Too Many Cooks

by Quinn

Steve recently drew my attention to this Guardian interview with Garry Cook, the man headhunted from Nike to become Manchester City’s new “Executive Chairman”, whatever that means, and after a bit of delay and deliberation I finally stole myself to read it. And I wasn’t disappointed. In a bad way. Cutting to the chase, then, and these are the bits that stuck in the mind, for a variety of reasons.

  1. On the future: “Can we be as big, or bigger, than Manchester United? Yes. Can we win the Premier League? Yes. Can we win the Champions League? It will take time, probably 10 years or more. But if I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be here.”
  2. On the “fit and proper person” test for football club ownership: “It is a very loose term, almost tongue-in-cheek, because there have been plenty of unfit and improper people in the league over the last 10 years.”
  3. On the Premier League: He talks of a sport rife with “greed and jealousy – I won’t use the word corruption but wherever there’s greed and jealousy there will be something else that follows it.”
  4. On Thaksin: Thaksin is “embarrassed about the indignities he has brought on the club” and willing to stand down as a director…“He’s embroiled in a political process and I’ve chosen to stay out of it. Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Does he have plenty of money to run a football club? Yes. I really care only about those three things. Whether he [Thaksin] is guilty of something over in Thailand, I can’t worry. I have to be conscious of it. But my role is to run a football club. I worked for Nike who were accused of child-labour issues and I managed to have a career there for 15 years. I believed we were innocent of most of the issues. Morally, I felt comfortable in that environment. It’s the same here.”
  5. On buying players: “We need a superstar…I’ve talked about this a lot to Mark and he sort of understands. China and India, 30% of the world population, need a league to watch and we want Manchester City to be their club. To do that, we need a superstar because, no disrespect, Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing.”
  6. On Mark Hughes: “When we talked to Mark about coming to this club we said, ‘Don’t come if you don’t think you need a superstar.’ He said he wanted to challenge himself by managing the best players…Mark is adamant he wants Premier League experience because that is what let us down last season. Mark’s a homegrown lad, very old school. He’d rather sign players he knows, even overpay. That’s an endearing piece of what he’s all about. He doesn’t like the unknown because it takes him out of his comfort zone. He jumps out of his comfort zone when we say to him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to change this up a little bit.’ But he can’t have Roque Santa Cruz so now he’s back in his ‘uncomfortable zone’, which is that he will have to bring in someone new and develop them.”
  7. On selling players: Hughes, he says, was unfortunate because Sven-Goran Eriksson’s recruiting from abroad meant City had “players who weren’t right for the club” – especially in “the dead of winter when the players are putting on gloves and tights, there are five games in 10 days and it’s bloody tough”.Hughes was said to be against City’s plans to sell Vedran Corluka and Stephen Ireland. Cook’s take is very different. “Mark’s assessment was that he had seen the players he wanted to keep and the areas where he felt we could do better. There were a couple of players we looked at [selling] because Mark said he wanted to bring in better. We went out to sign those players, they didn’t come and we were left holding the baby.” It hardly represents a vote of confidence for Corluka and Ireland, but Cook is unapologetic. “Everyone’s for sale. If they want to stay at this club they will have to aspire to it.”
  8. On reforming the Premier League: Garry Cook has radical views on football that not everyone will agree with, not least his belief that there should be a new top division of 10-14 elite clubs with no promotion or relegation. “The fans,” he says, “would find a way to get passionate about it.”
  9. On marketing the league: The Premier League is “10 years behind” the US in merchandising. “This is the most powerful sports league in the world but also the most undervalued.” Manchester United had not “even scratched the surface and if anyone’s got a headstart it’s them.”
  10. On sponsorship: As for City, he says their behind-the-scenes operation is a “shock to me” explaining: “You look at our brand and it’s Thomas Cook. There’s something not quite right about watching us in a bar in Beijing or Bangkok or Tokyo and seeing “Fred Smith’s Plumbing, call 0161 …”
  11. On marketing the club: He was angry when a side of ex-players won the Masters tournament “using our name and our badge when they had nothing to do with us – then, lo and behold, we congratulate them in the programme. You couldn’t set up a band and call it the Drifters, so what are they doing using our name?”
  12. On the players’ responsibilities: He sees City becoming a “global empire” and “bigger than Manchester United” but feels the club is undermined by leaks to the media and suggests there is “someone inside the club with a vendetta”. He is unimpressed, too, with some of the footballers he has encountered. “They don’t understand their responsibility to the club,” he says. “Trying to get them to do something is like dragging them out of bed.”

