Reason and Accountability is Overrated in Sport.
As conversations around impending market crashes intensify, especially amongst an older community of finance professionals, many of us remember the start of our careers in that industry.
The go-go years of mid 80s Big Bang, Masters of the Universe, and ultimately Black Monday, October 1987. My generation of corporate financiers’ moment of awakening, around what can really happen to asset values, pretty much overnight. October for us isn’t the ghouls of Halloween, it’s the shiver of those days.
And we all remember the personalities back then, whether in London, New York or Hong Kong, who they were, and how they behaved. Before and after the Crash.
Those were our formative learning experiences.
Investment bankers and blue-chip consultants were, and still are, an extraordinarily eccentric breed of talent, the wistful memory of whom inspire my occasional construct of the fictional McKinsey sports consultants; Stanley the boss, Monique and George, his pod team.
Whilst we will all recognise the boss Stanley, and his protege George, none of us back in the 80s were often exposed to Monique.
The industry was scandalously short of female talent, and this Column is my attempt to remedy the omission. It is an homage to her, to Monique.
Recent discussion around sport (for example the achievements of Richard Scudamore) leans heavily on the need for outlier leadership and EQ, linked to the black arts of persuasion/seduction, to get your agenda over the line, amidst horrendous governance. In the main, one could argue that girls have that package more naturally. Most of us, instead, can’t control the testosterone.
Sport is full of advisors, consultants, intermediaries and brokers, all trying to win business. So we are an industry who should consider as essential viewing the lessons of the criminally underrated Showtime series House of Lies.
Below, in a classic scene, well ahead of its time in ridiculing virtue-signalling, we see the reality and pragmatism of what really motivates people, and how the advisor/consultant needs to manage them, with real-time empathy. Sometimes reason and accountability are laughingly irrelevant.
Many younger people may wishfully think that this is comedy, for effect. It isn’t. This is the world as it is. A world full of “good stories”.
Previous Sunday Columns, on Stanley and pod, start here:
and would be the season catch-up for the story so far.
Stanley and George sat depressed in the airport. It wasn’t that Schiphol is a particularly bad airport, or that it had been a fruitless trip. It was just the latent pointlessness of it all, amid the frantic throngs of people huffing and puffing with their lives. Seemingly oblivious.
“I’m off to count some cards at the casino Stan.
I need a distraction”
George, with his physics PHD, was unsurprisingly good with probability games. He once got to the last table at big-time Vegas poker.
Stanley was pleased with his boy. He had given him some chunky work in recent weeks, including a report on overvalued IP rights, and how that was now going to unravel, as funds like Hipgnosis melt into a valley of tears.. Covered well in The Guardian.
He’d also written, off his own back, a contrarian piece on the Hollywood strike, and what it could mean for the economics of streaming platforms, and the future use of AI in the entertainment industries. It wasn’t bullish.
George had been unconvinced by what was called the “deal to end the strike”.
But George was still off.
Stanley understood all too well the real reason. He hadn’t been himself for a while. She had gotten to him, and it was understandable.
“You and I maybe aren’t a lost cause, Northern Boy.”
Monique had left that hanging in the air last time, and for George, his solar plexus hadn’t yet recovered.
“Look son”, Stanley blurted, trying to help…
”You know what she’s like. How many pitches have we likely won by her dropping this kind of stuff with clients. She is objectively an outstanding consultant, one of the best I’ve ever seen. She doesn’t need to do it, but it’s her way, even subconsciously. And you know what? I don’t even think guys are her thing. I strongly recommend you to forget it, because I bet she has. And the last thing I need is an HR issue on my team.”
George nodded. “Fuck it yeah”. He reminded himself that he wasn’t ever going to be trading at a discount in the couples game. Tall, successful, confident. Kind eyes. He’d be fine.
George was, by now, Stanley’s surrogate lad, no longer just his professional heir-apparent.
Stanley really cared about him, and he knew well that Monique wasn’t a good match. The kind of woman you hoped would never point her tractor beam at you. An enigma, moody, magnetic, French; probably damaged by a complex backstory she had never shared with anyone.
No one really knew Monique, and where, if anywhere, she was taking her life. It all seemed always only for the moment with her, a junky emotion fix, trying to forget something awful in the past, only she knew.
