“Before I came, we trained in a field and there were dogs crapping all over it. Now look at it. The 3G pitch outside, that’s a £600,000 facility. We spent 350 grand on the interiors. We moved all our staff up here. The players used to eat lunch at the stadium then drive back to the park. Have you seen our kitchen now? I’ve just been in there, all the players are having their lunch. We’ve got our own chef. And he’s a decent chef too.”
Dubliner Darragh MacAnthony is in full flow. The chairman and owner of League One Peterborough United is sitting at the training ground he renovated, preparing for the arrival of Leicester City on Saturday for an FA Cup fourth-round tie and MacAnthony has used the opportunity to give a state of the nation address.
The Irish property magnate lives in the US and has flown in for the occasion. He is dressed in trademark style, half scruffy half bling. He is unshaven and in a baggy jumper but the gleam from his jewel-encrusted watch can be seen from the other side of the room. MacAnthony, 41, has owned Posh for 11 years and it has never been dull. He has twice taken the club to the Championship, won the EFL Trophy at Wembley in 2014 and made millions on players such as George Boyd, Dwight Gayle and Britt Assombalonga. He has also made any number of outspoken remarks; whether in public, to the press or on social media. And he is not about to stop.
“I don’t think they’ll be losing much sleep will they,” McAnthony says of Leicester. “I’d imagine they’re thinking, good chance of winning the FA Cup, no? We’ve had some cracking games with them over the years; in 2009 they won League One, we finished second. We beat them a couple of times in the Championship and our best gates have been against Leicester, so I’m expecting a good game. During my time we haven’t been at our best against the big boys in the Cup, but we were against Villa [a 3-1 away win in the third round] and we’ve got a good group. So I couldn’t predict the game, but I’d be very surprised if we didn’t do well out of it.”
Doing well out of it might mean a result but, equally, for MacAnthony, it might involve a bit of cash in the bank. A Cup run – even a big tie –can change the entire perspective on a season for a club such as Peterborough. “It’s massive,” he says. “I think we budget £30-40,000 in revenue for all three cups. You do well and the money goes in as a bonus. Suddenly you’ve got this income that helps with financial fair play or maybe go out and get that player we couldn’t have before. For me the FA Cup is not just a romantic thing.”
A Cup run also means a season when MacAnthony does not have to stick his hand in his pocket. If the club ran itself within its means, he says, it would probably sit in League Two. Each year that Posh are in League One, the club will make a loss. MacAnthony is happy with this, the entrepreneurial approach suiting him down to the ground. But it is also apparent he is not at ease with the have and have-not nature of football.
“You see Alexis Sánchez go for £40m with four months left on his contract and you see Hartlepool going out of business, a famous old club,” he says. “You see that deal happening on a player and you think: ‘Really?’ I’m a big fan of the product, I’m a big fan of the Premier League. But some things are just so out of whack they need to be fixed.”
By his reckoning still the youngest owner in the Football League, MacAnthony is starting to involve himself in football politics. He believes there should be a hardship fund for clubs in financial straits, enough money to keep the doors open or at least pay the staff. “The people behind the scenes, they don’t deserve that.” He is also strongly opposed to the loan system and the onerous terms he feels are put on lower league clubs when they borrow future Premier League talent.
“You can get a Chelsea player, an 18-year-old who’s on 10 grand a week and you do a deal with the club on his wages,” he says. “Then they not only want the wages, they want you to pay for his accommodation. We’ve had Man United ask us for loan fees. Then they’re on you all the time about: ‘Why is he not playing?’ If the player has an attitude issue and we complain, they say: ‘Get on with it.’ Everyone goes on about the issues with younger players breaking through. So why are we making demands on lower-league clubs for these young players? These Premier League clubs are paying £50m to agents; surely they shouldn’t be charging us two grand a week for wages?”
MacAnthony has opinions for days, but even the strongest is shared in a breezy manner. He has got to where he is, he says, by working harder than the competition, driven by an urge to surpass his father, a Dublin nightclub owner. He also has a very thick skin. “You can’t worry about what people say about you or what they think about you,” he says and bangs his fist against the table. – Guardian service