The executive with the human touch: What Trevor Birch brings to Spurs

The executive with the human touch: What Trevor Birch brings to Spurs

By Charlie Eccleshare and Stuart James 2h ago 3

It’s rare that an executive leaving a football club provokes an outpouring of emotion — unless the fans are celebrating the departure of a loathed individual. In general, those who run a club are either unpopular for perceived mismanagement or operate with a quiet efficiency which goes largely unnoticed.

Trevor Birch, however, has had a way of connecting with supporters and employees at the clubs where he’s worked, and his departure from Swansea City on Tuesday night led to genuine sadness among colleagues at the Liberty Stadium. His open and honest communication with the supporters meant he was held in similarly high esteem by the fanbase.

“It’s been a pretty fractured four years since the new owners bought the club, during which time the trust which I represent, and has a 21 per cent share in the club, were excluded from the process,” explains Andrew Godden, the chair of the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust. “There had been friction between the ownership group since then and that translated into the boardroom. Since Trevor came in, things have improved immensely. We have a director on the board and he met with Trevor and the management team weekly. Relations were very good between him and supporters and it’s definitely a shame to see him go.”

Having smoothed out diplomatic relations and returned the Championship club to a stable financial footing after joining as chairman in April 2019, Birch confirmed on Tuesday he was off to Tottenham Hotspur as director of football operations.

It’s the latest move for a man with a rich and varied CV.

A former professional player himself who started out in Liverpool’s youth set-up, Birch has forged a highly successful career in the game as an executive.

Now 62, he was Chelsea CEO when Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and went on to hold that same position at Everton, Leeds United, Derby County and Sheffield United. As a chartered accountant and insolvency specialist, he has worked for a number of clubs with financial problems, including Bolton Wanderers and Portsmouth.

Birch’s fiscal expertise and prominent role in facilitating the Abramovich takeover has led to speculation he has been brought on to help facilitate the eventual sale of Spurs — especially as his appointment follows that of Jonathan Turner, a specialist in mergers and acquisitions, to the board in June.

Others have focused on Birch’s expertise in transfer dealings and wide network of contacts as evidence of what he will bring to the club.

Certainly, he will have a very prominent role, with Tottenham confirming on Tuesday he would be part of a three-person football board with director of football administration and governance Rebecca Caplehorn and technical performance director Steve Hitchen. Caplehorn, who previously held the director of football operations title, will now focus primarily on governance and contractual issues.

Former chief scout Hitchen, already part of the club’s transfer committee, has long been one of the most trusted voices at Spurs when it came to player recruitment, and his new post will see him responsible for scouting, performance and recruitment across all levels of the club.

Chairman Daniel Levy will oversee the board, and there is a feeling that bringing Birch into what is effectively a managing director role, where he can help steer the overall direction of the club, will allow Levy to take a step back from some of the day-to-day minutiae.

It’s one of a number of reasons why hiring Birch is seen as a very smart move.

Talk to anyone who has worked with Birch and a word you’ll hear again and again is “humble”.

“His strengths are he’s a very quiet, humble man, and doesn’t carry any ego whatsoever,” says one source who has been a close colleague. “Because of his humility, he’s very good at gathering information together. He has good relations with a cross-section of people in the industry. He’s a very shrewd appointment.”

Birch is also said to possess a human touch, which partly explains why he has been able to leave jobs still popular with his employers’ staff and supporters.

That he’s been able to do this even at clubs where he’s gone in as an administrator, such as Portsmouth, is even more remarkable. Generally, the individuals tasked with such an operation are viewed with a huge amount of suspicion and often hostility, but Birch is able to bring the owners and fans of a club together.

That was the case at Fratton Park where, as the administrator for accountants BDO, he played a pivotal role in ensuring the Pompey Supporters Trust (PST) was given ownership of the club in 2013. “It’s clear when you first meet Trevor that he’s a football man first and foremost, and understands the game and how important fans are,” says Ashley Brown, who was chairman of the PST at the time.

“I think all Portsmouth fans have got a lot to be thankful for the fact that Trevor ended up being our administrator. The club had been through some very difficult times and had some far less sympathetic administrators. Trevor played a huge role in not just saving the club but making sure it went into the safe hands of supporters, so he’s very well-respected around the city of Portsmouth.”

Leeds hired Birch as chief executive in 2003, when the club was in financial meltdown after years of chairman Peter Ridsdale’s overspending. Birch was able to reduce debts and find a buyer the following March, as a local consortium led by Gerald Krasner took over. Leeds were soon relegated from the Premier League but Birch was one of the few figures to emerge from the period with any credit.

In his most recent job, at Swansea, Birch stabilised a club whose owners appeared to have lost interest after their relegation from the Premier League in 2018. And as well as mediating the bitter dispute between the owners and the supporters trust, he oversaw an improvement in results that led to them reaching last season’s Championship play-offs having finished 10th a year earlier.

