Interview with Jim Phipps
By Sam Parry
Jim Phipps has worked for Prince Abdullah on a number of occasions and, most relevantly, in several roles at Sheffield United Football Club between the years of 2013 and 2016.
Jim Phipps was half expecting my email.
On Saturday 14th September, I had written to him asking if he'd like to take part in an interview in the event of Mr Justice Fancourt finding in the Prince's favour.
At 10:21, five minutes after the judgement was delivered, I drop him a note, and just after lunchtime UK-time, we speak on the phone. I start by sharing my biggest concern; that the fear of uncertainty can shackle a fan base and divide it too.
I kindly offer Jim the small task of alleviating that fear. Allowing him to pour whatever water he can on the fires started in the courtroom.
He begins by addressing the claims made by Kevin McCabe against the Prince, which were proved to be false (barring appeal). "The judge didn't buy any of that," Jim explained, "it was noise designed to do one thing, and that was to draw attention away from the predicament that Kevin [McCabe] had put himself into."
Here is a brief digression where I'll make clear what I believe that 'predicament' to be... Kevin McCabe appears to have sensed, with reason, or with no reason, that the Prince didn't have the financial clout that McCabe expected. And so, under the deadlock provision that McCabe himself agreed to upon the Prince joining the club, he enacted a low-ball offer for the Prince to buy the remaining 50% for a fixed £5 million price. McCabe, thinking the Prince would bottle-it, expected then to have the option to buy the Prince out. However, the Prince accepted the deadlock provisions and agreed to buy the club. McCabe then sued the Prince, (effectively) for tricking him into selling the club via "conspiracy" and "unfairly prejudicial conduct". Justice Fancourt ruled in favour of the Prince. Now, as per the provision, McCabe must sell his shares to for the £5-million price. The End.
Quite honestly, I hadn't thought too deeply into the mud-slinging of all of this. I had felt McCabe's evidence baggy and insubstantial, but I'd failed to acknowledge that there might be more too it. I don the glasses of Prince Abdullah. I can see how the bribery allegation and the Bin Laden row were plausibly (and provably) misinformation to cover McCabe's back.
In our conversation, Jim Phipps emphasises that the Prince's reaction to this perceived defamation is telling of his character. "[The Prince] did nothing. He kept silent." Phipps is keen to link the Prince's behaviour during the case to how he operates on a day-to-day basis too. And so he moves us into a footballing space: "Did the Prince show up to take credit for the promotions?" he asks me.
"Not really," I agree. Phipps' telegraphs the point: one side of the argument was brash and ill-considered, the other was quiet and contemplative.
"The Prince will draw no attention to himself," Phipps goes on, "he will act like he is leading a club that has a voice and face in Chris Wilder."
I freely admit I like what Jim says. It is, on the one hand, what I expect to hear. On the other, it is what I want to hear. A chairman in the background overseeing the smooth functioning of the club is undoubtedly preferable to interference.
What we don't know, I suppose, is whether McCabe acted in the club's interest to temper any previous intrusion. There is some evidence of that in the whole Jan Van Winckel episode.
I return to the Prince's profile and interrogate another theory: while it's all well and good to work in the background, there are times where a chairman needs to be visible. The fans need to hear a proactive voice, the fans need to see the individual feel a sense of accountability. And so I ask Jim to share his thoughts on that.
First, Phipps admits that the Prince may have been a little invisible. So he takes it upon himself to give me a picture of the man. He tells me that the Prince is the guy who led Al-Hilal to be the team of the century in Asia, a real football man, a man who wants to drive success in our club and someone who cares about our traditions and identity. A man who upon becoming co-owner, read book after book about Sheffield United.
All of this is good stuff, but stuff I have to take with a generous pinch of salt. To me, this might be true. Yet, all I have is a blurred black and white image, when what I need is full colour. What books have the Prince read about the club? What does he think about the matches, the traditions?
And so I suggest the Prince will need to be more approachable, more proactive and visible for at least some of the time. I think Jim broadly agrees here, he indeed suggests that he would expect the Prince to be more visible, but doesn't mention any specifics. "I think what people really want to hear him [the Prince] say is, we'll now return to our programme." And I guess that is partly true.
