I was drinking tea out of a “worker” mug while Ryan McKnight supped out of one with his name on the front, but he looked like the one with a job on his hands when we met, two weeks ago.
At 30, McKnight is the youngest male chief executive in English football – only Mansfield’s Carolyn Radford is younger – and from his seat in front of a three-bar electric fire he was talking about the revolution he wants to see played out on Stockport County’s pitch, which you can view from his office window.
His philosophy was simple and logical, if not entirely original. Essentially, forget worrying about where you will finish next season and put in place a culture of technical football for the long term which will not expose you to the wasteful chopping and changing of styles and managers which blights football. Quite a bit of McKnight’s talk took some unravelling. “Implemented fundamentals are required at a football club of which success is a by-product,” he said, for example. And he was none too diplomatic. “Fans say to me ‘where will we finish next season?’ and I tell them ‘that’s the wrong question to ask’...” But the application of some rationale and intellect to the impulsive, anti-intellectual ways of old-school football certainly made sense, even though McKnight’s utter conviction that he is right, and that very many football chief executives have got it wrong, made you feel that this man was either going to be very famous, or just infamous, in the town.
“The game is populated and littered with people who are not football specific or have come from other industries, brought some stuff that is relevant with them and started to make decisions about the club based on their opinion and not from a football-specific angle,” he said. “It’s ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. And we have no way of policing it. These people are at the top of our game.
“Executives in clubs don’t really make the commitment to learning the football side of the business. They think being a fan is enough and it’s absolutely not enough. We need chief executives and chairmen of football clubs who are 360-degree people. I met half a dozen other chief executives who might be compliant in running a business, but could the manager have a conversation with them about football? The harsh reality of it is ‘no, they could not’.”
Wow. These were very confident pronouncements for an individual plunging into his first job in football at the Conference club at an age when most players are still plying their trade on the pitch, though football executives reading this may be familiar with McKnight’s name. He has previously edited the respected FC Business magazine for which individuals such as Liverpool’s Ian Ayre and Carson Yeung of Bimingham City have been willing to sit down for substantial interviews.
It was his player contacts which Stockport were sold on, though, when they recruited him last month, and most specifically his friendship with the Dutch former Wales and now Armenia coach, Raymond Verheijen (“the most progressive coach on the planet”, McKnight said). That friendship has been kindled by McKnight’s role as chief executive of the UK arm of Verheijen’s World Football Academy – a position he has continued to hold since taking the Stockport reins. Verheijen has been deeply critical of British football’s failure to apply some of the methods he teaches at the academy. “He is not being opinionated. What he is talking about is fact, fact, fact,” McKnight said. “People are struggling to come to terms with that. We are both 99.9 per cent on the same page in terms of philosophy, the only difference being that he has more experience than I will ever have.”
Their combined connections led McKnight to look beyond the conventional applicants who applied for the Stockport manager’s job which became available in January when Jim Gannon fell out one too many times with the chairman – the memorably titled Baron Peter Snape – and was sacked. McKnight approached Swiss-born Bosnian Darije Kalezic instead, raising the prospect of totaalvoetbal by the banks of the Tame, with the mild local concern being Kalezic’s limited managerial experience – two seasons with De Graafschap, getting them promoted as champions into the Dutch Eredivisie, plus an unhappy six-month stint in Belgium’s top league with Zulte Waregem.
“The difference between him and those who applied for the job was chalk and cheese,” McKnight said. “The others brought the traditional British approach: just work ethic, things like that. The other thing with having a philosophy is that you can bring in technically gifted players.”
Kalezic ran the coaching side – “I don’t bring players in. I coach,” he said when appointed – while McKnight used his European networks to sign players he felt met Stockport’s new technical requirements: out-of contract Swedish striker Adnan Cirak; former Manchester City youth player Javan Vidal, from Greece, where he had not played; Swedish defender Johan Hammar on loan from Everton; and Mark Cullen (“technically minded”) on loan from Hull City.
It started rather well: two wins and a draw in the first four games, with only a defeat at promotion-chasing Wrexham. But then the difference between theory and practice began to kick in – successive home defeats to Tamworth, Hereford and Luton. And though there was a win at Barrow 11 days ago, Kalezic’s record stood at seven defeats in 12 games after the dismal 1-0 loss at Luton on Tuesday night. The technical football McKnight had talked of seemed to have been discarded in favour of route one as the side sought a way out of the mire, but the levels of unhappiness among supporters escalated to the point that Snape issued a statement on Tuesday warning that directors were not willing to accept the “abuse, foul language and threatening behaviour” aimed at them after their last game and suggesting that internet sites had carried “death threats against particular individuals”. Several County supporters have emailed The Independent to challenge that claim and asked where the evidence is.
