Rugby's own angel of the north

The Brian Kennedy interview: Last year Manchester United's poor relations were in freefall. Now they are living with the best
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The Independent Online

Before kick-starting the season against Bath, Brian Kennedy walked into the Sale changing room armed with a few newspaper cuttings and the spiel of a natural salesman. The Manchester rugby club had a wretched time of it last season, finishing bottom but one in the Premiership, and the view of the critics was that no improvement could be expected of an outfit that seemed to be hit by one crisis after another.

Before kick-starting the season against Bath, Brian Kennedy walked into the Sale changing room armed with a few newspaper cuttings and the spiel of a natural salesman. The Manchester rugby club had a wretched time of it last season, finishing bottom but one in the Premiership, and the view of the critics was that no improvement could be expected of an outfit that seemed to be hit by one crisis after another.

Kennedy addressed the players and read out the predictions from the newspapers that said Sale would finish 11th out of 12 again. "I told them that they had under-achieved but that they were professional players who had the chance to build a legend. It would not be easily achieved, which is why they call it a legend, but they could take the first step on a long journey. I have a very good relationship with the lads and I wanted to say a few words without interfering with the role of the coach."

Kennedy's address, which was welcomed by the coach, Glen Ross, may not have been a cross between Henry V and Churchill, but the upshot is that Sale got the season off to a stunning start by beating Bath and have remained near the top of the Premiership since. "Things are going well," Kennedy said, "but it's very early days."

As the latest businessman to invest in a rugby club he brings a boardroom approach to the game. How has he turned the company around? "Management. Business is simple, rugby is simple and the same principles apply. The team are only as good as their management. If we want to be the best on the park you start with the management, and you have to have the right resources and motivation. To succeed we have to be fitter and stronger than the competition."

In this regard he singles out Marty Hume, an Australian fitness coach who was recruited from Wigan rugby league club. "He's had a huge impact. The players are eating, exercising and thinking as they've never done before. We have young lads here who could become big names."

Hume was recommended to Sale by Jason Robinson, the Great Britain and Wigan wing and one of the players who has been put on the Rugby Football Union payroll by the England coach, Clive Woodward. It was thought that Robinson, whose flirtation with union at Bath a couple of years ago was not a conspicuous success, would move south, to Saracens perhaps, but he won't leave home. Kennedy is hoping that Robinson, who was no choirboy as a youngster but has since become a born-again Christian, will join Sale next month. "He's an outstanding athlete and under the right management I believe he will be an outstanding rugby union player. Just look at him when he's got the ball. He's an absolute natural."

Sale have already signed the Samoan back-row forward Apollo Perelini - another who wears the symbol of the cross on his armband - from St Helens. He has made an impression in both codes.

There have been other important recruits, notably Bryan Redpath, the Scotland scrum-half who was heading for Harlequins until Kennedy intervened, and Peter Deakin. Deakin inseminated the Bradford Bulls with some success before Saracens got him to market their move from Southgate to Vicarage Road, Watford. Last year they lost him to Warrington rugby league club, but Kennedy has installed him at Sale as chief executive.

"We have to look at marketing and finance and building a brand," Kennedy said. Firstly, though, they have to deal with the latest fall-out between English First Division Rugby and the RFU, which is endangering the Rob Andrew plan. Under that agreement the clubs thought they were receiving £1.8m a year for the next five years, the proceeds from IMG, the RFU's agents, selling the media rights.

"We never thought it was a good deal because the impression was that IMG's commission was too high," Kennedy said. "Now theRFU can't guarantee those figures and they are talking about making a loan. The problem is that theoriginal Andrew plan has changed significantly."

So far the clubs have not received a penny from the RFU. Aside from the apparent collapse of central funding, there is the sticking point of promotion and relegation. The original agreement was that there would be no change to the Premiership for three years. "That's been impossible to deliver," Ken-nedy said. "The problem with so many people sitting around a table is that each one has a different agenda. The Premiership needs stability and long-term investment, but that's impossible if the threat of relegation is there. Clubs like Worcester want to join the party, but at the moment there is no party. With the RFU representing so many interests it's hard for it to make decisions. I don't think there's been anything cynical about the negotiations, but reaching harmony is very difficult."

Thus EFDR will be holding yet another emergency meeting tomorrow night and the view from some owners is that the Rob Andrew plan has failed to deliver.

Kennedy will not be short of advice. Fran Cotton, the man behind the Club England concept, is a life member at Sale. When Kennedy was sold on Sale, after getting an initial approach from Adrian Hadley, the director of rugby, he thought the conflict was at an end. As it was, his accountants crunched the numbers for six months before one of his companies, Genesis Communications, which is based in the North-west, bought Sale RFC. "It's high risk but it's a big sport getting bigger," Kennedy said. "There will never be great profits, although I don't want to bankroll it indefinitely."

His core business is a company called Latium, which owns such brands as Everest, for which he paid £47m last year, and Duraflex. The turnover of Latium is £250m, Genesis £45m. Last week a newspaper report said that Kennedy - he used to sell Moben kitchens faster than they could make them - was personally worth £150m, a figure he describes as "nonsense".

Kennedy was born in Edinburgh and went to Tynecastle High School, close to the ground of Hearts football club. He played football, as a midfielder. After a spell working in the Royal Bank of Scotland he moved to Manchester in 1984.

Described by his friends as a rough diamond, the father of five differs from the other Premiership owners in that he plays rugby and regards himself as "one of the lads". Appearing for the Holmes Chapel club in Cheshire, he struck up a friendship with his fellow back-row forward Ian Blackhurst, who is now chief executive of Genesis.

Kennedy, at the age of 40, currently scrums down for the Wilmslow second team, where he is noted as an "aggressive sort of player, useful for his age and good in the bar". Towards the end of last season, in the final minute of a match, the Wilmslow boy brokehis nose when he collided with a team-mate.

"In the bar I tried to push it back into place and didn't make a very good job of it," Kennedy said. In the first minute of the match the following weekend he broke his nose again, in similar circumstances, colliding with another team-mate, Daz Lucas, who happens to be an employee of his. "He has a head the size of a rhino and my hooter was all over my face. I had to go to hospital to get it reset. There's still nothing like it. I'd much rather play rugby than watch it."

Kennedy is toying with the idea of moving Sale's matches from Saturday to a Friday night or Sunday so the junior clubs in the area can attend. The capacity of Heywood Road is less than 5,000 but they are struggling to attract 3,000. It does not help that Manchester United are five minutes down the road.

Kennedy - he once made an offer for Hibernian FC and hisattempt last year to relocate London Scottish to Edinburgh was blocked by the Scottish Rugby Union - says he will invest £4m in Sale over the next three to four years. If and when he fills Heywood Road, he is committed to moving the club to a bigger ground, perhaps to Warrington who, with the help of Tesco, are building a new stadium, or Stockport County.

"Man makes plans," Kennedy said, "and God laughs." The man who bought Everest now faces the task of climbing it.