Still, the presence and accountability of the Prince is one question that still troubles me. I feel it went unresolved in our discussion, and realistically, it was unresolvable. Jim Phipps is Jim Phipps, not Prince Abdullah, after all. It's a fixed question mark from me at the moment.
Realistically, if the Prince wants the fans to buy-in to his regime, then he has to appreciate that communication and engagement cannot be piecemeal. Put simply, the engagement needs to be managed more carefully, and yesterday, on the day that the judge found in favour of His Royal Highness, the comms were pretty poor.
The club's social media team announced a new Saudi Arabian twitter account for the Blades. There is no problem in creating a twitter account to share Blades news in another language, but it smells a little off to do so on this specific day. Magnanimousness in the face of victory would have told me, were I the Prince and his team, to leave off this announcement for a week or so. It's an initiative that invites criticism and evokes feelings of change among fans, even if there aren't any changes forthcoming. I hope it is something the club and the Prince will learn from.
Frustratingly, I didn't have the chance to discuss this with Jim, having seen it on Twitter only after our call. But I did make sure that I asked him about how the Prince operates, and what we can expect in the future.
There have been questions asked about the Prince's wealth and whether he alone can sustain the club, and also whether funds will be made available for the transfers, wages and improvements.
Jim is keen to point out that, over the past few years, the correct decisions that have been taken at the club and the right courses of action are at least 50% made by the Prince. (I sense an intimation from Phipps that he thinks that percentage is higher.)
Moreover, he also points out that the Prince is a guy who knows football. Of course, there is no way of proving that and there is no way of convincing everybody that that is the case. But I feel Jim is genuinely persuaded, and as he points out, if the fans want a reliable indication of what is to come in terms of spending and finances, then they should look no further than the previous summer window.
The backing that the manager received in the summer was, no doubt, significantly more than most fans expected. When asked about the split between the owners, Chris Wilder has himself said: "When I have asked to be backed, I have been. (But) for the club to move forward, it has to be united off the pitch, and it needs to be settled."
Now that the case is settled, where does the manager fit into all of this? We turn to a discussion of Chris Wilder's part in the saga.
Encouragingly, from my perspective, a key theme emerges: the Prince would prefer for Chris Wilder to be the voice of the football club. But that's rather prosaic stuff, and only time will tell if that is correct.
I make the point that any loyalty to Kevin McCabe is (at a guess) superseded by a devotion to the gaffer. I explain to Jim that I'm keen to know how the Prince deals with his leadership team. What is the Prince's approach when things go wrong? Does he take decisive actions, or does he like the time to ruminate on those decisions? Ergo, should we be worried about losing the manager?
"Chris Wilder has done more than enough to earn the confidence of anyone with a brain," Phipps says. There's no pre-rehearsal here, it flies straight off the tongue. And, let's face it, he is right. The manager's success and achievement are unarguable.
Subsequently, Phipps offers a fuller description of the Prince approach as one of finding the right person (Wilder) and taking care not to change courses easily (not sacking him). He acknowledges the rumours that there was a weak relationship between Wilder and the Prince, but he says this was no more than a whispering campaign, and moreover, that he's seen no evidence of this. "Listen," he says, "the Prince will work with and not against the manager's tendencies." That sentence is pretty much a full-stop on the matter.
I have no idea whether there is a good working relationship between Wilder and the Prince. Nor am I in possession of any facts to suggest otherwise. I sense that this whole thing will have little effect on the manager in the short term (I may be gravely mistaken). We all work in offices with people we don't like, so even if you extend this known unknown to the harshest conclusion, Wilder and the Prince would still share an ambition for the club to succeed even if they weren't pals.
After a slurp of coffee, I return to the second part of my question, and Phipps tells me that the Prince is decisive in "the right moment". But he is also abundantly clear that he doesn't perceive any 'right moments' on the horizon. He pauses and offers some reflection. "It might be a fair criticism of our past that changes were made too quickly. But I think, since the Prince came in, the approach has been to go slower in that area [hiring/firing managers], and right now we're on a trajectory which is to my mind amazing, and long, long may it continue."
To me, this is encouraging, but it does not (and I suppose, cannot) go far enough to predict what might happens if we are in the relegation zone at Christmas. Again, this a known unknown, only time and experience will tell.
