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Secrets of
Leadership

A CONVERSATION WITH
MARTIN PORT &
KEVIN KEEGAN OBE

EPISODE 4

How do you turn around a losing team?

September 2020

5 mins 30 secs

Discussion

Martin: I’m used to starting things from scratch. Having to build companies from the beginning. I always remember, after selling my last business, it was really lonely at the beginning of BigChange. Have there been points where you’ve needed to start again with a team?

Kevin: At least when you started, you started off with a blank piece of paper and it’s lonely. We start with the problems already there because you don’t often get a management job in football unless there’s already problems at the club.

The club’s either gotten relegated, lost a lot of games or the results have been poor. That’s nine times out of ten or probably 99 times out of 100 when you get a job. So you’re going into a place where the confidence is low, they’ve been beaten a lot, and spirits are down.

When I went to Newcastle they were second bottom, we had 16 games to play and I didn’t know anybody. I felt very, very lonely. The first thing I did was get a friend, in my case a man called Terry Mcdermott, who knew the club better than me. I said “come work with me here, it’s gonna be a big job.” So I realised straight away that I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed some help from someone who understood that club a little more – because we didn’t have time to learn. Just 16 games.

What I did first of all, I walked into the club – and when things go wrong in football and this club in particular – the place was filthy. The dressing rooms were filthy, the baths weren’t clean. The gym. Players were eating sandwiches in the gym and sticking the wrappers in the corners of the room.

We played the first game after three days, we happened to win it and I gave the lads two days off. I told the Chairman, Sir John Hall, that I wanted to fumigate the whole place – clean it and paint it over the weekend.

When the players came in Tuesday you could hear them going “Wow.” All we’d done was paint it. They went into the dressing room and we’d put in new cubicles – “Wow.” We then started to say to them, “You know it’s not a lot but that’s the least you deserve as a footballer.”

Before these lads were taking their own kit home and washing it, I said “you won’t be doing that anymore.” They were travelling to games on the same day! Now Newcastle is very north and they’d be going to Birmingham the same day because the club took the view that ‘We’re not very good, why should we be putting them in a hotel?’

So when things go wrong in a football club, and it’s the same thing for business, we were starting from scratch. It was anything to do with football, the first thing I did. It was about cleanliness and respect for the players, saying “Get relegated or not, we’re going to make it better but you guys need to help me, then I’ll get started on the training ground.”

If they play better I can say to the chairman “Look these guys are battling for this club, to get out of relegation, they don’t want to go down.” They’d never been down to the third division, never in the history of the club. So I can say to the Chairman “There you go Mr Chairman, these are a good group of players but they’ve not had a great chance here with how the club is set up. We need a better training ground.” And then we found one.

When you’ve got a better training ground and you’re trying to fetch players – battling other clubs – they take one look at the facilities and think wow, this club’s got it. So we chipped away at the problem. Of course we had to change some of the players, but to a lot of them we said “We’re new here, we’re turning this club around, can you stay with it?”

Martin: It’s quite interesting because we started in small offices in the centre of Leeds by the University. That felt like work in progress. Then we moved to bigger offices that were our own place with our own entrance and reception. That felt like a complete step up, like you say. Entering into a new place really.

Kevin: Well you can only do that because you were going in the right direction. Your staff were getting you results which gave you confidence. You were like the chairman. I said to the Chairman “This has gone well. We’ve avoided relegation, I think we can get promotion this year but we need a better training ground.” You then know yourself, when you’re fetching potential customers to your offices – which I’ve had the privilege to go to – they’ll like it.

Martin: Well that was the third move, so that’s like the first division.

Kevin: Well yeah exactly. You step up. You’re also rewarding the staff with that, they’ve got to realise that they’re lucky. You know you can park your car easy there, the space is lovely, the facilities are great. They’ve earned that as well.

BigChange

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