just bounce the right way.
Mike, you’ve been involved in football for quite a while, involved at West Brom, at Oxford, what made you want to come back in?
MOL: I think it’s an opportunity, I’m looking forward to that. I enjoy this industry, it’s a tough industry. It’s testing. It’s odd because football clubs aren’t very big businesses, they’re relatively small but they are a lot more complex than people give them credit for.
You’re scrutinised mercilessly, just look at you lot all talking to us here now. But that scrutiny really does mean that you’ve got to be on top of your game the whole time and really enjoy being part of that. I think it’s fun and if you can learn from experience to make yourself be more successful, then I think it’s even better.
I’ve seen things that people have done wrong, I seen things that people have done really well. Some of that experience I hope will help us on our path but I’m looking forward to the company of my colleagues and I think we’re going to have a chance to do something special.
Are still thinking of the MLS, can you do both? Sacramento have pulled out.
BJ: We are so content and honoured relative with our relationship and success with USL. Again, I don’t think you’ll find a bigger cheerleader than me relative to that league.
I’m very good at speaking out of both sides of my mouth. I’ve got the utmost respect for MLS but that said I also have the utmost respect for USL. I’m bullish on football in North America for a lot of reasons. I feel very proud to be associated with the sport in this country and now I’m particularly proud to be involved in the sport in England.
I’m not trying to dodge the question. MLS is a very, very different model and again, if you look at my role in Phoenix and if you look at what I’ve got involved in in Tucson and Rhode Island, I think USL is such a brilliant model relevant to how to bring the beautiful game to communities.
The difference between America [and the UK] is that it doesn’t have the history of the sport. It’s inspiring to think about the history of Ipswich in the community, it’s just mind-boggling to think about what it’s meant to that broader community.
Phoenix Rising, this is our fifth year officially as Phoenix Rising. That’s a rounding error for Ipswich’s history.
But it’s great to be involved in a sport that can make such a big impact in a country that I obviously care so much about and am a part of.
How did this come about, it’s understood that you’ve been driving this deal for about a year now.
MOL: I think it’s probably true to say it’s the most intricate, complex M&A [merger and acquisition] deal I’ve ever worked on in my life, and I’ve done a lot of them.
I think in my what you might call my proper career before I got into football, I used to help to run tech stocks that were usually publicly quoted and there were one or two of those were very acquisitive businesses and we probably bought somewhere between 50 and 100 companies over a 20-year period. None of those acquisitions was anywhere near as complex as the one we’ve just been through.
I’m not surprised it took a year because they are complex and there is a ton of emotion involved. I remember vividly going through the process we have gone through Marcus and there was one day when I looked at him and I could see his face with realisation on it, this was him walking away from owning this club, and that’s a big issue for someone who has had the dream of owning their boyhood club and has actually fulfilled it.
And he got through it and we completed the deal, credit to him. It would have been so easy for a man of his wealth to suddenly say ‘you know what? I don’t want to do this, I want to keep it’. That was a really challenging part of it.
Where did it come from? I was very fortunate to be introduced to Brett and his colleagues by a mutual acquaintance and we talked about what sort of investment they were considering in British football and that led to a bit of a study on what was out there and what we might be able to buy and where there was good value to be had, where there was great opportunity to be had.
And all of that sort of transpired into the conclusion that Ipswich was a great opportunity and we then approached Marcus, 14 months or so ago and said ‘would you care for a conversation about an investment or even an acquisition?’
And I remember going to his home in London and we met and he was receptive. It was absolutely with everything in line with everything he said. He doesn’t have to sell, he didn’t want to sell particularly but if he found a great home for the club that could take it forward, he would consider it, and consider it he did. The rest is history.
Why Ipswich Town, because of the opportunity that came about?
MOL: I think it’s a mixture of things. I’ve told a story a couple of times about when I was a young man. I was born in West Bromwich, you can probably tell from my accent.
And I used to go and watch Baggies games regularly and when I was about 25, West Brom got to the semi-final of the FA Cup and they were drawn to play their semi-final at Highbury, it was 1978 and I remember going to that game and being particularly miserable because we expected to win and we were walloped 3-1 by Ipswich.
But on the way home, chatting to my friends who travelled with me that day, like so many others, we said ‘OK, that’s it, we’ve been knocked out by Ipswich, we’re going to support them in the final’.
In the final, Ipswich played against Arsenal and duly won 1-0 and we were all cheering for them. So I’ve always had a soft spot for Ipswich as a result of that. Maybe that’s contributed to the fact this was such an appealing opportunity for us.
They’ve always had great teams. I say always, the last few years we’ve struggled a bit, but certainly when I was growing up in the sixties, the seventies and the early eighties, they were fabulous teams. Half the blooming England squad came out of the Ipswich team, half the Scotland squad came out of the Ipswich team, and the Northern Irish centre-half [Allan Hunter].
You’d got such a great strength here, coupled with the management, so that heritage, that history, that fanbase built on the back of all that success made this a pretty compelling opportunity for us to look at.
The one thing that fans want to know, what will you bring to this club? Are you prepared to splash the cash.
MOL: We’ve got funding that we think is pretty good and we will take it in a step-wise appropriate manner. We know what we think we need to do to be able to get from where we are to the Championship, and we know pretty much what we need to do if we’re going to go a step beyond that and try and get to the Premier League.
So we know what we’re in for. We’ve got backers who are content with those plans. Am I going to tell you the exact number of pounds? No I’m not. But clearly Marcus is satisfied that we fulfil that condition that we are funding at an appropriate level and we have every opportunity to take the club forward.
Clearly on the back of that funding, you then need to assemble appropriate skills and you have to apply them properly and you have to work hard. And if you do all of those things, you’ve got half a chance.
Part one can be found here.
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