Dispiriting stuff all told, but I suppose we’ve all said some daft stuff off the cuff and on the spur of the moment. Then, after reading this tripe, I remembered Chris referring to an interview with Cook where he made some similar claims about City becoming bigger than United, something not physically impossible but some way off yet, the date of achievement being pencilled in for some time after the perpetual motion machine has been cracked. It turns out that Chris was in fact referring to a different interview, in the Telegraph, conducted by Henry Winter. Perhaps Cook cuts quite a different figure in this different interview? Did I say different interview? The key points again.

  1. On the future: “We’ll be as big as Manchester United. If I didn’t have that goal, I wouldn’t be here. Can we win the Premier League? Yes. Will we? It might take a bit longer. Can we win the Champions League? Growing up at Nike, you don’t sit around saying, ‘Can we?’ You say, ‘We will’.”
  2. On the “fit-and-proper-person” test for football club ownership: “It’s almost a tongue-in-cheek term that you would use for Premier League football over the last 10 years. There are plenty of unfit and improper individuals.”
  3. On the Premier League: “In the draft, there’s no exchange for cash. Here it’s about greed and jealousy. Although I’m not going to use the word ‘corruption’, you can imagine that where there’s greed and jealousy then there’s something else as well.”
  4. On Thaksin: “The man is embarrassed about the indignity brought on the club and the Premier League. He said to me, ‘If you need me to resign from the football club as a director, because it would serve the needs of the Premier League, then I’m fine with that as long as that doesn’t change any other thing [i.e. his ownership]’…Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Has he got the finances to run a club? Yes. I really care about those three things. I need a left-back who can win tackles, get the crosses in and Jo can bang them in. Whether he’s guilty of something over there, I can’t worry too much about. I worked at a company – Nike – where we were accused of child labour rights issues. I managed to have a career there for 15 years and I believed we were innocent of most of the issues. Morally, I felt confident in that environment. Morally, I feel comfortable in this environment.”
  5. On buying players: “We just need a superstar. China and India are gagging for football content to watch and we’re going to tell them that City is their content. We need a superstar to get through that door. Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing. Ronaldinho brings access to major sponsors and financial reward…Mark and I talk about this a lot and he sort of understands.”
  6. On Mark Hughes: “We told Mark not to come if he thought we didn’t need a superstar. Mark wants to challenge himself to manage the best footballers in the world. But Mark is from the old school. He would rather overpay for the player he knows than for the player where he’s relying on scouting reports. That’s an endearing piece of what Mark is all about. We can’t have Roque Santa Cruz, which means Mark’s now back in an uncomfortable zone where he will have to bring in someone new.”
  7. On selling player: Hughes was unimpressed by Cook’s attempts to sell Stephen Ireland and Vedran Corluka. “I’m not treating them like a commodity but in the two transfer windows everybody is for sale,” shrugged Cook, who admires youth products like Danny Sturridge (“a great player”) but also knows City need more experience. “When you get to the dead of winter and people start pulling the gloves and tights on and you get five games in 10 days, it’s bloody hard for them. Mark is saying, ‘We need some people with some mettle’. Mark will feel he isn’t successful if he doesn’t finish in the top six.”
  8. On reforming the premier league: To maximise wealth, Cook craves a slimmed-down elite division. “If you could central-entity the top 10 teams to create a global empire called the Premier League, I would sacrifice my own club [Birmingham City] into another division for that. Do Saudi Arabians want to buy Stoke City? Or do they want to buy Newcastle, Villa, United, City? There are 10 clubs. I’d like not to have promotion and relegation. There’s an emotion around those battles but the dynamics by which fans can get their kicks can change.”
  9. On marketing the league: “This is the most powerful sports league in the world but maybe the most undervalued. United haven’t even scratched the [merchandising] surface – and if anyone has a head start, it’s them.”
  10. On sponsorship: “The market is worldwide. There’s something not right about sitting in a bar in Bangkok, Beijing or Tokyo and seeing ‘Fred Smith’s Plumbing. Call 0161…’ I talk to [Premier League chief executive] Richard Scudamore about this all the time: ‘Are we maximising the central entity of the Premier League?’ He rolls his eyes and says, ‘If only we would.’”
  11. On marketing the club: “Our merchandising values are a shock to me. There’s a Masters tournament three miles down the road with a team of ex-players wearing a uniform sponsored by a whole bunch of sponsors. They used our name! They used our badge! We were nothing to do with it and we actually went and congratulated them in our own programme [for beating United]. You and I couldn’t set up a pop group and call ourselves The Drifters, because someone owns that.”
  12. On the players’ responsibilities: “We are about 10 years behind in intellectual property management. Then we get down to players’ image rights, where players don’t understand the responsibility they have to a club. You try to get them to do something and it’s like you’re dragging them out of bed.”

