Always good for an interview, here’s our last chat with Ben from a couple of years ago. Last question is my favourite…
WSB: So, Ben – I’ve not seen you mention it but I believe you used to be an agent? How did that happen?
BM: We’re going to have it warts & all aren’t we? We’re going to find out about the fat lad behind the suit aren’t we? As a young lad growing up in Hull four films dictated my professional career. I started off watching The Bill – it was huge when I was a kid – and I thought, you know what, I’ve a desire to talk a lot, I like the law & I quite like the idea of being the guy who rights wrongs…
WSB: You wanted to be Reg from The Bill?
BM: Not Reg, more Judge John Deed – after watching ‘A Few Good Men’ I thought ‘let’s go and do a law degree’. I wanted to be the man who hammered away at Colonel Jessop – you know, doesn’t want answers but wants the truth. So, off I went to Leicester Uni where I quickly realised that lawyers weren’t necessarily for me.
LD: The profession or the people?
BM: Just the people – I did better than anticipated in my A Levels so ended up at a good law school so they struggled to understand me. So I thought ‘what am I going to do?’ and ended up watching another film called Sliding Doors. If you’ve seen the film, it was Gwyneth Paltrow looking incredibly hot working for this PR Company doing all of these parties & I thought ‘this looks great, go to London and go to loads of parties’. So at the end of my second year of Uni I went to do some work experience at a PR agency & it so happened it was in the Summer of ’99, the year after Beckham had got sent off in the World Cup. Now we all remember for how much he’s loved now how much he was hated at that time – this toy manufacturer had got Beckham to endorse this table football game & they’d got pulled off the shelves because he was hated so much. Then they came up with a national Under 12s tournament, the big final was at Wembley and the prize was a day out at Old Trafford hosted by David Beckham.
At Wembley & I came across Tony Stephens who represented David and the likes of Michael Owen, Robbie Keane, David Platt, Dwight Yorke & Alan Shearer. Tony took a shine to me & I went to meet him in London then literally one day I finished my law degree and the next I was flying out to Euro 2000 to manage 6,000 clients at 31 games split between Holland & Belgium. Then by this time I watched my third film in the dynasty that would define my professional career – Jerry Maguire.
WSB: I knew that was coming
BM: Of course it was. So, Jerry went to Harvard, he had a legal background & I wanted to show people the money & wake up every morning and clap my hands.
WSB: I can’t believe you’ve just said that
BM: I’ll come up with as many cheesy lines as I can to substantiate the bullshit Ben nickname. So, that was it. I thought I’d made it, working with Tony & other Sports marketing firms in my year out. However, then agents became regulated for the first time in March 2001 and if you were a lawyer you were exempt from the regulations. Tony said ‘Ben, you’ve got the blue chip experience in terms of us – I think you should go back, get legally qualified & come back – and I remember his words as we travelled back from a game – and put a frown on your forehead’.
So I went off, applied to a load of Law firms – I was a little different as I’d had this year out doing the sporty stuff – and got an offer from Walker-Morris in Leeds. I did two years there as a trainee in 02-04 and got kept on. We centralised a lot of the sports work we were doing then – in particular they were big with football insolvency and were involved in restructuring a load of clubs – Leeds, Hull, Huddersfield, York Rotherham – and on the side of that I’d built up a stable of young footballers that I was representing through the contacts with the football club work we were doing. One was Miles Addison (EDITOR – thanks Ben, FFS), Fabian Delph & a number of others. Then, after a number of years I came to a cross roads where I couldn’t do both and was fortunate enough to then go back to what was Tony’s company (was SFX & then Wasserman) and spent 6 years there, loved it, until I got the opportunity to meet Maurice & Patrick and become CEO here.
WSB: that’s my next question, how did that happen?
