A phone call at half-time was, as Peter Kenyon puts it delicately, “a rarity” in his days working with Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United but that August night in Lisbon in 2003 was one such occasion when the urgency of the situation required it.
The former chief executive of United and Chelsea is recalling the famous friendly against Sporting Lisbon in which a teenage winger on the home side gave John O’Shea twisted blood and in doing so changed the club’s plans. United had agreed to play a friendly to open Sporting’s new Jose Alvalade stadium with a view to finalising a deal for the 18-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo but over the course of the first half Ferguson changed his mind.
The plan had been to discuss informally signing Ronaldo and then loan him to Sporting for one more season. His performance was electrifying. “I got a call at half-time saying, ‘Rather than leave him [Ronaldo] here, can we take him home please?’” Kenyon says. “So the team left the next day and I stayed to do it. That’s where Alex was absolutely amazing. He sold Manchester United better than anybody. He never over-promised but he got people wanting to be there.”
Earlier that year, at the Champions League quarter-final second leg at Old Trafford between United and Real Madrid, Kenyon had been introduced to a quiet 35-year-old Russian who had come to watch the game. That was Roman Abramovich who would in September of that year appoint Kenyon as chief executive of Chelsea, as the course of English football changed.
The two clubs who face one another in Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final were once the dominant pair of the English game and Kenyon was at the heart of their 2000s rivalry. Then he was often cast as the corporate face of English football in an era which was – as it is now - unapologetic about its pursuit of greater wealth and global reach. Yet his views are not always what you might expect.
Kenyon is, for instance, fervently opposed to a European Super League even though it was him who founded the G14 alliance of 14 top European clubs. Later, G14 would morph into the 232-strong lobby now known as the European Club Association which is trying to push for just that. His belief in the Premier League’s collective model where wealth is shared is unwavering. He opposes Uefa’s financial fair play regulations which were put in place in response to Abramovich’s huge investment, although they came too late to put the shackles on Chelsea.
In the week that Manchester City had their two-year Uefa FFP ban overturned in Switzerland Kenyon recalls the conversations with FFP’s driving force, former Uefa president Michel Platini. “My argument with Platini, which I recall went on ad nauseam, was ‘Look, the money is good, the money is not debt. If Roman left the club is in a great position’. Roman was the first of the next generation of investors and owners - and I don’t think Uefa knew how to deal with him.”
Kenyon now advises clubs and prospective owners. He has lived in Jersey for the past ten years and his company Opto Advisers have been involved with the transformative takeovers of Paris Saint-Germain and Wolverhampton Wanderers. He has worked with Atletico Madrid and Middlesbrough. He very nearly ended up running Newcastle United. “We just couldn’t quite get that over the line.” At many of these clubs he has worked with the agent Jorge Mendes whom he first met 17 years ago when signing the young Ronaldo.
An observation from Ferguson that “the best footballer in the world, or the most expensive transfer in the world, couldn’t necessarily be a Manchester United player” has always stuck in his mind. Later he saw what Ferguson meant, when expensive signings “froze”, Kenyon says, at Old Trafford. He tells all prospective owners of clubs that while it undoubtedly costs money to create great sides that alone is no guarantee of success. “It goes way beyond a coach or a footballer,” he says later, “it’s about a culture that is created.”
He recalls a conversation with Jose Mourinho when Chelsea first approached the Porto coach whom they would appoint in the summer of 2004. “Jose said to me: ‘You have good players, the problem is they have never won anything and until they have won they won’t know what it is like. But once they have won they will never want to lose’”. Kenyon says that in three and a half years, with Abramovich’s backing, Mourinho laid the foundations for “ten years of success”.
Coming from United, Kenyon discovered a very different picture in his first months at Chelsea in early 2004. “At United it was high-performance, high-achieving, aspirational - whatever job you did. At Chelsea there was none of that. We couldn’t train on a Thursday afternoon because the university we shared facilities with needed them then. We had five different changing rooms instead of one. We had some good players, some big players … but it was a disparate band and there was nothing bringing it together. By my second week we were looking to try to find a training facility. We got Cobham and three years later we built it.”
Kenyon had always seemed strangely indifferent to criticism in his years at both clubs. In fact at times it seemed like it was his job to absorb the rage of fans who accused United, or Abramovich, or money in general for ruining the game. One rarely detected anger or frustration save, perhaps, in 2007 when his disbelief at the appointment of Avram Grant was thinly-disguised. Now at 66, his tone is much less of the corporate variety and rather more passionate.
