David Conn: Game's fat cats remain in league of their own for soothing stress of corporate life

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Pity the weary, downtrodden football club director. It is hardly a life at all if you listen to some of them; the stress, the relentless media spotlight, fans' unreasonable expectations. The only relief in this constant, grinding ordeal is, apparently, money - and loads of it, according to this column's annual survey of football directors' earnings, which are now up to four times the pay of directors at similar-sized United Kingdom companies outside football.

Pity the weary, downtrodden football club director. It is hardly a life at all if you listen to some of them; the stress, the relentless media spotlight, fans' unreasonable expectations. The only relief in this constant, grinding ordeal is, apparently, money - and loads of it, according to this column's annual survey of football directors' earnings, which are now up to four times the pay of directors at similar-sized United Kingdom companies outside football.

Many of football's 20 best-paid directors (see table below) enjoyed huge bonuses or steepling pay increases last year, at a time when executive pay generally was falling.

Peter Kenyon's extraordinary £3.533m, for his first year as the chief executive of Roman Abramovich's Chelsea revolution, was, the club said, exceptional because it included compensation (although Chelsea did not say how much) for Kenyon leaving his equivalent job at Manchester United.

This week, United's document recommending shareholders accept Malcolm Glazer's takeover disclosed that Kenyon made £355,000 by exercising share options before he joined Chelsea in February 2004. However, he had to forfeit thousands more options, and another executive incentive scheme, which might have made him £1m. Until Chelsea's accounts are published next year, however, we will not know how much Abramovich is paying Kenyon directly.

Kenyon's replacement at Manchester United, David Gill, well-respected in football for his running of United and conduct of the Glazer takeover tussle, was last year's second highest-paid football director. In the year to 31 July 2004, United turned over £169m, increased profits six per cent, to £58.3m, and Gill was paid £909,000, including £455,000 of bonuses in cash and shares.

Pay packages like these are spectacularly better than those of directors at similar-sized, non-football companies, according to the national survey of chief executives' earnings by the Chartered Management Institute and Remuneration Economics.

In companies with United's turnover, the average chief executive's pay last year was around £200,000, less than a quarter of Gill's. To earn anything like his £909,000 away from football's magic circle, Gill would have had to be running a vast, complex conglomerate, like, for example, Rentokil, which has a turnover of £2.4bn, 15 times that of United, and 90,000 employees involved in hygiene services and pest control, in 40 different countries.

At United, as at other clubs I spoke to, they argue that a football club imposes particular pressures on its directors which justify the booming pay. "We are the world's biggest sports business," said Phil Townsend, United's spokesman. "With that come stresses and responsibilities way beyond those of directors at a general £170m business."

Hence, the six football club directors paid more than £700,000 last year, like Newcastle United's Freddy Shepherd, whose £717,145 included a £164,000 bonus, even though both turnover and profits fell. Hence, the Premier League paying its chief executive, Richard Scudamore, £866,000, including a £400,000 bonus for negotiating the clubs' new broadcasting deals. His chairman, Dave Richards, was paid £198,000 last year, for what the Premiership told me is a three-day-a-week position.

Arsenal's managing director Keith Edelman's pay slips were swollen by a £315,000 bonus, although Arsenal did win the Premiership, significantly increased their financial performance, and Edelman was credited with finally driving the new stadium through to construction.

A Chartered Management Institute spokesman sounded a cautionary note: "It is essential that high directors' pay is linked effectively to performance, if valid questions are not going to be asked about whether the pay is acceptable."

Other observers did not feel the need to be so polite. "This smells of noses in the trough," said Malcolm Clarke, the chair of the Football Supporters Federation, himself a former chief executive in the National Health Service. "The idea that football directors need to be compensated for huge stress is ridiculous. Directors elsewhere work long hours in genuinely stressful areas of life for a fraction of this pay - many would give their right arm to work in football."

David Gill, in fact, confirmed that to me recently. Despite the Glazer saga, he said he is in his dream job. "It's good," he smiled. "If you can't play sport for a living, it's a great way to be involved."

The pay of Gordon Taylor, the Professional Footballers' Association's chief executive, leaps out as ever: £746,406, when the PFA's income was £17.6m, so far in excess of any other British union leader's earnings as to be unrecognisable. Taylor argues that he has received offers to go elsewhere, and his pay package is approved by his members. They, ultimately, include many Premiership multimillionaire footballers, who themselves earn way above the packages of any of the directors who employ them. So the game rolls on, simultaneously swimming in, and pouring out, money.

davidconn@independent.co.uk

Boom time in the boardroom: Football's highest-paid directors in 2004

1 Peter Kenyon

Position: Chief executive, Chelsea. Earnings including benefits and bonuses: £3,533,000. Last year: £701,000.

2 David Gill

Chief executive, Manchester United £909,000 (£507,000).

3 Richard Scudamore

Chief executive, Premier League £866,000 (£628,000).

4 Gordon Taylor

Chief executive, Professional Footballers' Association £746,406 (£677,248).

5 Keith Edelman

Managing director, Arsenal £737,000 (£468,000).

6 Freddy Shepherd

Executive chairman, Newcastle United £717,145 (£668,920).

7 Mark Palios

Chief executive, Football Association £702,000* (n\a).

8 Douglas Hall

Director, Newcastle United £635,465 (£591,667).

9 David Pleat

Director, Tottenham Hotspur £581,291** (£355,656).

10 Rick Parry

Chief executive, Liverpool £539,000 (£489,000).

11 Ken Friar

Director, Arsenal £527,000 (£483,000).

12 Nick Humby

Finance director, Manchester United £460,000 (£332,000).

13 Rupert Lowe

Chairman, Southampton Leisure £397,189 (£406,513).

14 Allan Duckworth

Chief executive, Bolton Wanderers £271,000.

15 Doug Ellis

Chairman, Aston Villa £263,899 (£228,635).

16 Bruce Langham

Chief executive, Aston Villa £263,380**** (n\a).

17 David Dein

Vice-chairman, Arsenal

£250,000 (£255,000).

18 Daniel Levy

Chairman, Tottenham Hotspur £250,000 (£250,000).

19 Steven Stride

Director, Aston Villa £206,348 (£172,252).)

20 Alistair Mackintosh

Chief executive, Manchester City £201,000.

All figures based on the latest available published club accounts, mostly applying to the year ending May or June 2004.

*Mark Palios' package was £351,000 for the six months from 1 June to 31 December 2003.

** David Pleat was also paid £425,000 compensation when he left Tottenham on 31 July 2004. This made his total remuneration paid in 2004 £1.006m.

*** Bruce Langham was paid £15,195 in the year to 31 May 2004, having joined Fulham on 10 May. That amount equates to £263,380 for the year.

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