BM: I think David Flitcroft had done ever so well with ‘the great escape’ and it was clearly at a time when, and I don’t think it’s a great secret, that Don & David worked together professionally but they probably wouldn’t choose to go out and share fish & chips on the way home. Don was ready, it would appear, to think about slowing down and David, and clearly Patrick, felt it was time for a fresh pair of eyes and a fresh voice and maybe someone younger. David mentioned to Patrick and Maurice that that was what he wanted to do & they undertook their own process. And, I guess everybody connected to to the football club have gone from one extreme to the other. You’ve got a really tough, organised administrator in Don Rowing who probably felt that less is more and then you’ve got the 33 year old, former agent (EDITOR – really? You never mentioned it…) who probably talks when he should be listening so I think there’s a great difference. There were a good number of meetings – I met Patrick twice, then I met Barry over tea and biscuits in Silkstone.
WSB: how many biscuits?
BM: a liberal amount. Obviously the meeting was after his afternoon nap at about 4.30, then I met Maurice & Patrick so it was about 6 different meetings.
WSB: are you one of Barry’s mistakes then?
BM: you’d have to ask BT that, if you can get hold of him. I like to think not.
WSB: were you a Flitcroft recommendation?
BM: that’s more of a question for David & Patrick but I think David had identified people that he felt could bring the energy to this office that he felt was required while also trying to wheel and deal in the market. I like to think, despite mistakes last year, as we’ve moved on we’ve made less recruitment mistakes in the previous two years.
WSB: So you walk in on day 1 – what’s your first impressions of the club?
BM: I walked in and for the reasons we’ve just been candid about, it was different as Don had an idea of how he saw himself handing things over & it all happened quite quickly. I had 2 weeks to get out of Wasserman and hand over the best part of 30-40 players and I then walk in here. On my first day, 17th June 2013, Dale Jennings is at St George’s Park having a medical. It was something we were very passionate about doing, Patrick was very committed to it & everybody was excited about it. I jumped n the car with the paperwork down to St George’s and tried to iron that out while Don was doing the stuff back at the ranch. I think being sat at the end of someone’s desk who has done a remarkable job for the last 9 years and didn’t get the credit he deserved for the job he did was difficult – Don probably didn’t want me sat at the end of his desk & I didn’t want to be a pain in the arse to him. So I think the first week was, as you can imagine, not great. Some of the staff don’t know where to put themselves as Don’s still there giving orders, I’m there looking at things thinking I might tweak that slightly different. I guess it’s like going to a wedding of your ex & no one knows where to look.
Don was absolutely brilliant though, he gave me a good heads up on things that I needed a heads up on and was very candid as he didn’t have to mince his words. So it was a tough first day down at St George’s Park with Dale, an interesting week & then really we were off and running. We were probably a bit behind the curve in terms of our recruitment – I think the big mistake, and I like to think David would acknowledge it as well, was we looked at the squad & rewarded the lads who kept us 4th from bottom. For every other club looking to continually evolve the fact we stayed still with some of the squad retention that summer probably made that year an uphill battle. No disrespect to Jim McNulty, who’s a great guy, Dawson & Dagnall who had done wonderful jobs in keeping us up but maybe when their stock was in the ascendency was it the time to say thanks lads? Maybe that was the time to evolve as if you do the same thing & keep the same players & everyone else has progressed how are we going to not finish 4th bottom? Ultimately that’s what we did. My frustration was that I couldn’t have affected David & the clubs thinking on some of that squad retention earlier on in that Summer.
WSB: Let’s go back to Autumn of that first year – the one thing that sticks in the mind was the rebranding.
BM: Surely I’ve documented that enough haven’t I? I guess if we’re having an interview with WSB, warts & all that I promised you…
WSB: Exactly because it was a fuck up wasn’t it? Why did we do it?
BM: When I came in we’d got to a stage where the football club had become detached from the local business community. At the time, and this is why Patrick was keen to retain David and his staff on good contracts, we’d got some renewed energy & optimism around the place and felt that we needed to make the football club the hub of everything that was going on in the Town. I think people will agree with that & now we’re far more present in the local business community with the football club trying to be behind everything it can & afford to be. So sharpening up the look & feel and perception of the football club – not so much to the supporters but the business community was key.