If you feel a distinct sense of deja-vu, don’t worry; it’s not just you. Perhaps the only difference in the articles is Cook’s proud claim in the Telegragh that “this club is not for sale”; so whether that means he was lying, or cut out of the loop, who cares. Now let’s compare these two articles with the interview Cook gave the Times. Actually, let’s not bother. In fact the Times interview is better, ie. briefer. Here Cook mainly sticks to talking about his ideas for a slimmed down league just large enough to accommodate City, and with no relegation to ensure we can’t drop out of the top flight. As a result there’s simply no time to stick the boot into Richard Dunne, our player of the year for the past few seasons; we don’t know whether or not Mark Hughes “sort of understands” that we need a washed-up former superstar to launch our plan for world domination; there’s no mention of Thaksin being a great golf buddy; and worst of all there is sadly nothing at all about The Drifters. But still we hear about the Saudi’s not fancying Stoke (“no disrespect”, naturally); we again find out that “the fans will find a way to get passionate about a piece” of the new Premier League set-up as envisioned by Cook (I imagine “being passionate” is 110% compulsory in the circles Cook moves in); and Thomas Cook (no relation) get another dissing because there’s “something not right about sitting in a bar in Bangkok or Beijing and seeing a match here and seeing Fred Smith’s Plumbing. Call 0161.” Richard Scudamore still “rolls his eyes”, United still haven’t “scratched the surface yet” even though “if anyone has got a head start, it’s them”, and while we have no mention of a “global empire” I make four counts of needing a “central entity” in the Premier League, albeit the sub-editors haven’t felt the need to hyphenate it this time.

Of course if I missed something here be sure to tell me but you get the gist and this is quite enough to be going along with. I guess at a time when things are changing at City at such a bewildering pace it should be gratifying to read three articles that say much the same thing, almost word for word. As for me, I have no more words, or not many more, and you can no doubt do the work for yourself. What a fucking disgrace will do for me for now.

But one last hurrah. The nerve of someone who claims solidarity by pretending to be a Birmingham City supporter when he clearly has no feelings for the game whatsoever, indeed when he seems barely human at all, just some sort of corporate robot, or at the very least an empty vessel programmed on a media course to spew out stock phrases and business plans to journalists; the cheek of someone who has been at the club for two minutes getting “angry” at ex-players who in some cases gave years of service to the club and are still happy to be associated with us at the Masters tournaments; the evident contempt for the fans who must simply accommodate his brave new vision of the Premier League and so find new ways to “be passionate” and “get their kicks”, a contempt I imagine can only mirror the feelings he had for those customers when he was at Nike; this mantra that football, the most popular sport played the world over, is 10 years behind and has anything to learn from the NFL, which has so utterly failed to expand even beyond the Rio Grande. I could go on.

But worst of all is the fear I have that from a business point of view he may just be right in what he says, and that the future belongs to Garry Cook and people like him, people who are not only able to come up with a nonsense term like “central-entity” and then repeat it over and over ad-nauseam without a hint of self-awareness, but can then go and compound it all by using it as a verb. It’s all over, isn’t it? As my team appears to be on the brink of an unparalleled shot at wealth and success (and whilst it is funny to read about some United fans whose noses have been put out of joint by recent developments) I scan these three interviews and I want nothing to do with it all. And yet I know, despite all this, that City are still my club, they are still a part of me; I can’t help it, I can’t just stop following them, no matter how much I may dislike the direction the club and the sport are taking. In that admission, perhaps, we see that Garry Cook and his ilk understand their customer base, and maybe I have earned that contempt.