Brian Facer: the rugby man bringing London Irish back to London
Interview: the club’s CEO has rugby in his genes, and bigger ambitions for its future, with high-profile signings including Seán O’Brien and Paddy Jackson
London Irish chief executive Brian Facer: ‘The most important thing for any rugby club is to succeed on the pitch.’ Photograph: Lee Christiansen
There’s commitment, and then there’s Brian Facer’s level of commitment. The chief executive of London Irish rugby club since late 2017, Facer commutes for five hours each day to the headquarters and training ground in west London from his Northampton home. His rationale? “I love [the job] and it’s an amazing club.”
His first 18 months saw the club fall into relegation and climb back out again under the stewardship of Declan Kidney, the former Ireland head coach hired by Facer. But now is a time of turnaround as London Irish aspires to consolidate its position in English rugby by staying in the top league.
That target has been bolstered by a recent spate of high-profile signings, signalling clearly the club’s intent for the coming season. They include Ireland and Leinster flanker Seán O’Brien, New Zealand winger Waisake Naholo, Australian prop Sekope Kepu and – somewhat controversially – former Ulster and Ireland outhalf Paddy Jackson.
On the day we met, Facer had just returned from a week’s holiday in Dubai, a bit of R&R after a challenging season in which promotion was only secured in the final weeks of the season.
His absence was either well or poorly timed, depending on your perspective: that was the week Jackson’s move to the club was made public.
The move has divided opinion, particularly on social media, where references to the high-profile rape trial Jackson was involved in last year were dragged up. To recap briefly, Jackson was found not guilty of raping a woman at a house party in his south Belfast home in 2016 after a lengthy trial. Although acquitted, behaviour that emerged at the trial caused consternation among some provincial rugby sponsors, with Bank of Ireland saying at the time that it was “highly concerned regarding the serious behaviour and conduct issues” that emerged.
The IRFU and Ulster Rugby subsequently revoked Jackson’s contract in April 2018, acknowledging at the conclusion of their review that, in arriving at their decision, they had a “responsibility and commitment to the core values” of rugby, namely “respect, inclusivity and integrity”.
Does London Irish take a different view?
“We’ve got strict codes of conduct and obviously he’ll have to adhere to the same code of conduct . . . and we’ll judge the man when he’s here and the way he conducts himself, but I’m fairly sure we’re comfortable with who he’ll be,” says Facer.
“I totally understand that people will have different opinions about how [the trial] went and didn’t go, and we respect everybody’s opinion but, from our point of view, we want the best players at the best time to give us that best chance to consolidate and move through.”
And, the trial aside, Jackson is familiar to the two coaches he’ll work under – Declan Kidney and Les Kiss. Kidney awarded him his first international cap in 2013 while Kiss was his last head coach at Ulster. According to Facer, both coaches view him as “one of the best 10s in the world”.
If so, the signing is quite a coup for a club that has had an unsteady decade flowing from the fact that their presence in the premiership was never guaranteed. They have slipped into the lower championship league on a number of occasions. In turn, revenues would fall on account of lower ticket and hospitality prices and poorer attendance. As a result, a hole would emerge in the accounts which the owners would have to fill.
But there’s a sense that, under Facer’s control, the next number of years will be different and, in fairness to London Irish, the foundations exist with its strong academy system. In any event, the chief executive’s own experience is such that you’d bet on him making a success of it.
The man is unashamedly “Northampton born and bred” (which explains the five-hour commute), and previously worked for 13 years with his home team Northampton Saints, which this year beat Saracens in the premiership cup final, and are currently in a battle to hold on to the final playoff place in the league ahead of the final round of games on Saturday.
Having started in the sales and marketing department, Facer ultimately rose to the position of commercial director. Before that, he was embedded in the City of London working in roles as varied as IT and heavy side welding. Ironically, he moved back from London back then to ditch the lengthy commute.
In Northampton, “you’re pretty much born with an oval ball in your hand,” Facer says, adding that throughout his school years he played secondrow “before he stopped growing” at which point he moved into the front row. His friends now are still the “guys I played rugby with”, something that differentiates rugby from other sports, he says.
But despite those strong connections with the sport, Facer never had aspirations to work in it, and initially he didn’t. Leaving school “without many qualifications”, he went straight to work to make money and subsequently put himself through night school to get a qualification which led to a plethora of sales and marketing roles.
His move to Hazelwood-headquartered London Irish has seen him put them on the warpath and it couldn’t come at a better time, given the club’s move next year to once again play its game in London after 20 years in exile in Reading. The move to Brentford in west London – where they’ll share the football club’s new stadium – will come with great expectations, not least of renewing their ties with the local Irish community.
With that focus just more than a year away, what do they have to do this season?