So Maurice and I felt that, whilst the crests turned out to be very important to the majority of people who voted, we have had an extraordinary amount of crests in our history. And we did do the research on all of that. However, I think what I should’ve done is take some time to do some kind of consultation process – although there were very few people to consult with as we weren’t engaged with SLOs, we didn’t have fan engagement forums, we didn’t have those portals to go to. The miners and the glass blowers are gone, the football club is the last icon of the 19th century & it was a mistake. What I think has been good & we’re using now as part of season tickets renewal is the ‘Be Part of it, Be Barnsley’ tag line and that type face, that corporate look and feel is better. I like the brand that came out of it, it was a great learning curve for me & you learn far more sometimes when you get it wrong – it didn’t cost us very much money which people might argue when you look at some of the designs but in all seriousness it was a very good exercise. I think where Everton & one or two other clubs have got it wrong is we gave the supporters the option to vote. I think that got lost in it a little bit – we gave them the option to stick with what we had.
The other thing was the way to vote was via the website – when I came in we had 82,000 data records & not even 3,000 email addresses that were working. We’ve now 32,000 accurate data records because by the time we’d launched the crest we’d invested in the CRM via Sports Alliance – we now have 21,000 active email addresses. So there was very much the get fans engaged, get them talking about the crest, get them thinking about whether they wanted to evolve that & put their stamp on something under a new dynasty under David. However, there was also a data capture element as part of my thinking – the cynical ones amongst you Liam very quickly realised there was more to it than simply just the crest. It was getting fans engaged, trying to get hold of them & understand who they were & how we could communicate with them after.
WSB: We were quite vocal on this at the time, you mentioned involvement with local businesses and the brand being redeveloped, did you ever go to any Barnsley based agencies to do that? Or straight to Fantastic?
BM: there was a relationship with Fantastic & they had done a lot with other Yorkshire football clubs. We did a lot of Insight days, we did a lot of stuff. As a football club we’ll use Barnsley businesses the best we can and if we can’t we’ll source that in Yorkshire. We felt they had a track record in that sports specific area. We did put thought into it & we do put thought into using Barnsley businesses where best possible.
WSB: what are your objectives? Do other board members sit down and tell you what they want you to achieve?
BM: if you’re a widget making factory, you buy a machine & you know how many widgets that’s going to produce & life can be organised and structured. With this, you’re dealing in flesh & blood and it’s not exact science – it’s tough in that regard. I think last year was clearly under David about wanting to build – he’d lost 4 in 27 which is top 10 form – and I think there was a sense of expectation last year and the key was to try and drive that. That’s why I spent lots of my time connected to football related matters. This year we knew that we needed to start again, we needed to let everybody go, get rid of as many as possible that had been connected to the previous 3 or 4 years and to try & be fresh. I do believe, especially after signing Bailey, Turnbull & Winnall, there was an expectation that the top 6 wasn’t beyond us and as we sit here, a point clear in 6th, that wasn’t a an unreleatisic one. However, the brief that was given to Danny in private, and it was a sensible one, was that you’ve got a lot to do – we understand there’s going to be a big turnaround in players & therefore just don’t get us dragged into a relegation battle. If you don’t, your job will be safe & you’ll have the time to take us to the Top 6. We felt that when Danny left, 4 points above relegation, a game or two away from slipping into it, whilst not looking too dynamic on the pitch, it was the right decision. Football is hard to set specific targets, the one thing Patrick has set us is that year on year we improve the value of the club & the playing squad. If we continue to do that then we’re hopeful that the rest will take care of it’s self.
WSB: At what point do we start budgeting without Patrick’s support? If we continue to budget at a loss are we always going to require Patrick’s support or do we aim to get into the black?
