Football: Mitchell the moderniser

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WHEN ROGER MITCHELL sneaked a look out of his window on Friday morning, the impending rain or maybe the new Hampden Park, which overshadows his office and whose pounds 60m refit grows more impressive every day, could have been on his mind. Then again, he may just have been looking over his shoulder.

The Scottish Premier League's chief executive is part of an endangered species. Head-hunting may be accepted in the business world where Mitchell came from, but football seems to consumed by hunting for heads. Mitchell, a 34-year-old Glaswegian, was the youngest administrator when he took over the fledgling organisation almost eight months ago; now he is a survivor in a perilous occupation. Jim Farry, his counterpart at the Scottish Football Association, had been sacked just days earlier, and Mitchell came to work on Friday to discover his counterpart at the FA Carling Premiership, Peter Leaver, had been forced to resign.

"I'm almost the longest- serving chief executive in British football," smiled Mitchell. "Football is moving at such a pace now, maybe too fast. Harold Macmillan once said events were the bane of all governments, and I suppose we are all hostage to them."

Events certainly claimed Farry, Leaver and Graham Kelly recently. Mitchell has found the landscape dramatically altered since he walked through the door of the SPL last August. "We had nothing," Mitchell declared. "But in a short space of time we have gone from zero to the driving force of Scottish football. I think we have made huge progress."

Mitchell points to pounds 70m worth of television and broadcasting contracts, which guarantee exposure and revenue over the next four years. Last Wednesday, he unveiled a new sponsor, the Bank of Scotland, who will invest almost pounds 4m. The man poached from the record industry, where he worked for Virgin/EMI in Italy, has to be considered a hit.

Some observers believe the new millennium will see the SPL usurp the 126-year-old SFA. Mitchell takes no pleasure in the SFA's troubles, but admits: "The SFA needs streamlining. Sport has been hauled into the modern business world recently. Some organisations are struggling - but unless you move with the times, time will move you very abruptly. It's not that we want to take over the SFA. We may have differing views, but I prefer the analogy of the old Soviet Union when Maggie Thatcher said of Gorbachev `He's a man we can do business with'."

Mitchell has been doing so much business that he has found plenty of admirers asking to see his blueprint. "I was at a meeting of European Leagues recently, and I was approached by other leagues asking to copy our model. I make no bones about the fact that we copied the English Premiership. Our product on the pitch has to improve a lot, but off it, I reckon we are in the top three. The bigger leagues, such as Spain or Italy, have more problems in terms of keeping television rights or centralised marketing."

Like the English Premiership, Sky's millions are the foundations of the empire. Maybe the pounds 45m is loose change in comparison, but Mitchell says: "That money has to be spent wisely, and invested in youth football as well as big transfers. We have to get our product right for the future too.

"Sky are our major partners. Hopefully, three years down the line they will want to renew the deal, or, it may be with others. Digital is going to change everything and there will be a lot of competition by then."

Scotland's Premier League is at present seen in 120 countries through a highlights package. "At the moment, the money isn't as important from that deal as the exposure," says Mitchell who could have been in front of the cameras himself. When Sky covered Italian football eight years ago, he undertook the role James Richardson on C4 has now turned into what many view as the best job in football. "No, this is," assures Mitchell. "I've got the chance to be at the centre of Scotland's national game - that is gratifying."