Milan Mandaric: After Harry

Following Harry Redknapp's emotional resignation, the Portsmouth chairman, Milan Mandaric, tells Jason Burt of his plan for a new managerial model which he believes will be copied by '50 per cent' of Premiership clubs
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Some time in the next few days Milan Mandaric will "put a hard hat on" and make an announcement. The £35m funding is finally in place for Portsmouth's new stadium - "good British pounds" borrowed from the banks will pay for it - and the club's chairman and "100 per cent owner" will hail the dawn of a "new era" and another stage in "my vision".

Mandaric hopes to hold his press call with a new "head coach, manager, whatever you want to call it" by his side. After today's Premiership match against West Bromwich Albion, Portsmouth's executive director - and the man who is the stand-in in the dug-out - Velimir Zajec will step up his search for Harry Redknapp's replacement. He is unlikely to look beyond these shores.

The hard hats have been on - metaphorically at least - for the last few weeks as well. Redknapp's highly charged departure left Mandaric, who bought Portsmouth in 1999, considering his own future although he shifts a little uneasily at the reminder. "I was waking up thinking 'is it worth it?'," he says. "Yes, I was a little bit down, I admit. Sometimes you get a bit emotional and then there are people who have their own views.

"Ninety-nine per cent of supporters are wonderful but there are always a few. Even when I brought Harry in there were those who said, 'Why did you bring Harry Redknapp? You should get Jamie Redknapp', or 'Why didn't you give Graham Rix another year or Steve Claridge?' Commotion after commotion."

With the new stadium Mandaric, 66, will be putting down foundations. It is a physical manifestation of what he is trying to do with the Premiership club as well. "It's not very enjoyable making changes," Mandaric says. "I hate changes. I've had people working for me for 25 years back in America and that stability comes from longevity. Sometimes you have to make changes but I didn't want to make changes. I wanted to make additions."

One of those "additions" was Zajec and although Mandaric maintains the line that Redknapp's walk-out had nothing to do with the Croatian's arrival - "it's not why Harry left, he's said that more than once" - it clearly was. Not that Mandaric is repentant. "As I've said over and over, Harry has done a good job, but this club has to survive after Harry and Milan. Regardless of who is manager and who is chairman, life goes on. This club was around for 100 or so years and I'm quite sure it will be for 100 or so years after us."

It needs, he says, an "infrastructure" that most football clubs lack. "When you look at the cost of football now, let's be honest, we don't know how much longer we will have this money from Sky. Everyone is complaining there are too many television games and that's another good reason to have a solid business here so that if something happens we can still run and be self-sufficient without one individual supporting the club financially. That's what this is all about. Unfortunately it has led to a lot of noise which, again, was not necessary."

He is, at present, that "one individual" and has been heartened by the "beautiful" letters of support he has received from fans. It has emboldened his commitment. However, for all his sadness at Redknapp's departure it is clear that the "vision" he had for Portsmouth was not one shared by its former manager. "I'm not tearful at all," Mandaric says, insisting he is not gambling with the club's Premiership future. "I want to run this club as a chairman looking at where we are five years from today, not where we are next Saturday," he says. "I know this is the right way to go. If this is something new then someone has to start it anyway. I don't want to be a guinea pig either but I have seen these things happen and know why I have been successful in life - because I choose the right people for the right job at the right time."

And one of those is Zajec, recruited from the Athens club, Panathinaikos, who Mandaric clearly has great faith in. "This guy is a good football man but he also has a business head," Mandaric explains. "That's why I think it's going to work. He has the balance. He knows he can spend £1.5m for this player and he will find the best possible player for that money." Mandaric explains how this will work. "The executive director will have responsibilities for all levels of football," he says. "The man who runs the first team will have full responsibility to select players, strategise [sic] the game. The only help he will need is when he needs help. Let's say we need a centre-back in January. These two guys will sit down and say, 'What kind do we need - is it left side, right side, younger, quicker, whatever?'

"And this guy [Zajec] through his network and through knowing what's happening will get two or three potential candidates. And then he goes and negotiates with the club, the player and avoids potential agents putting a gun to our head.

"If we are going to deal with agents then it will be on our terms. Rather than them saying, 'If you want this player, you can get him but you have to give me £500,000 for that.' Those things we have to try and avoid, plus we need a 21st century way of recruiting players. If I ask Velimir, 'What do you know about that centre-back?' he'll say 'OK' and get his computer and print off four pages on everything about him. You can't bring the players randomly, give him a three-year contract, in today's market, and see if it works. What happened before was 19th century. These players weren't worth that much money and you could wheel and deal and bring them in and ship them out. But you bring one in now on a £1m-plus salary and you have four or five that don't work then it's a lot of money.

"I need someone who has dealt with that. I couldn't bring in, for example, George Graham because he's not done that. You understand? I needed a guy who had run an academy, a good coach himself, was a top player in the world. Velimir was captain of his national team, of every club. He was a head coach at Dynamo Zagreb and Panathinaikos, a director of football at both clubs, and general manager. He knew the business and was ideal. You need good people to do this. If we don't do it now while we are in the Premier we are going to waste a lot of money."

Despite Mandaric's insistence otherwise, it is hard not to interpret his explanation as criticism of Redknapp and his methods. His replacement will be "someone who is a team player. He can't just say, 'This is my team, I go there and do whatever I want'. I can't run a business like that. I don't know how. It has to be run together." Mandaric goes on: "What we need is someone who will spend a lot of time on the coaching rather than the negotiating or dealing with the agents, with the players around, preparing the team for Saturday at 3pm."