Stanley saw clearly that she wasn’t the partner, transient or not, for George, who, at his core, despite his boundless talents and ambition, was still a shy humble lad from Scunthorpe.
Stanley was a 3-year widower at this point, his wife’s sudden death leaving him alone with the two girls, now 8 and 11. Misfortune had made him more than qualified to assess the right partnership for a man, especially in absentia.
“Forget the Blackjack George, tell me what you really thought about today.”
George smiled, recognising the gesture. He looked up to Stanley, and knew what he was trying to do. He pulled focus on his thoughts.
“What we saw at Ajax today Stan is where this industry now is. Football is truly lost, spinning like a crazy top, probably unmanageable, and the symptoms are just everywhere. I mean, this is Ajax, one of the truly iconic clubs, who despite belonging to a revenue-poor league, has till now bucked the market, continued to win, to produce great home players, to recruit talents from obscure markets, and still compete in the Champions League. They nearly won it recently in that year with Spurs. A great club, yet unable now to not be dragged down like the rest.”
“They defended themselves for years with a clear structure, identity, brand, and understanding of the game of football, with strong management from ex-players. It’s the legacy of Johan Cruyff. Someone like that leaves very deep roots, that don’t decay easily.”
“But things are now polarising too much, in all of Europe. There are too many stresses, all frankly pulling the fabric of the sport apart. Fans are becoming totally unmanageable, fickle, and violent. Players and their agents operate in a very grey and corrupt market. The media loves turmoil at clubs, and stokes the flames“
“But mainly, the leagues and clubs outside England just can’t compete financially anymore. You saw the Serie A deal, the French tender, all the necessary financial levers they pulled at Barcelona. Even Bayern is showing signs of fatigue, trying to bridge what is now a massive financial gap with the EPL.”
“Look at a club like Celtic. A tribe replacing sporting ambition with political anger, to still feel relevant.”
“Ajax, if you will, has been a club priced-for-perfection in execution, that has arguably just reverted to mean like the others. They denied the inevitable for so long, and it all suddenly hit them like an uncoiling spring. The stability has gone. What made them outperform; the harmony all through the club, rowing in the same direction, the clarity of mission, have now left the building; “
“The coaches and the recruitment dept, director of football are in open warfare”.
Stanley had listened carefully during the day to a club Board and ownership in raw panic, visibly shaken by the violence directed at them by their own fans. He had always recognised and welcomed this panic and fear, as the rich hunting killing fields of consultancy, making the profession both fertile and profitable.
He didn’t disagree with the analysis.
“So George”, Stanley wondered, “Isn’t this just a transient management and culture issue? If Overmars could have kept his figurative dick in his pants, if Van Der Saar had remained healthy, would all of this have happened? I mean, everyone says Overmars was a superb Director of Football. They lose Ten Hag soon after, sell the core of the 2019 team. Anybody would have lost balance.”
“They panic, hire a badly conflicted DoF, bring in really poor players, waste £150m, get involved with that dodgy agent Lemic.“
“I get it all, but isn’t this just football, peaks and troughs?”
“ Bottom line, where are we George? How do we define our role here and get paid?” Stanley concluded.
George smiled. His boss seldom let the pub banter on sport and football distract him for too long from why they were there.
To make money.
“Stan, football has these problems everywhere. Very few are managing to make a decent fist of it. It’s odds-against. Especially if it’s a small league. You can’t always keep selling really well, and replacing even better.“
“These are structural problems, not transient. We are going to get a lot of potential business from the European football sector. The issues are only going to get worse.”
“But I do have an idea of a pitch to them, where we would look qualified in replying, showing our best added-value.”
“This is an entire sector now with no clear idea of its model, its revenue prospects, its competitive balance, its relationship with the fans. Football clubs badly need outside counsel, cold profession guidance to clarify strategy versus tactics, versus simple excellence in execution.”
“Ajax has always had all three of those nailed down with discipline. No longer. The execution failure is because really they’re now confused on the first two, the macro.”
“We need to pitch to Ajax a strategy review on their model. Their ethos. I mean, is Cruyff still their prophet of choice?”
“That would be my pitch title. Where is JC14? What would he do? “
“We need to challenge them on their strategy, especially around the academy.”
“Three clubs come to mind when thinking about growing sustainably from within, and giving youth a chance. Ajax has always been one of them.”