He says that he would have opposed the Premier League’s decision in 2018 to scrap the equal division of overseas broadcast revenue, “a Pandora’s box”. As for the Juventus and ECA chairman Andrea Agnelli’s dream of a Super League, Kenyon says “it fills me with dread, not excitement”. When he speaks to supporters around the world Kenyon says that regardless of allegiances “what they really love in the Premier League is that every weekend the winner isn’t always the guy with the most money.”
We reminisce about his promise – in the white heat of the Abramovich spending era - to make Chelsea a sustainable business. That has been the case in some years when the club has reported a profit, if not the most recent financial results for the 12 months up to July last year. “I remember being ridiculed because I said, ‘Yes, we are investing but we will be self-sustainable and Chelsea will be profitable’. It was not next year or in two years’ time but [we were investing] because we could afford it and we weren’t putting the club at risk.”
As for “painting the world blue”, another of his pledges while at Chelsea which still raises a chuckle, there is no doubt that their global profile has grown. In the summer of 2005 Kenyon says that one US crowd of 30,000 included perhaps 300 Chelsea supporters. “We probably gave them their jerseys too,” he says. “Five years later the Rose Bowl [in southern California] was full and 80 per cent were Chelsea.”
He left United ten years before Ferguson finally quit. The obvious question is what he thinks of the club post-2013 under executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward. Kenyon has great faith that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Frank Lampard are capable of recreating the winning culture they once knew as players at their respective clubs. As for the last seven years at United he tries his best to be diplomatic.
“It was always going to be really difficult. Unplugging David Gill and Alex at the same time was a mistake. It’s a combined relationship. David and Alex were really close - as you should be. Unlocking those two left gaps and you don’t know where the gaps are going to be. It was never going to be easy and they fully understood that. This is not about the people who got the job. I don’t want to say they are wrong because I have been there and it is really difficult.
“I don’t think people fully understood what United is all about. United is a huge club and just because you are a world-class player doesn’t mean you can go there and be successful. I don’t think United is about paying the biggest transfer fees. Whilst we always paid really good wages and competed in transfers - although Alex would continually say we never gave him enough money - what we got were players who really wanted to be at United for the right reasons.
“I think they have lost that a bit and they are getting that back, and that’s why I think they will come back. Ole is good because he understands that aspect of it. It’s really important.”
He sees the winning culture at Liverpool and City with Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola where owners and managers have aligned in the same way they once did at United and Chelsea. “Liverpool have Jurgen, a great coach who is connected with the fans and has built that culture they had lost,” he says. “That’s what makes Liverpool really special today. The same with Pep. This goes beyond just the coach and just the owner but you have to get those two things right.” He also mentions Diego Simeone’s compatibility with Atletico in the same category.
Kenyon says that as someone who ran a bigger club he was “delighted” that FFP “locked in the big boys” but also suggests that it clashed with his belief in competition. “It didn’t do what it meant to do. All that has happened over that period of time is that it has proved more to be that way and that goes beyond the UK,” he says. He is reluctant to talk about City. “If we are going to have these regulations then they have to be enforced evenly and correctly” he concedes, “otherwise they make a mockery of it.” Have City made a mockery of it? “I am not saying City are wrong. But it looks inconsistent from the outside.”
At Chelsea in the early Abramovich days there were no such restrictions. Didier Drogba was perhaps the most important signing he says. Michael Essien took the longest. “The hardest negotiator in football, let me tell you, is [Jean-Michel] Aulas, the president of Lyon.” We go back to that summer of 2003 again - a crossroads, although no-one was to know it then. United sold David Beckham with Kenyon overseeing the deal. United then failed to sign Ronaldinho who chose Barcelona instead. Meanwhile, Ronaldo, who would become bigger than both, came as an expensive but relatively unknown teenager.
Kenyon would leave for Chelsea, the highest profile executive switch the game has known, although not before he was blamed for United failing to sign Ronaldinho. The Brazilian would go on to win one Champions League and one Ballon D’Or. Ronaldo would win five of both. “We did try really hard for Ronaldinho and in the end we offered what was a load of money even by our standards and there came a point …” He chooses his words carefully. “Getting the player just for the amount of money paid didn’t sit well at United. There was a decision that if he is right and we do want him we will pay because we could. It crossed the line and on reflection - and this is not about his ability - it turned out to be a great decision.”
These are fine margins at the top of the game. Yet for a man who is synonymous with the wealthiest clubs, he is pretty explicit that the elite should share more, not less. He says if he had still been a Premier League club chief executive he would have “fought tooth and nail” just to keep the equal split of overseas broadcast revenue. “Only because once you let it go, there is a reason for letting everything else go,” he says. “Just to make some more wealthy? That’s not what it is about. There is enough money in the game to do the right thing.”