Kalezic was sacked on Wednesday, 55 days after his appointment, with County perched perilously one place clear of the relegation zone, having played a game more than Lincoln and Barrow, who both lie two points beneath them. The 43-year-old Kalezic is said to be incandescent about the standard of players bestowed upon him and an episode which, he has told friends, has caused him reputational damage. Supporters are particularly doubtful about Cirak, Hammar (who is back at Everton) and Vidal. After a difficult start to the game at Luton on Tuesday, the latter, making his second start for the club, went down with a hamstring injury and left the field after just 20 minutes.
In the statement which announced Kalezic’s sacking, Snape – a former West Bromwich East MP who was made a life peer after standing down at the 2001 election – admitted that making Stockport a testbed for a radical football revolution had not been wise. “The reality is that despite our best intentions we believe that we got the decision to employ a manager without Conference experience wrong,” he said. “With seven cup finals remaining we have to try and make a positive move that will give us a better chance of retaining our [Conference] status.”
Stockport moved quickly to appoint a manager more conversant with life in football’s lower reaches – Ian Bogie, who was dismissed by Gateshead last December after five years in charge and who, having topped the list of conventional managers who applied to succeed Gannon in January, was offered a role as Kalezic’s assistant, which he rejected. There is nothing about Bogie’s more conventional football messages which suggest he is continuing with totaalvoetbal.
McKnight feels that the commercial side of running a football club – even one which has fallen on times as hard as Stockport – is not as challenging as many other businesses. “Football clubs are in a blessed position where, more than any other business, they pretty much know what their income is going to be at the start of the season,” he said two weeks ago. “Why football clubs can’t make a profit has nothing to do with uncertainty of income. Come August, all the season-ticket sales and sponsorship have been done, you know the TV rights. The only reason you lose money is down to choice.”
Which is logical for those clubs which actually have money to be choosy about spending. Stockport Supporters’ Trust’s deal to take over their club from businessman Brian Kennedy when he decided to sell in 2005, and to continue ground-sharing with his Sale Sharks rugby union side, has left them with no match-day revenues except turnstile cash. A mysterious Liverpool businessman, Tony Evans, who arrived at Edgeley Park with promises of £1m a few years ago was greeted enthusiastically and granted clearance to hire a contact of his, Dietmar Hamann, as manager in what constituted another piece of experimentation. The former Liverpool player resigned four months later, after four wins in 19, complaining that Evans’ money had not been forthcoming – which it certainly never was.
McKnight could not be reached this week to discuss whether he feels he can continue on the path he envisages for his club. The squad’s onward journey sees them up against fourth-placed promotion challengers Newport County at Edgeley Park this afternoon, with neighbours Macclesfield and Grimsby Town – both top-seven sides eyeing play-offs – to follow over Easter. It’s a tough old world out there, launching a revolution with barely a penny in the bank.
From giddy heights to constant false hope
Stockport County reached the giddy heights 17 years ago, when Dave Jones took them to second in Division Two and a League Cup semi-final, knocking out Blackburn, Southampton and West Ham of the Premier League on their way.
They long ago ran out of money – and although when their supporters’ trust bought out owner and Sale Sharks proprietor Brian Kennedy eight years ago it offered hope for the future, it has been promise unfulfilled.
Winning the 2007-2008 League Two play-off final against Rochdale was an illusion. On 28 December 2008, when Leeds arrived in town, County were fifth in League One. But they lost – and the club’s finances began unravelling. The trust had taken out a £300,000 loan, which it was to repay using money raised by relinquishing the sell-on clause when they sold Ashley Williams to Swansea City. But instead, the Williams money was spent on other players, and the lender pulled the plug.
There has since been a succession of prospective saviours, the most recent of whom was Liverpudlian Tony Evans. Offering £1m, Evans was welcomed with open arms, despite his links to Stephen Vaughan, the former Chester City owner who was the first to fail the Football League’s fit and proper person test after involvement in a £500,000 VAT fraud. Evans insisted Vaughan was not his backer. The £1m never materialised.