When the richest football team in the world asked him to handle their high-profile multimillion-pound transfer deals, Simon Cliff was only too happy to sign up with Manchester City.
When a billionaire from the Middle East completed the £200m takeover of Manchester City FC last September, the Premier League truly established itself as a magnet for foreign investment.
Previous acquisitions of Chelsea, Aston Villa, West Ham, Liverpool and Manchester United showed that the world’s most popular football league was attracting the world’s richest businessmen. But the Manchester City deal also revealed the benefits for law firms working with clubs in the Premier League.
Shortly after the takeover, Manchester City acquired a new general counsel (GC) in the form of Simon Cliff. Cliff was a former associate at Shearman & Sterling, which counted Sheikh Mansour’s company – Abu Dhabi United Group – as a client. Cliff was seconded to the club while at Shearman before making the switch permanent in April.
Despite his former employer’s disappointment at losing him, the transfer was undoubtedly a coup for the US firm, which managed to further integrate itself with a major Middle East client.
Manchester City’s decision to hire a permanent lawyer reflects a growing trend among Premier League clubs where new owners are keen to protect their investment.
“I didn’t have designs on goingin-house at the time, but it’s one of those opportunities that comes along once in a lifetime,” explains Cliff. “Sometimes a door opens for you and you have to walk through it. It’s taken me in a direction that I didn’t expect, but it’s been fascinating.”
The GC role is one of five executive positions that have been created at the club since the takeover, including a chief finance officer and brand marketing director, professionalising ‘Manchester City’ the company and building on the vision of chief executive Garry Cook to make the club one of the biggest in Europe.
“There were some aspects that were unique to football, but other than that it was a usual M&A deal,” Cliff says of the takeover.
Cliff’s day-to-day work revolves around commercial contracts (including sponsorship agreements between the club and players), HR, match-day issues, property and the looming transfer window – where frantic deals involving millions of pounds often go right to the wire.
With the Tevéz debacle (concerning the third-party ownership of players) hanging over the league, and the Football Association keen to clarify the role of agents, all legal heads are keen to ensure that they do not break the rules relating to transfers.
During his first month in the post Cliff met with representatives from the Premier League and the Football Association, laying out the club’s intentions to remain transparent.
“I’ve been spending a lot of time getting under the skin of the regulations. Given the high profile of the club we need to make sure we’re on the back pages for the right reasons, not the wrong reasons. It’s crucial we don’t fall foul of these regulations so I’ve opened up a dialogue with the Football Association and plan to continue it in the future.”
Premiership GCs have every reason to make this a priority. The murky image of ‘dodgy’ football agents still dogs the sport, although how much of that is a hangover from days gone past and how much is actual brown paper bags stuffed with cash is unknown.
What we do know is that if you combine agents picking up regular payments for supplying players to the same clubs with international deals in unregulated jurisdictions, add teenage players and millions and millions of pounds, then you have a potential recipe for illicit activity and exploitation. Something football club owners and new legal heads such as Cliff will want to blow wide open.
“It’s a difficult world that’s tricky to navigate,” Cliff agrees. “Even player transfers are the size of decent M&A deals, so I’ll be there to make sure things are done properly. My background in M&A will be useful to get on top of the detail.”
With the problems in the City, there could not be a more opportune time for an M&A lawyer to join a Premier League club, backed up by wealth from the Middle East. A fact not lost on Cliff.
“I’m fortunate to be involved in a business that’s largely immune to the recession. Our owners aren’t profligate by any means, but they’re keen to match the ambitions of the club.”
Manchester City fans are still living in a state of shock that their beloved club is bidding and buying some of the world’s best players. But off the field, a new corporate structure with a City lawyer making legal issues central to the business is as big a change in the club’s fortunes.
“The club hasn’t won anything for 30 years but it still has one of the largest fan bases in the country,” says Cliff. “There’s a great foundation to build on. We’re trying to create a great club out of a good club.”
Organisation: Manchester City FC
General counsel: Simon Cliff
Reporting to: Chief financial and administration officer Graham Wallace.
Company turnover: £82m
Number of employees: 300
Legal capacity: One
Main external law firms: Shearman & Sterling, Brabners Chaffe Street, Teacher Stern
Total legal spend: £250,000
1995-99: LLB Law with European Law, University of Nottingham
1999-2000: LPC, Nottingham Law School
2000-02: Trainee, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
2002-05: Associate, Freshfields
Feb-Oct 04: Secondment to legal department, London 2012 Olympic bid
2005-09: Associate, Shearman & Sterling
2009-present: General counsel, Manchester City FC