BIG INTERVIEW: Simon Clegg on his steep learning curve
Ipswich Town chief executive Simon Clegg admits his first two and a bit years in football have been a steep learning curve. In this exclusive interview with STUART WATSON, the former army major lifts the lid on the difficulty of transfer dealings, handling criticism and his fierce ambition to lead the Suffolk club back to the Premier League.
A DIFFERENT BALL GAME
“I’ve never hidden the fact that I didn’t have very much experience in football beforehand, but I felt that the skills that I had were transferrable.
“Yes it’s been a steep learning curve for things that are specific to football. I suppose the big issue was running a business that doesn’t make money and one that, in our instance, is totally dependent upon the finances and generosity of a single individual.
“At the end of the day though it is about high performance sport and my driving philosophy continues to be doing whatever I can to ensure that the athlete performs to the best of their ability.
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“That’s my driving motivation, a passion that is deeply ingrained in my DNA, and I believe in some small way I am actually making a difference to what is actually happening on the pitch.”
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Ipswich Town were often criticised for missing out on supposed transfer targets under Roy Keane last season. This summer, under Paul Jewell, the club has made seven signings. Is that a sign that Clegg has got better at negotiations?
“I think that’s a reasonable question, but actually I’m not going to say we’ve signed more people this window because I better understand the dynamics of what’s involved – that’s not the case.
“We’ve actually missed out on very few players over the various windows I’ve been here. There are very few targets that we’ve not been able to deliver and those that have not been delivered have always been because of other agendas.
“People say do you find it hard to attract people to East Anglia and Ipswich, well the answer to that has generally been no. I think I now recognise that while this may not be a vastly populated part of the country and perhaps not a vastly visited part of the country, when players do come here they actually see it for the beauty that it is.”
“The whole issue of buying and selling players and dealing with agents was something that I had not had much exposure to previously but you pick it up as you go along and people have been generous enough to help me and advice me when I’ve needed it.
“I think like in all professions there are good football agents and bad football agents and you soon work out and can spot which are which.”
PLAYING THE GAME
“There’s a huge amount of gamesmanship that goes in football. It includes putting information onto websites which has got absolutely no substance whatsoever, just to generate interest when maybe there was none previously.
“I’m savvy enough to recognise that on occasions you have to play the game, but one of the things about me is that I’m a fairly straight guy.
“In an ideal world you’d be playing poker with an individual, looking him straight in the eye, holding your cards quite close but knowing it was a one-on-one competition.
“Sometimes it’s almost as if you’re playing poker with someone face-to-face, but there’s someone unseen holding additional cards ready to out-trump you.
“You have to recognise that you may not be the only person negotiating for the same property – the same player – and you never know what other agendas are being played.
“Maybe the club can’t sell that player until they’ve brought someone else in to cover him. There are so many unknown variables out there.
“For those reasons I have made it an absolute policy of mine since I arrived at the club that I won’t speculate on what we may or may not be doing in the transfer window, particularly specific names.”
TAKING THE FLAK
“I do occasionally look on websites, only because it’s important to keep your finger on the pulse. I don’t do it with any huge regularity though because I have a good communications department who can appraise me as to what is happening out there. It is certainly important to see how the club is perceived by the fans.
“In terms of me personally, I don’t know what the general perception is out there. Everyone likes to be liked don’t they? But I also recognise that being chief executive of a football club where the owner is not a public face, I have to fulfil a responsibility.
“I am aware that chief executives can become the hate figure or the knocking figure within the club when things aren’t happening the way that fans would like them to happen.
“Should I respond to such issues? No, I don’t feel that I have to because as soon as you start responding to particular issues that you might read that you don’t like then actually you’re just creating a rod for your own back.
“The most important people to me who judge my performance are the players, the manager and the owner, recognising of course at the same time that I have important service to the fans.
“I think you have to remember that it is the vocal minority as supposed to the silent majority that are exercising their views and articulating their positions quite often.”
“If we are successful in gaining promotion this season there will be a huge amount of work that will need to take place during the close season.
“I think it is prudent and makes for good planning to think about these eventualities because if, all of a sudden you get to the end of May and think ‘hey, we’ve been promoted’ and you’ve got nine weeks until the start of the season it doesn’t give you a lot of time to get your mind around some fairly major challenges.
“We started work on a plan called ‘Project Leap’ last year. It deals with the implications of what would be required were we to be promoted based firstly upon upgrading of facilities to meet Premier League standards and secondly the additional things we might want to do.”
“This is a fairly intense period for me at the moment. Everyone sees the big upsides and privileges of being a chief executive of a football club, but people don’t necessarily appreciate the sheer volume of work that needs to be done behind the scenes to keep a stadium of this age operationally fit and the huge amount of work that goes into transfers in and out of the club.
“We are running a multi-million pound business here. Whether it’s season ticket sales and campaigns, press releases that have to go out on a regular basis to keep the media satisfied or addressing social media and networking policy for players - believe me there’s a lot to do here.”
“People may moan about season tickets going up for the first time in years, but at the end of the day I’ve got a responsibility to try and run this football club on an even financial keel as best I possibly can.
“I appreciate we live in a very challenging global economic times. Unemployment is rising, prices are rising, people’s pay packets are staying the same which means there is a squeeze on their disposable income. I know that attending football matches is not a cheap option.
“I’m highly conscious of the reduced gates that we’ve seen recently and the reduction in season ticket sales. The drop has been in line with what my expectations were, but what I’d like to be doing is increasing season ticket numbers.
“If we have more people in the ground, we create a greater atmosphere and if we can create a greater atmosphere it has a more positive effect on the players.
“I spent some time reviewing the ticket price after the Wolves pre-season game (less than 6,000 turned up), questioning whether I’d got it right.
“It’s too simplistic to just say you half the price, you double the number of people though. If it was that simple you’d do it, you really would.
“Quite frankly if you half the ticket price and you only get half as many more people that’s a net loss.
“You do have to be conscious that there could be a tipping point though and that people might start walking away from the game completely.”
IMPORTANCE OF EVANS
“We are very lucky with the financial support we continue to get from Marcus Evans because without the four to five million pounds he’s putting into the club we would face the same challenges that numerous others clubs have faced, either administration or accepting that we simply couldn’t be competitive.
“I could never step foot in Suffolk again if this club went into administration. I feel very deeply and passionately about that.”
“I do feel the family club image remains here, but it’s harder to maintain now that we don’t have a family like the Cobbolds owning the club anymore.
“I can accept some people of a certain age will say this club is not like it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but let’s not kid ourselves, life moves on, society moves on, nothing is standing still.
“Hopefully we can still retain the core values of this club. I am passionate that we are absolutely at the heart of the community. “The kids of today are the season ticket holders of tomorrow and we ignore them at our peril.”
Having played a major role in getting the Olympics to London, will Clegg be involved in the Games next summer?
“I’m very clear that my priority is here, but Seb Coe was kind enough when I came off the main board to ask me to remain on the athletes’ commission so I do one day every other month with LOCOG and that will continue through and include the Olympic Games in London.
“Part of that work involves me being allocated an accreditation that will allow me to attend all events.
“I am speaking to one country at the moment, a significant football country, about using Portman Road as a training facility for the Games. However, we need to be clear that the priority for this football club next summer is to prepare for the 2012/13 season which of course we all hope will not be in the Football League.”