He was the youngest chairman in the Premier League when he took control of one of its biggest underachievers 20 years ago on Sunday, and the success or otherwise of the Daniel Levy era at Tottenham Hotspur remains a subject of dispute to this day.
Spurs were 12th after defeat to Leeds United on Feb 24, 2001, four days after which Enic, the investment company partly owned by Levy, bought a controlling stake and he became non-executive chairman of the club, aged 38. Those close to him said that he never wanted to be chairman or to go through the kind of public row between his predecessor David Buchler and then manager George Graham that exploded in the months that followed.
Graham was sacked having been accused by Buchler of leaking sensitive information about the club’s finances. Then in July 2001, the club captain Sol Campbell, allowed to run down his contract by the previous regime, signed for Arsenal as a free agent in one of the biggest embarrassments in Spurs’ history. By mid-October, Levy was executive chairman of Spurs.
In the recent Amazon Prime documentary about the club in which Levy spoke candidly for the first time in years he reflected that he had run many businesses in his life. “A football club,” he concluded, “is the hardest I’ve run”.
Two decades on the club is at another crossroads this summer. The heady days of the Mauricio Pochettino era are over. His successor Jose Mourinho has overseen a place in a League Cup final few believe Spurs can win and progress in Europa League, but five defeats in six in the league. The questions over the future of Harry Kane, the club’s top goalscorer for the last six seasons, will not go away. With three years left on his contract, and turning 28 in July is this the moment Levy sells? Even if he wished to, the question is whether a market exists for £100 million players. That kind of fee would be useful for a club that had only just built its long awaited new £1 billion stadium when Covid-19 struck.
The ultimate owner of Enic is the Tavistock Group, based in the Bahamas and the huge investment portfolio built by the English billionaire tax exile Joe Lewis. Its investments include private golf clubs in the US, steakhouse restaurant chains, Florida medical research facilities, San Diego biotechnology investors and an Argentine energy company among others. Spurs is a relatively small part of it, but almost all the public profile of Levy and Lewis springs from their Premier League club.
Levy is now the longest serving senior club executive in the league by some distance but there is always the whiff of tumult at Spurs, the recent churn in senior staff being the latest. At the start of the pandemic last year, Levy very quickly went public encouraging players to give up part of their salaries, and furloughing staff. Both decisions were rowed back upon in the following weeks.
Spurs have transformed their stadium and their standing under Levy, although his time in charge has coincided with unprecedented wealth in the Premier League – for which they were one of the original six breakaway clubs. They have enjoyed some memorable moments, especially in Europe, but won only one trophy. They have fallen just short at times, when opportunity has beckoned. Like many in the league, they despair privately at the power of billionaire owners. Yet Spurs are owned by a billionaire.
Joe Lewis at White Hart Lane in 2011 CREDIT: Matthew Childs
Lewis was never prepared to inject cash. Instead, Levy’s plan in 2001 was to be self-sustaining, first improving a team that twice finished 15th in the 1990s, and then build the training ground and stadium. His allies say that he has completed the two latter projects to the highest spec – and it is the on-pitch performance, the part that is hardest to control, that has been the most unpredictable. The club itself, one source said, was crying out for change in 2001 - run like a “cottage industry” with no centralised marketing strategy and separate departments doing the best they could.
Levy was schooled in the family business begun by his grandfather, Abraham. It began as a hat shop in Stratford east London and then over the next two generations, via Levy’s father Barry, diversified into men’s clothing, including the Mr Byrite brand, later the clothing chain Blue Inc. Levy ran that along with brothers Jonathan and Robert, of whom Jonathan is involved in the running of Spurs. The connection with Lewis allowed Levy to invest in Enic which took control of Spurs, with Levy owning around 30 per cent.
Levy gained a first-class degree from Cambridge in Land Economy and Economics and in a recent interview with the university student newspaper, said that he went there from state school with a determination to make his career. “I was determined not to mess it up,” he said. “I enjoyed my time at Cambridge, but I wouldn’t say I lived the typical student lifestyle.”
Levy with former Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino CREDIT: Reuters
Twenty years on from being the young exec thrust into football, his reputation precedes him. He likes to control every part of a player’s deal, down to the kind of details over incremental pay-rises that would ordinarily be left to others to finalise. His famed style of negotiation can be a shock to inexperienced player agents doing their first big deal. For the older generation of agents, and peers running other clubs, his demanding opening gambits generally raise a chuckle. “He stabs you in the chest rather than the back,” is one assessment. Levy can be exhausting but the notion that he triumphs in every negotiation is generally regarded to be a myth.
By now, Levy would have hoped to be overseeing a club competing to be London’s leading sports and entertainment venue. The new stadium was built to accommodate NFL and music concerts as well as elite football. Instead the gates remain closed on the great glass and steel vision on Tottenham high road. There are still no title sponsors naming rights, and yet another new executive – this one from the US – has been recruited to sell them.
Lewis is 84 and he will decide the ultimate fate of Spurs. He has a daughter and son who work with Tavistock Group. Levy’s son Josh is chief executive of another Tavistock company, Ultimate Finance. Enic once owned minority stakes in five other European clubs including Rangers in the Scottish Premiership but it was Spurs that caught Levy’s imagination.
The Levy of 20 years ago will have seen potential in the club as an investment, although perhaps he would not have imagined it would have occupied so much of his professional life as it has. One suspects that the diligent publicity-shy Cambridge graduate, who beavered away on the family business, has come to rather enjoy the power and profile that came with football. His business career has made him wealthy, as one of the best paid executives in the Premier League, although perhaps that is no longer enough.