The Darragh Era

Revisited from Liquid Football Magazine Issue Four…. When you think of a football club, it’s usually the key players or the manager that first springs to mind. They were always the staple figures at the club, and the main basis for discussion and critique amongst supporters.

But in the last decade or so, those that reside upstairs have found themselves as much under the microscope as those that are on the pitch. Assisted by the explosion of social media, fans are just as likely (or even more so in some cases) to talk about what might be going off and what might need changing at board room level than they are to discuss last Saturday’s dismal display.

​A lot of football fans, myself included, have harboured dreams of running a club at some point in their lives – just like when it comes to tactics and team selections, the average supporter will always believe that they know best. ‘How many times have you heard someone say; if I had his money, I would do things my way’. But if you did have those sort of resources, when push comes to shove, the decision of buying a football club is not as straightforward as you might think. There are plenty of millionaire football fans out there that would love to give it a go, but simply haven’t got the balls. It takes a certain type of character to take the plunge. ​

One man who was not afraid to dive head-first into the deep end, was Darragh MacAnthony. The Irish businessman was just 30 years old [my age now, which is making me want to re-evaluate my own life] when he took over at Peterborough United. MacAnthony explains what prompted him to buy a football club in the first place; “Madness, youthful foolishness… you name it I did it in my twenties. Owning a football club was always on my wish list. And when I was in a position to do so; I made it happen, pronto”​.
Like taking over any business venture; buying a football club is a massive risk to both the owner’s finances and reputation. For some, the whole thing has gone completely tits up, and they have lost everything. And unlike a normal business, club supporters are not customers, they can’t just take their business elsewhere if they’re not satisfied with the product, (well they can, but they shouldn’t) so you have to keep thousands of people happy, but of course, in football that is not always possible.

But for Darragh MacAnthony, buying Peterborough United was a risk that has paid off, and his decade-reign should be considered a success. When he first came in, Posh were languishing in League Two and, the fallout from the Sky One documentary ‘Big Ron Manager’, had left the club as the laughing stock of the country. In fact, MacAnthony mentioned in his book, From Hobby to Obsession, that his own father was watching the programme and said to him; ‘You are so lucky that you didn’t buy this football club’. Most people would have been put off getting involved with such a shambles, but for MacAnthony, it had the opposite effect. He saw a challenge, and he grabbed it with both hands.

“I try run a good ship. A healthy one which won’t go out of business on 5k gateS”

After the takeover was complete, their dramatic rise into the second tier in such a short amount of time, came as a massive shock to most. But not to the confident chairman. “I actually expected to be in the Premier League within the first seven or eight years and after quick back-to-back promotions, the arrogance took over”. “When we hit The Championship, I thought we would go up again”, MacAnthony admitted. But it soon became a realisation that the gulf between The Championship and Leagues One and Two, is far bigger than he may have initially anticipated. “The Championship is the toughest league of them all from my experience: massive ex-Premier League clubs with millions in parachute payments and crowds of over 20k each game, which for a young team coming up from League One is an eye opener from playing in front of 5k. Much more psychical and mentally draining”.

The club’s first spell back into the Championship was a dismal one, with four different managers at the helm over the course of the season, and it ultimately resulted in relegation back into League One. When the club was to return a year later, following victory over Huddersfield in the play-off final at Old Trafford, their approach was with a bit more caution and this time they wouldn’t underestimate the division. They finished the season a respectable four places and ten points above the drop. However, the following season, Posh would again find themselves dropping out of the second tier, but this time it was under extremely harsh circumstances.

“Cruelty is best way to describe us leaving the Championship with practically the last kick of a season”, MacAnthony conceded. But it was a massive improvement on their efforts three years previously – amassing a record points total for a relegated team. But the chairman was still, understandably, massively disappointed. “When we went down with 54 points after losing 14 of the 18 opening games, I honestly felt that we had cracked it and become acclimatized to it all and we were ready to grow up and challenge. However, lesson learnt and when we return, it’ll be different story”.

Since that fateful day at Selhurt Park four years ago, the club have been unable to find their way back into the Championship, and with a mediocre campaign last season, it’ll be another term in League One in the coming term and some of the supporters are getting restless. Not least at the fact that Peterborough (like most Football League sides) are a ‘selling club’. The policy of unearthing non-league ‘gems’, and then selling them on for profit is a great business model, but it is not one that supporters get on board with. And they never will. But whilst Darragh says that he understands the frustrations of the supporters, he also reiterates how important the policy is in keeping their heads above water; “I try run a good ship. A healthy one which won’t go out of business on 5k gates, whilst still competing for success each season”.

“Our policy is the envy of the majority of Football League clubs and has been complimented up and down the country”

“In ten years we’ve been in the Championship for three of them, won promotion three other years, won the JPT at Wembley and made the play offs one year, so it hasn’t all been failure with my policy”. He added; “We also have spent a shit load of money on an expensive stadium we don’t own, a new training ground, a youth academy and so on… whilst still competing”.

