When Harry Maguire appears at Old Trafford today ahead of Manchester United’s game against Chelsea, at €93 million he will walk out as the most expensive defender in world football.
One of the things you won’t explicitly see, read or hear about this record-breaking deal is the role reputation management played in the transfer of the England international from Leicester City to Manchester United.
But make no mistake: there is more to this than Maguire’s footballing skill, market value, and the pursuit of success. Implicitly, at the heart of this transfer is brilliant reputation management.
From the moment Maguire’s performances at last year’s World Cup pushed him into the spotlight, his future became subject to intense speculation. His employers, Leicester City, had a prize asset one they and their fans didn’t want to lose, and certainly not cheaply.
Despite the interests of Champions League clubs and media scrutiny, neither Leicester City nor Maguire displayed outward signs of fracturing, and ultimately agreed a five-year contract extension. Round one to Leicester City.
But the game was on. Those clubs with deep pockets were hovering with intent and it only seemed a matter of time before they’d get their man. Twelve months later, they did, and Manchester United secured Maguire’s services at a price well in excess of what they intended to pay.
Player transfer deals are increasingly marred by greed, ego, ungratefulness, and bullying. They depict an ugly side of football. Yet, despite the record-breaking numbers, the high-profile parties involved, and the protracted timeline, Maguire’s transfer is notable by the absence of such sentiment.
Lessons from Leicester
The source of much of this transfer’s cordiality is Maguire himself. Many players would throw their toys out of the pram if their existing employer was preventing them from playing at one of the world’s most prestigious, well-paying clubs, but despite constant questioning over the past year, not once did Maguire or his agent indicate that he was resentful or unhappy.
While the tone of the media briefings clearly hardened in the final days before the deal, no one could accuse Maguire of disrespect towards Leicester City and its fans. No mean feat in a world of agents and entourage.
Leicester City, meanwhile, played it brilliantly. They had a tricky balancing act: ideally keep the player, but if that wasn’t to be feasible, maximise the sale value while simultaneously demonstrating that the club can manage the departure of its biggest star.
Despite an initial failed bid by Manchester United in May, by early July, Manchester United had stepped up its pursuit of Maguire. Leicester City remained steadfast in its valuation of the player.
Throughout pre-season, manager Brendan Rodgers repeatedly reiterated the club’s position on the player: “If a team like Man City or Man United are interested, I understand the attraction. We’re relaxed because until the valuation is met, there’s not a decision to be made.”
Leicester City’s patient public demeanour suggested it held all the cards and reflects a firmly held appreciation of communications and narrative framing.
It demonstrated this chessmaster-like composure in its Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante transfer strategies, both of which achieved club record transfer fees. Very few football clubs could absorb the loss of their three best players and keep their fans bought in to the bigger picture.
It wasn’t by accident, either, that pro-Leicester City stories appeared in recent weeks. These ranged from highlighting the depth of the players in its squad and the progression of new highly rated talent, to the astute negotiation stance of club executives and how this would deliver millions for re-investment in new players.
All of this amplified a narrative that Leicester City did a super deal, that the manager, players and fans remain confident about the future, and that further good days are ahead.
For Manchester United, which has failed dismally in the reputation management stakes in recent years, the Maguire transfer points to a club that has learned lessons. It didn’t fuel the hype.
The club’s manager and executive vice-chairman resisted the bait every time a journalist hungry for a scoop goaded them into a Maguire-related remark. While their desire for Maguire was clear, it never looked like desperation. They kept their eye on the prize and got it.
Always shape the narrative
So, what can businesses learn from this, particularly when it comes to headhunting senior management?
For the existing employer, competitors circling for your best talent can be highly destabilising. The target of their advances can have their head turned, which impacts performance. Others on the team will inevitably suspect something, which creates uncertainty. Customers, too, start hearing rumours, and wonder what it means for them.
Meanwhile, the prospective employer’s intent forms its own dynamic. Expectation levels rise, so failure to land the target will be seen as a general failure. Existing staff wonder if the boss’s desire to hire someone new is a comment on their own performance.
While businesses don’t have the show business of transfer deadline day, or the relentless media and social media intensity that goes with which player will end up where, they do have their own version of it.
Consider the speculation in recent days over the appointment of a new boss at insurer RSA, or the very public process to hire the new boss of the HSE, or the re-appointment of Phil Hogan as Ireland’s EU Commissioner. Each of these examples illustrates the mood music that is amplified when a decision concerning the future of a high-profile position is imminent.
The first thing to accept in such moments is that external interest in unavoidable. You might wish it was otherwise, but it won’t make the speculation go away. You have a choice: shape it or succumb to it. The best businesses, rather than bury their heads in the sand, seek to control the narrative.
This makes the role of the press spokesperson, who is the first line of defence, essential. They have to be able to handle the heat that comes with constant media speculation, maintain relationships with journalists who ultimately just want to be first with the news (and will fill space regardless), and rebut inaccuracies promptly even when it upsets people.
In the background, there is often an anxious employer that may not understand the nuances of reputation management and gets spooked by being at the centre of speculation. Managing this pressure, not panicking over one or two bad headlines, and ultimately keeping your eyes fixed on the bigger picture is the key.
Harry Maguire, Leicester City and Manchester United all understood this. The value that they all placed on reputation management from the outset was crucial in not just delivering a lucrative transfer deal but protecting their respective long-term interests.
Dan Pender is Managing Director of PR360