Kenyon leaves Old Trafford to join Chelsea revolution

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The departure of Peter Kenyon from Old Trafford to Stamford Bridge yesterday merely confirms what most people already knew about Chelsea's new owner ­ he always chooses the best.

When Roman Abramovich looked for a manager, he called Sven Goran Eriksson to his house, a meeting which the England coach has never convincingly explained away. The players on whom he has spent £100m have all been blue-chip performers, which is precisely how you would describe Kenyon, whose resignation as chief executive to join Chelsea yesterday took Manchester United entirely by surprise.

The champions moved swiftly to limit the damage caused by the departure of a man who has been widely credited with transforming United as a marketing and commercial force, one which is now overwhelmingly the most profitable football club in the world. Its managing director, David Gill, has been moved up while Kenyon has been placed on "garden leave" which, under the terms of his £700,000-a-year contract, prevents him from joining a competitor immediately.

Gill said last night that Kenyon's departure had been "a bolt from the blue", which, given the club he is joining, is an unintentionally ironic turn of phrase.

One of Kenyon's greatest assets to Abramovich will be his intimate knowledge of player contracts and the workings of United. Chelsea would therefore be keen for him to start work as quickly as possible.

Now the Russian billionaire is at the helm, Chelsea no longer had any use for Trevor Birch, whom Abramovich inherited from Ken Bates. The Chelsea chairman had appointed Birch as chief executive in March 2002 because of his expertise in managing debt, which at Stamford Bridge was threatening the very existence of the club. Now that fire-fighting is no longer a priority, Birch has been moved to managing director with responsibility for player contracts.

Kenyon's task will be to compete with his former employers off the pitch in the way Claudio Ranieri's revolutionised squad has done on it. It will not be easy. Chelsea have nothing like United's estimated 50 million fans across the globe or the corporate tie-ins with Vodafone, Eurodisney, Nike and the New York Yankees which Kenyon oversaw. Admittedly, they are not constrained by the usual plc rules that so restricted Manchester United, despite the fact that in the Premiership's first 10 years they made £155m more profit than their nearest rivals.

Kenyon, who enjoyed a far closer relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson than his predecessor, Martin Edwards, can claim his great achievement was recognising that Manchester United was a brand which should be marketed like any other major company.

He also understood that the key to the club's success was developing its ground capacity, which now brings in £1.5m per match in gate receipts alone. Although the rebuilding of the Stretford End had begun before his appointment as Edwards' deputy in 1997, the club concentrated on expanding Old Trafford until it boasted a capacity 15,000 greater than any other in England, and it did so without incurring debt. Unlike other clubs, United did not borrow extensively against future television revenue and nor did it expand into unfamiliar areas such as hotels and leisure, a move which brought Chelsea to its knees and ignited its Russian revolution.

Nevertheless, this has not been a good summer for Kenyon. In both the buying and selling of players he has come unstuck. When Real Madrid first showed an interest in taking David Beckham to the Bernabeu, it was thought United would be able to make £40m on the deal. Instead, it made a little over half that, with the added disappointment that the Spanish champions would pay in instalments. Kenyon claimed that with Beckham's contract due to expire in two years' time, he had to act swiftly.

His attempt to spark a bidding war with Barcelona by announcing United had accepted a £30m bid from Barça's presidential candidate, Joan Laporta, fell flat, with Beckham's agents, SFX, refusing to entertain the idea of talking to the Catalans. He also accepted the need to sell Juan Sebastian Veron to Chelsea for half the £28m United had paid two years ago. Conversely, in the negotiations to take Ronaldinho from Paris St-Germain to Manchester, Kenyon allowed himself to be dragged into a bidding war which United lost to Barcelona.

That in itself was a blow, but after claiming that a £9m offer for the Brazilian had been accepted in the first week of June, the deal dragged on fruitlessly for more than a month. In the end, the wealthiest club in the world could not raise the extra £2m to prize its principal target away. It is a problem Kenyon will not experience at Chelsea.

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