At Spurs, of course, it is hoped that Birch’s work will not involve so much fire-fighting. But the way he operates gives an indication of some of the qualities he can offer them.

Chief among them are his almost unique combination of financial expertise and intimate knowledge of how football works from top to bottom. This has helped him become extremely well-connected and trusted in the game, and his reputation is as a calm voice of reason. He can be tough when he needs to be, but at Swansea and elsewhere it was appreciated that he wouldn’t interfere unless he felt it absolutely necessary.

One of the areas in which Birch’s business acumen and contacts book will come in especially handy is the transfer market. Levy and Caplehorn will still take the lead when it comes to negotiating deals but, naturally, Spurs will want to take advantage of Birch’s experience and connections. He is also said to be an impressive negotiator, with a less uncompromising style than Levy which should offer a helpful counterbalance.

That said, he is not someone to be taken advantage of, and it’s worth remembering that he stepped down from his role as Everton chief executive after just six weeks in 2004 due to a perceived lack of boardroom support.

He is certainly not one to be taken for a ride when it comes to negotiations, and part of his appeal to Tottenham is the knowledge he will not let the club down when it comes to making deals, renegotiating contracts or ensuring the club keep hold of their most coveted assets. Those who have been in meetings with Birch say he has a poker face that’s impossible to read.

At Swansea, he stepped into the breach when replacing Huw Jenkins as chairman and took over the day-to-day running of a club struggling to deal with the fall-out of relegation after seven years in the Premier League.

Swansea were in a financial mess but Birch vowed there would be no repeat of the deadline-day fiasco in August 2018 that led to a fire-sale at knockdown prices. When Dan James and Oli McBurnie were sold last summer to fill a financial black hole, both deals were completed before the start of the season and brought in the best part of £35 million.

That same summer, Birch also had to deal with the hammer blow that was Graham Potter leaving for Brighton & Hove Albion after only one season as manager. He oversaw the interview process that led to him recommending the unproven Steve Cooper to the club’s American owners. It was a calculated risk, but proved to be a masterstroke on Birch’s part.

Cooper, a Welshman who had won the Under-17 World Cup with England in 2017 but never coached at senior level before, finished sixth in his first season in charge and also attracted a number of talented youngsters to the club. Birch was hugely supportive of Cooper throughout that campaign, taking a close interest in the 40-year-old’s work on the training ground but never putting him under any kind of pressure.

All the while, Birch helped to galvanise a fanbase that had become divided, disillusioned and angry. His public statements were not always full of good news but supporters appreciated the fact they were honest and transparent. More than anything, there was a sense that Birch understood the club, the city and their value to the community, and that he could be trusted.

“He was always very open,” says Godden, the Swansea City Supporters’ Trust chair. “And he did things like buying everyone a pint at an away game (at Barnsley in October 2019). That went down well, as you can imagine.”

Birch’s appointment should help Levy take a step back from the day-to-day management of all areas at Tottenham. As Spurs have got bigger and bigger over the last few years, Levy has remained one of the most hands-on chairmen in the Premier League. For a club with designs on becoming among the richest and most successful in Europe, this is a tough situation to maintain — especially given how tumultuous the last couple of years have been for them.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium alone requires a huge level of management given the aim, in non-pandemic times, is for it to be in almost constant use — whether that is with other sporting events or music concerts. Doing so is a monumental operation, so much so that Wembley Stadium, for instance, is run not by the Football Association but by a subsidiary company.

It makes sense therefore for Levy to have more colleagues such as Birch who can pick up some of the slack in the running of the club. “Credit to Tottenham for having a look and thinking, ‘We need someone like this’,” says one source. Elsewhere there’s a view, that across the board, the COVID-19 crisis is forcing clubs to think hard about the best way they can navigate the current uncertainties.

At Tottenham, it’s been a summer of freshening things up behind the scenes, with Birch’s arrival following that of Turner in June and the revamping of the club’s youth set-up last month after the departure of academy head John McDermott.

The new football board is another illustration of these changes, and it will sit alongside the executive board and the transfer committee (headed by Levy, Hitchen and head coach Jose Mourinho) in the running of the club.

As for the future, whether Birch has been brought on to facilitate a potential sale is for now just speculation. As The Athletic reported in July, there has been plenty of interest in Tottenham, with the north London club, even at £2 billion, representing an attractive potential addition to, for instance, the portfolios of American sports team owners. And in the event of an approach from someone looking to take an equity stake, Levy would be obliged to speak with them. As it stands though no deal has been reached, either on an outright sale or an equity stake.

In any event, having someone like Birch, who is known for his financial acumen, can only be a positive.

Much like the summer signings of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Matt Doherty, Birch may not have been the big-name arrival some Spurs supporters were hoping for — but feels like an eminently sensible one.