“The business of rugby is an interesting one and the most important thing for any rugby club is to succeed on the pitch,” he says. “If you succeed on the pitch, people will watch you, people will pay to come and support you. If you’re not succeeding on the pitch, people will watch you from a distance but they don’t want to get involved so that they’re giving you their money.”
With high-profile signings, success on the pitch will hopefully come easier than previously. And there’s an added benefit with a signing such as Seán O’Brien, who will be central to them enticing the Irish in London to their games.
“Seán brings a great deal of marketing clout to us as well so it will help us with our commercials going into Brentford, as we look to engage with that Irish exile community that we know are around there. But he also brings a massive leadership experience and a winning mentality from his time at Leinster,” Facer says.
While there’s undoubtedly an air of positivity at London Irish, there’s no doubt that running a rugby club is hard, not least because of the loss-making nature of the beast. Last year, only table-topping Exeter Chiefs made a profit in what was then the Aviva Premiership; the rest nursed significant losses.
London Irish was among them, recording a £2.7 million loss on revenues of £9.5 million in a season that saw them relegated. This year’s accounts will be “slightly worse”, Facer says, noting that they correspond with a year the company played in the second-tier championship rather than the premiership.
But a payoff from private equity company CVC will help. The company took a 27 per cent shareholding in the premiership competition in return for £230 million in a deal tied up before Christmas. As one of the founding members of the competition, and therefore a shareholder, London Irish was amongst the 13 beneficiaries.
Yet for the most part, it is the job of majority shareholder Mick Crossan – the Cavan man who founded waste management and skip hire company Powerday – to stump up the cash to cover losses. In its 2018 Rich List, the Sunday Independent estimated that Crossan had a net worth of €60 million, level with fellow Irishman, and owner of rugby rivals Wasps, Derek Richardson.
Neither of the men will come away from their investments with heavier pockets, at least not in the short term. But Richardson has moved to improve the situation of his club’s finances by moving them out of London to the Ricoh Arena in Coventry, a 32,000-plus seater stadium that also has an exhibition area, hotel and casino and sits on the same site as a shopping centre.
Does London Irish have ambitions to have its own stadium?
“For me, the longer-term ambition is can we find somewhere we own,” Facer says, conceding that, in London, that will prove to be tough. On Wasps’ move to Coventry, he notes that such a move is “difficult”, particularly when nearby competition includes Leicester Tigers. A cautionary tale for Wasps, perhaps, is the return by London Irish to the capital.
But Facer notes that their Reading home has served the club well, and was the “right deal at the time”.
Their summer 2020 move will see them relocate to a stadium with capacity for 17,250 patrons, down from the 24,000 in Reading. The smaller size will allow the club improve the attendance at their matches, Facer says. “When you go into a slightly smaller stadium, you can drive scarcity in demand,” he says, adding that match day revenues such as food and drink sales will fall to them.
While they would hope to drive that demand by remaining in the premiership on the back of their performance, Facer has separately called for the tournament to expand from 12 teams to 13.
“For me, there’s a big disparity between championship and premiership,” he says. “Whoever goes down is always going to win that [championship] league and come back up again. If you’re a championship club, the best you can hope for is to finish second.”
The RFU, the governing body of the English game, is currently examining a proposal from the premiership clubs for an enlarged 13-team league from 2021/22, with no automatic relegation but a two-leg playoff at the end of the seasons between the basement club and the top side in the championship. Even if it is put to the RFU’s upcoming AGM, it is likely to meet intense opposition.
Facer believes the coming months will be “defining”. But, whatever the outcome, he is clear that being worried about relegation isn’t a problem he intends to have this year.
And while there’s certainly ambition there, it doesn’t stretch as far as a move to European rugby, at least not in the next season. “If it comes, it comes, but are we aiming for that at this point? Probably not.”
That said, Facer is hoping for a place in the European Champions Cup by 2023.
“We’ve got a four/five-year plan to get us to a point where we’re competing in the top six of the premiership which puts us into the Champions Cup, which is exactly where we need to be.”
From his office in Hazelwood, he has his work cut out winding down the club’s presence in Reading in preparation for the London return. But rugby is in Facer’s genes. And he admits himself that, once you choose a career in sport, you either stay in it for the long haul or get out fast. With more than 13 years under his belt so far, it would be hard to see Facer now in any other line of work.
Name: Brian Facer
Position: Chief executive of London Irish
From: Northampton, England
Family: Married to Nicola with three children – Jamie, Holly and Jordan
Something you might expect: Facer attends every London Irish rugby match, home and away, throughout the season.
Something that might surprise: Facer gets up at five o’clock every morning to go for a run with his dog. In the evening when he returns from work, he cycles.