Targeting serious success is part of fun factor


Seán Kennytalks to Peterborough United’s Irish owner Darragh MacAnthony about his big plans for the club

HE ACTUALLY seems coated in confidence, a lacquer as hard and bright as polished steel. Darragh MacAnthony, the Irish owner and chairman of Peterborough United FC, breathes supreme conviction into every word he speaks about his club.

In August 2007, a printed leaflet was slipped between the covers of a Peterborough match programme. It was a note from MacAnthony, the new club owner, promising fans promotion from League Two to the Championship in two seasons, followed by a genuine challenge for a place in the Premier League within another couple of seasons.

Perhaps, bathed in late-summer warmth and early-season optimism, some supporters even believed it. Most, though, surely rolled their eyes, wary and weary of the false prophets of the lower leagues.

MacAnthony believed. He was aiming skyward from the dank basement of the Football League. So far, his aim has been true. Successive promotions have kept his promise and the club contest the 2009 / 2010 season as a Championship side.

TARGETS. THE WORD peppers his talk. There is always something in the crosshairs. He is itching for the new campaign now, trigger finger primed, restlessly stalking the next big one: the Premier League in two seasons.

“No, promotion this season is my target. We have a good enough young squad to have a run at it and surprise a few people. Looking at what Burnley did last year, you always get one that comes out of the pack. If we start the season well I’ve got no doubt that we can get promotion.”

Before the story goes further, it must go backwards. By way of context, some history, and some geography: MacAnthony was born in Dublin in 1976, moving to Spain with his family as a 15-year-old in 1991. In 2000, he formed MacAnthony Realty International (MRI) and made a mint selling overseas holiday homes to Irish and British customers. By 2006, he was richer than Croesus. He wanted a hobby. Fishing was fine and all, but what he really wanted was a football club. Unlike most, he had the means to acquire one.

“It was the fun factor. I was a workaholic. I’m very much a target-driven person; I draw up targets every year and one of my targets when I got to a certain age was to own a football club. It’s every fan’s dream to own their own football club. So that was the year I wanted to do it and if it wasn’t going to be Peterborough it was going to be another club. I was very blessed to be in a position to buy one.”

The possibility of buying Peterborough emerged in August, 2006. Here the story takes a turn for the weird. Unbeknownst to MacAnthony, a Sky One documentary, Big Ron, Manager, was being screened at the time. The programme’s concept was that Ron Atkinson, with TV crew in tow, would arrive at a lower division club, dispensing “advice” to the manager. Peterborough’s then-owner, Barry Fry, drawing from unfathomably deep wells of wisdom, liked the sound of this. The Tanned One descended in the latter half of the ’05/’06 season. Atkinson was the cat. Peterborough were the pigeons. Soon, the sky was raining feathers.

“My dad called me at home in Spain one day and said, ‘You want to see this programme on TV. You want to see the way this football club is run. You wouldn’t want to touch it with a barge pole!’ And lo and behold it was Peterborough, the club I was about to buy. My dad said, ‘Jeez, you’re mad!’ The players were rowing, there were rucks, the manager walked out during a game. But there is only one player left from that previous regime now.”

Unperturbed, MacAnthony had established formal links with the club within days. He even regarded as providential the unlikely beaming of Peterborough United, via outer space, on to his television screen in Spain.

By September 2006, at the age of 30, he had become the youngest chairman in the league. He inherited a struggling team, a sizeable debt and Barry Fry as director of football.

For most of its 49-year history as a league side, Peterborough have yo-yoed between the third and fourth tiers of English football. Even the club’s nickname, The Posh, is redolent of lordly indifference to the cutthroat upper reaches of the game. MacAnthony, fizzing with impatient ambition, knew change was needed. In January 2007, manager Keith Alexander was sacked. His replacement was Darren Ferguson, son of Alex, and untried as a manager. It was a gamble which has yielded big returns in the form of those back-to-back promotions in Ferguson’s first two full seasons.

“Darren’s been massive for us. He ticked all the boxes on the criteria of being a new, young, refreshing manager. He was a guy who didn’t have scars from managing, from being fired, from having problems, having bad runs. I kind of wanted someone who was new to it. That way he’d come in and he’d have his own ideas, but he’d adhere more to our policies as well.

“He just wanted to come in and improve players. He just wanted to get on with it. I think he’s grown himself in the last two years. He’s probably become the most sought-after young manager in the game.

“Our relationship is great. We’re actually very similar. We have a good bit of craic together. We’ve had our fair share of rucks as well. That’s only natural; you’d be lying if you said it didn’t happen in football clubs.”

FERGUSON WAS recently re-signed to a new four-year contract, following interest from a number of Championship clubs. Other successful signings have resulted from the chairman combing for gems discarded in the muddy wastes of non-league football.

“Unlike a lot of other people who go in and buy football clubs, who don’t know a lot about football, I knew a lot about football. And I applied a lot of the things I’d done in business over the years to the football club. I didn’t like the model where 29- to 33-year-olds were getting their final payday by going to lower division clubs and a lot of clubs were sucked dry because of that.

“So I thought I’d like a different dynamic. I’d like to go after the young, motivated individual who wants to prove to the world they deserve league football. My whole policy was built around buying the best players in the lower leagues and non-league. So, for each position, you get them in at 20 or 21. We make sure they live locally; they have to live within 10 miles of the club, which would also mean they’d get to know each other and kind of grow up together.”

He has been fairly prudent with the purse strings, having invested around £7 million (€8.2 million) in the club to date. He cites Wigan and Reading as clubs with modest histories who broke into the top flight. However, Wigan’s path to the top burned a £60 million-shaped (€71 million) hole in owner Dave Whelan’s pockets. Reading’s promotion cost John Madejski around £40 million (€47 million). The Peterborough chairman says his club is financially self-sufficient.

“A lot of clubs in the Football League are struggling because they just don’t know when to say no, in terms of paying over-the-top wages, being rinsed financially. I think it’s a very dangerous game to play and there are too many clubs going into administration.

“I think greed is ruining the game. I don’t think there’s enough effort being made to sort that out. I refuse to throw money around and if anyone doesn’t like it they can ask to leave. The problem with most clubs is that they’re afraid to say ‘no’.”

Come match day, the chairman puts his mouth where his money is. “I’ve been quite busy working but I probably see 30 to 40 per cent of the games. My wife hates sitting next to me at games. I get very aggressive; the language goes a different colour. I do get a little too emotional during games . . . The manager can hear me from the bench too. We laugh about that, but at the end of the day he knows who I am, and he knows I blow hot and cold depending on whether we’re winning or losing.”

The talk turns again to targets: A new 20,000 all-seater stadium within three years, Premier League football, a financially stable club. Then he fires out one more pellet of pure audacious ambition. “I want to start expanding the brand into Asia and America.” Asia? America? Kids in Kuala Lumpur wearing the blue and white of Peterborough United. PUFC scratched onto school desks in California. Really?

“Everything I’ve done in my life, I’ve aimed for the stars, and if you fall a little short, you do okay. You have to have targets.”

Posh Owner With Premier goal

Sunday Times