The world of football CEO appointments is fraught with challenges, not least because of the balance that must be struck between meeting fan expectations, following the instructions of owners and adhering to the legal requirements of the role.
Indeed, we don’t have to look too far back in Villa’s recent history to see the evidence of where the three can spectacularly collide. Keith Wyness, who is believed to be pursuing an employment case for constructive dismissal, will no doubt attest to this.
Villa today announced the appointment of Christian Purslow as club CEO. Purslow takes up his position with immediate effect, filling an important senior vacancy that has been open since the clubs near financial collapse under the ownership of Dr Tony Xia in June.
Interestingly, Purslow is also understood to also be a minority investor. Whilst this is perhaps news that can raise eyebrows amongst fans, it can also be viewed as a positive given that the CEO has a personal financial incentive to see the club prosper both on and off the field. Business success isn’t something that comes without progress on the pitch in football, after-all.
Whilst social media can be a doom merchants dream in terms of negative first impressions, 54 year old Purslow appears to be held generally in high regard in respect of achieving the key objectives of his appointed roles.
Further, unlike Villa’s former CEO Tom Fox, who joined with much pomp during the Randy Lerner era, the new Chief Exec arrives with proven experience of both football in general and achieving commercial success within it.
Most notably Purlow is credited with securing major kit, sponsorship and commercial deals that elevated Chelsea’s brand status and income whilst Head of Global Commercial Activities between 2014-2017.
Prior to his three year stint at Stamford Bridge, Purslow was in post for various roles (Managing Director & Non-Executive Director) at Liverpool until 2011.
Whilst he is regarded as having played a ‘crucial role’ in managing the takeover from unpopular owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett, his stay was not without incident.
Purslow is credited with averting the financial collapse of the club, against a backdrop of strained supporter relations.
During his stewardship, Liverpool secured their then largest ever commercial deal, an £80 million tie up with Standard Chartered. This deal was so large it actually had to be defended by the bank at a conference held in London.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing. Rafa Benitez was happy to go on the record in 2010, attributing Purslow directly for his departure from Anfield and questioning the financial position of the club. This period coincided with Liverpool finishing outside the top 6, failing to qualify for the Champions League and in a surprise move, appointing Roy Hodgson as manager.
It’s important to put this in the context that the outgoing regime at the time saddled Liverpool with significant debt that the club found challenging to service just the interest on (£45million in 2010). This had the knock on effect that Purslow restricted both the funds and authorisation for any transfer dealings. In a strikingly similar situation to that of Villa in June, Liverpool were at real risk of being placed into administration by RBS. The fact that this was averted can in part be attributed to Purslow’s efforts at the time.
Purslow also struggled to maintain positive relations with Liverpool supporters with a number of public actions or statements that appeared to put him at odds with fans. This included attempts to revive plans for a shared stadium with Everton, which Liverpool officials privately ‘scoffed at’ as an attempt to ‘claim the limelight he craves’. Meow. Separately, he infamously referred to the clubs ‘Spirit of Shankly group as ‘Sons of Strikers’, regarding them as ‘militant’ or ‘troublemakers’.
Despite this fractious relationship, Villa’s new CEO is understood to remain a Liverpool fan (third generation) and a long time season ticket holder.
On Liverpool and the job he was employed to do he’s quoted as saying:
“To be the person who had to keep the club alive long enough to get it sold but on the other hand having no money to spend, that tightrope was the hardest part of the job. Fans, naturally, want to see their team being highly competitive and to spend lots of money on transfers and wages. It was not an option for me to speak publicly about what a financial mess it was when I arrived; my job was to fix the mess and not whinge about it. With some people not appreciating that situation until the very end then there were naturally pressures put on me and questions asked.”
On paper, Purslow is also impressive academically having graduated from Harvard Business School in the top 5% whilst studying for his MBA.
Additionally, he co-founded Mid-Ocean Partners, a billion pound investment and purchasing private equity firm. His background is firmly in finance, with his first role at 18 held in accounting.
As an amusing aside, Purslow reportedly once referred to himself as ‘the Fernando Torres of finance’. Whilst that may comment force a smile, the incoming CEO’s business acumen is robust, particularly in respect of increasing a clubs revenue markedly. This point will not be lost on those Villa fans with an eye for the implications that Financial Fair Play can have upon a club’s aspirations.
Whilst time will tell whether this is the right decision, the fact that Villa have made a purposeful appointment should be welcomed. Finally, we have someone running the show on the ground day to day.