What is clear, however, is that Jim is cast-iron certain that Wilder is a great voice and face of the club. And he relishes the opportunity to link back our earlier conversation: if the Prince is in the background, it enables the manager to be front and centre. Let's consider the opposite. Do any Blades want the owner to be a more prominent presence than the manager? My answer to that would be no.
Phipps is keen to labour that point. "The thing that I want the most is a club where the owner is the thing I think about least," he says. He tells me that he doesn't follow the San Francisco 49ers because he's interested in the owners, the York family. He cares about the sport, the atmosphere, the fans. There is a truth there. I want the best for my clubs long-term future, and that does include thinking about the hierarchy sometimes, but on a day-to-day basis, I don't want to obsess about the owner. I want to ruminate on 3-5-2 and whether Luke Freeman should be starting over John Lundstram.
Reading between the lines of this point about the presence of ownership, I perceive there to be something a rebuttal of the McCabe era. And, while Phipps never come close to saying this out loud, I sense an irritation about Kevin McCabe's conduct over the past few years and particularly during the trial.
I stick on the Prince's glasses once more. Looking through them, I suppose McCabe would almost always appear to be on the shoulder of Chris Wilder. Outside the town hall, on the bus and the promotion campaign. Taking the glasses off, I might say that McCabe is a lifelong Blade and was keen to be involved in the party(s) as much as any of us are. (Some would argue that he was equally eager to disappear when Terry Robinson was making a statement like, "...people like Bryan Robson, Peter Reid and even Dave Bassett would fit the bill in many ways.")
More troublesome than McCabe's presenteeism seems to be the evidence given during the trial. Evidence that could be seen as sowing seeds of scandal around the club, for which Justice Fancourt admonished him and described his testimony as follows:
With the Prince's spectacle propped firmly onto my nose once again, I can see how he might feel that McCabe's muck-flinging is more disloyal to SUFC and the fanbase than his own keeping quiet. I get that. What 'Club Man' wants to bring that crescendo of vituperativeness upon their club, their business? It's a question I find hard to answer.
For sure, a man that believes his evidence to be valid would speak out. As would a man who is desperate not to lose something he holds dear, over an error entirely of his own making — a despairing last gasp.
Don't get me wrong, I think McCabe loved the club - loves the club. I don't doubt that. But I also think McCabe, provably now, lost his stake for reasons of his own totally and utter ineptitude, and that's something his keenest advocates can surely see too. Having read the transcripts and the judgement documents and now having spoken in some detail to Jim Phipps, I am utterly relaxed about saying that I am still undecided on what is the most desirable outcome.
When I ask Jim Phipps about future investment from 3rd parties, or his knowledge of football, or his ambitions for the club, I receive replies which on the face of it soothe my concerns. But I am aware that this discussion is taking place with biases on both sides.
And so, I think it's important to recall the natural disposition of all Blades fans, that of responsible pessimism. I firmly believe that all fans should proactively scrutinise their club and speak truth to power whenever they can. That applied to Kevin McCabe for the last twenty-odd years, and damnit, it should apply to the Prince too.
Unitedites have always maintained a healthy scepticism about Kevin McCabe. Whether they would have preferred him to the Prince is of no consequence now. But as fans, we must be good ancestors; looking out for the interest of all fans today and all fans in the future. And that means being difficult sometimes, and I hope the Prince is prepared for that.
We touch upon this in our conversation, and I think that Jim understands this point. He offers some reassurance that the Prince does too: "The club can expect the good decisions to keep coming, and they can expect the positive influence to continue, and they can also expect that the owner is going to continue to let the club have its identity, and ultimately to be itself." We're coming to the end of our interview, and this point is one that sticks out.
All of this hullaballoo is exactly that. As time passes, as seasons end, we'll judge the Prince on merit. Relationships are a process, and any owner has to convince fans through actions. Or as Jim puts it, "The best test of whether the Prince is the best owner for the club can only be done the old fashioned way, and that is by proving it."
A healthy body of proof will take some time to create, but any owner worth his/her salt will attempt to gain the fans seal of approvable. We expect that. It is something of a social contract.
If we as fans confer a duty on the owner, we must also accept certain responsibilities ourselves. For me, we should not rush to judgement, we should strive to encourage two-way engagement with the club hierarchy, and most importantly, we should interrogate any initiative that reduces the committed fan to the passive consumer.
For now, all we can do is wait and see.