“Manchester United’s whole brand comes from the Busby Babes and the Class of 92. Local lads getting their chance young. Exciting the fans and the community. And their best successes have always been correlated to those exact times under Busby and Ferguson. Compare that to the last ten years. Money wasn’t the answer, as it isn’t at Chelsea either.”
“Barcelona, likewise, has again started to reactivate and prioritise the Cantera, and you can see the results.”
“The emotion of Marc Guiu‘s family after his winning goal.”
“They too got lost for a few years post Pep, and basically went bust buying in a rabble of expensive misfits. They too are now going back to the principles of the same guy, Cruyff.”
“Ajax needs to develop a serious long-term plan on exactly this. And make strong and clear communication of it to their fans. Build brand positioning into that. Get back to being Ajax.”
“We should propose to do verification work, on analysing the hard cost/benefit of the academy focus, versus the old Brentford recruiting model without local kids. And conclude for the former.”
“We add in, up front, some context around what I said before about the macro challenges of football. We offer them assistance on HR best practice, recruiting. Some stuff about diversity culture, to avoid another Overmars. Bring back the old players to run the Club.”
“We’re good Stan. I’m clear. Leave it with me”.
Stanley felt his spirits rise. Ajax wasn’t ever going to be a money-spinning client for them, but no matter; his boy had re-focused, and forgotten about the mademoiselle, at least for an hour.
His phone rang. Inevitably, it was her.
“So Stanley”, she liked using his full name, “What are you doing for All Hallows Eve?”, she asked, never missing a chance to impress (Halloween is the night before All Saints Day).
Monique, contrary to the detached and superior vamp image she cultivated, was in fact a sensitive soul, and she was well aware that it was around the holidays when Stanley missed his wife most, and felt totally inadequate for the young girls. He’d never be the female role model they needed. A mother is just irreplaceable.
“Eh… hadn’t thought about it. What does one do at Halloween these days, Monique?”
George pretended to be answering emails. His attempted nonchalance was transparently unconvincing.
“Why don’t I come around and show the girls how to make proper tarte aux pommes? Bobbing your head up and down, also for apples, is so not-chic for any young girl of class.”
Stanley gasped at the audacity of the double-entendre. Even for her, that was punchy. But he thought of Mary and Ruth and how they’d really like a female guest, and reluctantly agreed.
“That is so kind Monique. Let’s do that, if really not an imposition on you. En passant, what did Textor say about the Marseille attack stuff? Can we insert ourselves with him?”
That to Stanley seemed the right tone, to de-emphasise her personal offer.
“I am not sure Textor has adapted yet to the peculiar needs of his European football assets. I told him to relax, as it was only childish boys with small dicks, trying to look hard, I suggested he himself could bid for the Ligue1 rights, and that flummoxed him, as intended. He seemed to like me. “
Stanley laughed. What wasn’t to like?
The flight back to London was uneventful. George did his Fantasy update, muttering bitterly how this was a year where “the rubbish players will win; even if they don’t know why”. Data extrapolation always has its limitations in the creative industries, including sport.
He also thought about his bonus coming up. It had been a good year for the pod. Uncertainty, disruption and confusion are always the best times for top consultancies.
Stanley texted his girls about the new news on Halloween. They were delighted.
The idea was also growing on him.
The witching hour finally arrived two days later, and the doorbell of the Georgian Villa in Holland Park chimed punctually. The younger Ruth outpaced Mary to the door and both welcomed the visitor with real enthusiasm. They had heard so much about her, principally from George!
Stanley smiled with a bit of relief. He was pleased to see that Monique had glammed-down a bit. He certainly didn’t want Gitanes-puffing Dua Lipa as the role model for his girls.
Of course she was nevertheless still so elegantly dressed, perfectly presented, striking; but the sexy edge was gone tonight. Make-up was lighter, the more modest Zara dress, no-brand shoes, with only a negligible heel.
She bore carrier bags from Waitrose. And greeted the girls in French.
They laughed, without understanding a word.
“Aren’t you going to ask me in, Stanley?”
“Sorry,” he ushered her through the threshold, whispering in her ear, “You’ll need to cut me a break tonight, this is all very new since, well, you know”.
“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this kindness, Monique”.