Mandaric plucks a name and one which is clearly on his mind. "Iain Dowie went to Crystal Palace and he is coaching all the time. He's just said, 'This group of players I'm going to work with, I can improve them and I'm going to concentrate on beating the next opponent.' And that is what he has done." He would happily not employ a director of football if he had Arsène Wenger or "young Moyes", then adds: "But even if you have Arsène Wenger and he makes £1.5m [a year] at Portsmouth then one day he goes to Chelsea. I want longevity, a system that means whoever is manager, they come and go, whoever is chairman, they come and go."

He also wants accountability. "You have to report to somebody," Mandaric says. "How many managers say, 'What the hell does the board know about football?' So I'm avoiding that one, you know." He believes his model will be copied soon by "50 per cent" of Premiership clubs.

Part of it all is a war on agents. "You don't have to be a brain surgeon to work it out," says Mandaric, who earlier this week revealed the club had spent £3.4m on agents' fees in two-and-a-half years, although he also confirmed that Redknapp had not taken part in any of those negotiations. "I'm not sitting here criticising every agent. There are some good, professional people but you have got to have a system which says - how much is your club paying? What is the bottom line? How are you paying? What are they doing for it? They have to earn it. I've never seen more free lunches than in the football business. I've never had one myself so why should they have one?"

The resistance, he says, has to be organised. "I'm surprised that we are not getting together with other chairmen, sitting round the table and saying, 'The 20 of us are leading the football business in the Premier, so why don't we make a firm decision as to how we handle these things?' I'm dying and hoping that day will come soon."

Mandaric, a Serb who gained a US passport in 1970, made his millions from Silicon Valley. He started a business making computer circuit boards and progressed from there. But football - he is a former semi-professional player - has always been with him. He offers an explanation as to why he has owned a succession of clubs - from San Jose Earthquakes in the US, when he tried to establish a soccer league, to Nice in France. "I love the game. I like the competition. I love building things," he says. "But maybe one reason is that I was never a superstar on the field. I was a decent player but I was pushing the bench more than kicking the ball. Maybe that's one day why I said I wanted my own team."

Acquiring Portsmouth was not in his thoughts even if he has a deep-rooted love of English football, and specialises in turning around failing businesses, which the south-coast club were when he acquired them for £5m. It can all be blamed on Preki - Predrag Radosavljevic - who had been one of Mandaric's players in the failed US soccer leagues but was then turning out for Portsmouth. "I had business interests in Britain," Mandaric says, "and he got me to delay my return to America."

He was not quite bitten but when, later, he was called in and asked to bail the club out, Mandaric spent two months involved in "due diligence" before insisting that his name was not made public until he had decided to buy. "I did not know how long I would be involved but I said, 'You are going to get something better than what I inherited'. I had to plug a lot of holes." He had a three-year plan to get Portsmouth into the Premiership but admits he wasn't fully focused because he had "other obligations" and was an absentee owner.

Ironically, of course, he first made Redknapp his director of football. Rix was the manager. "I thought it was my dream team," Mandaric says. "After two months Harry came to me and said, 'Milan, I don't know what I should do. I drive you around' - in those days I didn't drive - 'have a coffee with you in the morning and in the evening a glass of wine'. I said, 'Harry, you are going to be a very expensive chauffeur if you continue like this.' He was very honest and I realised that you need someone with experience in that field. We don't have a proper youth centre, a proper recruiting system, scouting system, to look around rather than buying players and paying £6m for Yakubu when you can find someone on the Ivory Coast when he is 17-years-old. Those kind of things."

Under Redknapp, Portsmouth raced away with the old First Division, and, in 32 months there were 144 player transactions - 36 permanent transfers in, 49 out, 15 loan players in, 44 out. "The transition from the First Division meant we had to change a lot of players," Mandaric says. "I don't want to bring in another 16 players. You bring in four or five, as a maximum, a year and you work with the others and control the agents' costs. The easiest money to make is the money you don't spend unnecessarily."

Mandaric reckons he's spent "in the neighbourhood of £20m" of his own cash. "It's money earned the old-fashioned way. I earned it and paid tax on it," he says. "Of course it worked," Mandaric acknowledges of the outlay. "Harry did right. But we have to go to the next chapter and that means stabilising." Interestingly - and not unreasonably - he calls his expenditure "investment". "One day, if I do everything right, I will get it back. You earn the money, you spend the money. As long as you don't change the way you live. My kids are not hungry, my wife is still a favoured customer at Harrods."

The new stadium is crucial. At present Portsmouth, with a £22m wage bill, a crumbling Fratton Park, gates of 20,000, and no executive boxes still break even. He wants to turn a profit so that he can leave the club without debt. "By nature I'm very optimistic," he says. "It was a dangerous time for me to come here in the first place. I just didn't know how deep the hole was. But you have to go out and make it happen. You can't just sit in the wine, you have to drink it."

The next three years are vital. In that time he wants to see Portsmouth "top of the league" outside the big five. That means sixth, seventh, eighth in the Premiership. Then he will think about leaving. "Again I ask the fans to trust me," Mandaric says. "It's not my club, it's their club. I'm just here as the maintenance man.

"When the time comes it will be the right time. One day I hope that, when I've built the club, I can get my money back. But the club will still be here, its assets will still be here. When I start to feel I'm not doing anything more and I'm not good enough then I will be the first to see that. I won't need anyone to tell me."

Comments