“We sell, usually, one main asset each season which allows this to all happen, so if I have got it wrong, then maybe I’m not seeing what others see. Our policy is the envy of the majority of Football League clubs and has been complimented up and down the country”.
The Darragh era at Peterborough has seen a handful of managers come and go, but all of the good times, the promotions, Championship survival, the Football League Trophy win… they all came under the stewardship of Darren Ferguson, over his two spells at the club. And the same can be said for Fergie Junior himself; all of his personal success has been at the ABAX – it’s fair to say that his stints at Preston and Doncaster have not exactly been successful. So it almost seems as though, together they are the perfect match.

On the possibility of a third coming, the chairman was quick to insist that it would never happen; “That ship has sailed. We had tremendous times together and I have so much time for him and his family and I only want success for him, as he did so much for our football club”. I get the impression from the Posh fans that this would be the answer they were hoping for – a lot of them would not want to see Ferguson return, despite his time at the club being, overall, a successful period, and none of the other managers in the past decade have had any joy. But the relationship seemed to go stale. That happens in football.

One of the other main issues at Peterborough United, is the low attendances. There seems to be a cult following of around 5,000 that will be at the ABAX Stadium, whatever division they are plying their trade in. And whilst in The Championship, that rose to around 8,500 (on average over the three seasons) that is still nowhere near enough to become sustainable as a second-flight side, long-term. Despite this, MacAnthony remains optimistic at the prospect that the club could one-day get a sufficient amount of bodies through the turnstiles to compete at the next level; “Last time we were in it, we got crowds up to the 9k level, prior to the new stand opening and other bits of modernisation happening. I honestly feel a few years competing in the Championship will take us up past the 12k level on gates, and further”.

There are many who will argue that Peterborough have already had their ‘day in the sun’ and that they’re punching above their weight as it is. But regardless, that is where the supporters want to be; they’ve had a piece of the action, and they want more of it – which is a natural mind set of the football fan.

MacAnthony himself also hasn’t given up on getting back up, and is confident of doing so. So much so that he declared on Twitter; if the club wasn’t back in The Championship by the end of 2016/17, then he would sell the club. “I meant that I was very confident about getting back up in this period, and was letting the fans know I wasn’t giving up on that happening”. He added; “I, of course don’t want to leave Posh. But like I’ve always said; if the fans make it clear that they require a change, then I’ll do that as it’s their club after all. I’m just the custodian who pumps lots of money in, trying to give them what they want each match day”.

Despite the disappointment of falling short in the league in the last few years, it hasn’t effected MacAnthony’s love for the game, or his love for running a club. When asked if he would remain in the game, should he actually leave Posh at some point in the future, he responded “100%, as I love owning a football club and that won’t change if I move on from Posh. Football is like a drug as has been said and I’m hooked on being inside it, rather than from outside looking in”.

It is not just the league form in recent years that has caused MacAnthony irritation during his reign. On the January 2013 transfer deadline day, the club accepted a bid from Forest for George Boyd, only for the Nottingham club to pull out of the deal at the 11th hour – infamously citing that Boyd had failed an eye test. Allegedly, the Forest owner at the time, Fawaz Al-Hasawi was poised to re-hire Billy Davies, who had instructed them to pull out of the deal, as he was not interested in the player.

Unfortunately, this would not be the first time that Posh would be given the run around by the Forest owner: Two years later, it was revealed that the club had not received an agreed instalment for Britt Assombalonga, who was sold to Forest in 2014. Despite this, Darragh MacAnthony refused to comment on the East Midlands club. But when asked his opinion on whether or not the Football League should do more to help struggling clubs, he said “Sure, if some clubs have larger issues then I guess the Football League has a duty to monitor. But if it’s privately owned and they aren’t in administration or trouble, it is tough for the Football League to be allowed to do so”.

As well as being a successful businessman and football club owner, Darragh MacAnthony is also a best-selling author with his 2012 book, From Hobby to Obsession. The open and honest recount of life inside the boardroom made it an instant hit amongst football fans, up and down the country, and many would like to see a follow-up – “I’m writing, this time an autobiography – not based on football but on my life in real estate, spanning twenty countries and over 3000 staff”. So, what can we expect from the new book? “It’s full of humour, great stories, success, failure, success again, controversy, sex, wealth, love, tragedy, assassination attempts and so on. It will be a real eye opener”.

Wherever the future lies for Darragh MacAnthony, whether it’s at Peterborough United, or elsewhere, the chairman can looks back on the ‘Darragh era’ with no regrets; “There’s no point looking back with regrets as I like to learn from my mistakes and look forward. It’s been a whirlwind ten years, but I have no regrets on buying a club”.