BM: It’s very difficult to have a squad that could challenge consistently without some kind of support from a 3rd party in this league. The riches all migrate towards the Championship – 80% of the TV money, 12% to League One, 8% to League Two. You’re always going to see some big clubs & some with parachute payments in this league. I think it’s a worry, and it worries Patrick – you saw at the Number 7 that it worries him in case something happened to him. We’re working hard to get our cost structure down, we’re working hard to improve the commerciality of the football club but we do survive on him. The Notts County Chairman said recently that actually a club like his would probably be better being Top 8 in League Two as they’d have more season tickets than competitors – we’re not there but it is hard to be sure you could compete without some support from Patrick, given the magnitude of our infrastructure.
WSB: Since you joined, what’s been the cost of hiring & firing managers?
BM: You can see from the accounts some of the costs, I’ve got to be very careful as there is a confidentiality agreement in all contracts. I think it is documented by the Chronicle that the Flitcroft departure cost the club in the region of £500k. Quite rightly David & some of his advisors would suggest that’s something that shouldn’t come out but the info is there to put it together. That’s why clubs like Southampton have set themselves up so that when Pardew left it was him plus all his staff, when Adkins left it was him plus two others. What we’ve tried to put in place with the Academy, Heckingbottom, Crossley & the Sports Science staff that now when Danny & Chris left it’s a fraction of that price.
WSB: so when we sack Lee it’s easier?
BM: Lee’s been allowed to bring Tommy in with him & it doesn’t disrupt the fabric of the football club and the day to day operations when maybe just a couple depart. What we’ve tried to do is have club led structures in analysis, science & medicine rather than manager led because we just can’t afford it.
WSB: what are you proud of since you joined?
BM: I think we’re far more connected to the Town & community, we’ve got a presence. We look and communicate far more professionally than before. We’ve now got structures in place to be cohesive from Academy to First team so it’s no surprise we’ve had 7 Academy graduates be involved this year. Things that I can control – I remember when I met Shaun Harvey before last year’s Doncaster game and the slow start was taking it’s toll on both me & David and Shaun said ‘Ben, you can work a 100 hour week but you can’t control what those 11 lads do on the pitch’ & I thought ‘yeah, that’s right’. He also said you entrust that 90 minutes to 11 individuals that ordinarily you wouldn’t allow to cross the road themselves which brought a wry smile. I’d have loved to have seen the club be far better, we all want the club to succeed, the Barnsley supporters are fanatical about their Town & Club & defending everything connected to them & I’m delighted two years on that we’ve been at least able to have this superb period where we can be positive about the club again. I think the evidence of how passionate & wonderful the support is that when we went to Oldham we took over 2400 supporters & their total gate the Tuesday after was less than our travelling support. What I want to do is give you as much as I can within the areas I can control & I think we have now with Lee Johnson a bright young Head Coach who will get right under the skin of the Town, he’s already moved in here, and give you a football club with a structure of play that people identify with & he’ll be honest and explain what he’s doing. If Lee does that and I work hard off the pitch to make good decisions, and if we make bad ones be honest & explain why we made them then hopefully the future is brighter over the next few years.
WSB: what’s your biggest mistake?
BM: club crest. The other is probably Micky Mellon. He is a very, very good operator & coach – a very good manager in his own right as he’s now showing. I do wonder if when we decided David was moving on whether or not it was right to give Danny the chance to bring all his own staff in. When you lie in bed awake at 4am wondering what you’d have done differently – I wonder if it was difficult for the players when Danny was trying to put his own stamp on it and there was a guy there who they respected in Micky. I remember looking at the Watford game where we lost away and you had Danny at one side and Micky at the other & I wonder if that was difficult for the players because they were trying to impress the new manager but also felt some loyalty to Micky, too.
WSB: 5 years time, where are you?
BM: Championship with Barnsley, looking to see if we can punch heavily enough above our weight to get within any kind of touching distance of the promised land.