Her face visibly softened, almost blushed, as the children simultaneously dragged her into the kitchen, apple pies to prepare together. Stanley went to organise the table and drinks.
The mobile phone, however, as always, proved irresistible, and he got dragged into some email chain on the new geopolitics division at McKinsey. He was being asked where his sports pod could fit in, given the Saudi ambitions towards the industry. Some crass idiot had written…
“Where can McKinsey make money reconciling the demographic Islamification of Europe, and Saudi’s 2030 strategy. Post October 7. ”
Sometimes Stanley felt that he was getting old. He knew this was exactly the direction for his company, to make serious money, but he wondered if he had the stomach for it anymore. He had been 25 years at it, mainly in growth times, and smelt these new bear-market winds. It would be a different world. He’d made his money.
He heard feminine laughter from the kitchen, and willingly let it take his mind to a happier place.
The door was slightly ajar, and he found himself peaking through. The three of them were covered in flour, in their chef’s aprons, in what resembled a food fight. Monique had tied her famous fringe back in a bun, and with it, the last remnants of diva. She still was utterly beautiful, in this new girl-next-door version.
In fact, Stanley, especially seeing his girls so happy, knew right there that he was in a modicum of trouble. He felt his hands sweating; and remembered his glib use of the phrase “tractor beam”. He pulled himself together, and with the oven filled and doing its work, he summoned the ladies to the table,
“I’ve made the girls favourite; Spanish omelette, and I hope it’s ok, Monique” he said, barely looking at her. She noticed that. This wasn’t her first rodeo with these scenarios.
Thankfully, Mary unintentionally filled the awkwardness, precociously.
“Monique, why do women get paid less than men?”
Stanley sighed: “Let’s eat”. Everyone sat down to enjoy the night. Monique didn’t forget the question…
“Mary, I get paid more than George; just because I am better and make the company more money. Everyone usually gets paid what they are worth. Great people doing something useful and popular always get paid well. Money isn’t precious about which sex generates it.”
“Why don’t the Lionesses get paid like the men? They should get paid even more; They actually won, didn’t they?”, the 11 year old insisted, with the confidence smart girls have at that age.
“Well, I know that seems sensible but it’s because women’s football doesn’t make as much money as the men. It’s not as popular yet. So it can’t afford to pay as much as it would like, to the players”.
“That’s not what Megan Rapinoe says; or what tennis does”, Mary insisted.
Stanley tried to interrupt, as you would, but his colleague had it covered.
“Mary, your dad says you want to be an architect when you grow up. That’s really good. When you do that, and you are getting paid very well, what do you want people to think? That you’re getting the reward just because you’re a girl, or because people realise that you are better than the man and actually fully worth it?”
“Girls, I would die inside if I thought my company paid me just because I was a woman. Like they had to, because it was expected. We are the superior machine, never forget that. We can run rings round them. You see that in your classes. The boys seem so stupid and silly still, don’t they? Be proud, Mary. Don’t take charity, and don’t let them ever give it to you.“
Ruth started to silently cry. Stanley wasn’t untouched either.
The evening passed splendidly.
Les tartes were consumed with relish. The girls were very happy, and Stanley was as relaxed as he had been for a long while. At least on the outside. No one alas came to the door. Apparently times have changed for Trick-or-Treat, he thought.
Inevitably, the girls were finally told to thank Monique and say goodnight. They resisted till the last. Mary even tried to bring up trans athletes being ok. Stanley raised his voice, and they scrambled up to their rooms, faces beaming.
Monique put on her coat, quickly. She and Stanley both knew at this point, and realised that it was for the best if the evening ended, tout de suite. They hugged at the door, and the Englishman, well out of his comfort-zone by now, started to stutter some kind of rationalisation of the evening.
“I will never forget this kindness. It is the first time I’ve really seen them be truly happy since it happened.”
She tightened the grip of her embrace. Stanley, this time, was the one in raw panic…
“Monique, I don’t know what this is, but I don’t think it can work; it’s a bad idea…”
She put her finger to his lips…
“Sshh, you English always think too much. Si ce sont des roses, elles fleuriront”.
She kissed him, properly, lowered her gaze, turned and walked away. Stanley closed the door. In a daze. He thought of Jack Nicholson.
Reason and accountability are perhaps overrated.
They were that Halloween.
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