The beautiful game is, even in a smaller football nation like ours, big business now. The value of the television broadcasting deals which are brokered by governing bodies have become all-important in the modern era. Fans celebrate or despair at their heroes’ annual financial figures just as much as their results on a Saturday afternoon these days.
Yet, major multinational companies have, as former Norwich City midfielder cum striker and Northern Ireland internationalist Paul McVeigh has found, profited every bit as much from getting involved with the sport as our biggest and best-supported institutions have from their increased commercialisation.
McVeigh has taken an unusual path for a former footballer. Media punditry, coaching or being a pub landlord were not for him. He became the first ex-Premier League player ever to graduate with a Masters degree in psychology and has since established himself as a renowned leadership trainer, corporate coach and motivational speaker for blue chip clients around the globe.
He counts accenture, Cisco, Deutsche Bank, KPMG, Microsoft, NatWest, Savills and many other high street firms among his current and former customers. So how did his change of profession come about? He explained how the seismic switch happened during a chat earlier this week.
“Throughout the 20 odd years that I spent playing professional football, I talked all the time on the pitch and in the dressing room,” he said. “Only being 5ft 6in, I had to. But my bark was bigger than my bite. I left it to my Norwich team mates, to Gary Holt and to Malky Mackay, to fight my battles for me.
“But I had always been passionate about mindset development and the psychology of football. I thought it was important for my career development. I read my first book about it at 17 and continued to learn until I finished. It took me down the personal development path.
“When I stopped playing, I flew to LA and did a course with the personal development guru, Tony Robbins. When I came back I continued in personal development and came across this whole world of keynote speaking.
“I had never heard of anyone from my background going down that route. You had your Will Carlings, Rory and Tony Underwoods, rugby players who had gone into corporate speaking. But nobody from a football background.
“Mostly, ex-footballers just did after-dinner speaking. Being Irish, I love having a bit of craic. But it was never something that interested in me. I thought there was a massive gap in the market in keynote speaking.
“Football is the No 1 sport in the country, the No 1 sport in the world. I thought: ‘There’s gotta be people interested in what they can learn from the football world, from leadership, team work, that kind of stuff’.”
McVeigh added: “I came back from America and my first gig was with Aviva, the big insurance company. That was nearly 15 years ago. Since then, I have spoken to pretty much every big company around the world.
“Part of it is a performance. But it is also very much about what you can share. How can I use my experiences of competing in what is probably the most competitive and ruthless industry on the planet, football?
“You also need to have credibility. I played in the Premier League and at international level, unlike the 99 per cent of other people who went in to professional football. There is something in that. What can you learn from someone who has got to that level and stayed there for 20 years?
“You can give people sessions on belief, accountability, focus, goal setting, leadership. There are a range of things I do. We used to do one-off sessions. But I got feedback from MDs and senior executives. They wanted to know how to embed it in their culture. So now we follow up and do so much more.”
McVeigh originally hails from west Belfast so he knows all about the intense rivalry that exists between Celtic and Rangers and is acutely aware that failing to deliver silverware and success every year can have disastrous consequences for directors in Glasgow.
So what does he feel the high heid yins at the Parkhead and Ibrox clubs, who are once again locked in a power struggle for domestic supremacy this term, can learn from the captains of industry who he works with on a daily basis and flourish?
He has sympathy for those who find themselves in the firing line when thing do not go according to plan – and sporting director Ross Wilson and managing director Stewart Robertson both departed Rangers last season after being targeted by incensed fans at the end of a trophyless campaign – as he knows just how unpredictable football can be.
“What they can control is actually pretty limited,” he said. “You can have the best manager, the most expensively-assembled team, the best training ground. You can put them all together and you still might not be successful.
“That doesn’t mean a club isn’t doing the right thing. It is just that football is incredibly unique. With Celtic and Rangers, it is probably very easy to simplify it back to who is spending the most. Club A have probably got a bigger budget than Club B so they are going to have a better team. But it doesn’t always work like that.
“If you are a 100m sprinter, you can do everything you possibly can every day to be the best you can possibly be. You can then get to the Olympic final and run a PB. In isolation, you have had the best day of your life. But someone in the next lane can run faster than you.
“It is the same in football. You can have all the pieces in place, the right manager, the right coaches, the right players, the lack of injuries and suspensions, and still not win the league. It is the most fickle of industries.”
McVeigh continued: “No one involved at the highest level of elite sport or business is trying to do a bad job or make bad decisions – especially owners and directors who are putting millions of pounds of their own money into it.
“The people who are judging them don’t have all the facts. They are just looking at the top line. A fan will say, ‘Well, we haven’t won the league this year so this manager or that director has to get out’. But is that always the best way? It hasn’t worked very well at Chelsea. It is not always down to what one person is doing.”
McVeigh himself was influenced greatly by two players who are well known to Scottish football supporters – his former Northern Ireland team mate Neil Lennon and his ex-Norwich manager Paul Lambert.
“I don’t know how Neil dealt with what he went through,” he said. “He got death threats for doing his job because of the club he played for and the country he was brought up in. It was so far beyond extremism. I had a huge amount of respect for him for dealing with that and enjoying the career he did.
“I would also say that he was massively underrated, in both England and Scotland. He always had an impact on the game, always got in the right positions, never gave the ball away. He did all the stuff that generally doesn’t get acknowledged.
“I played under Paul in his first season at Norwich as manager and my last season at Norwich as a player. He was 40 or 41 then. But whenever he took part in training he was always the best player. Always. We would win the league that season. But in 11 v 11 training matches and he was by far the best player on the park.
“Players like Neil Lennon and Paul Lambert fly under the radar. To be honest, they probably didn’t want the limelight, they were probably happy for the Henrik Larssons, John Hartsons and Chris Suttons to get it.”
The latter member of that fabled Celtic forward line appears, despite having carved out a hugely successful career for himself as an outspoken commentator since hanging up his boots, set to follow McVeigh into the corporate sphere. His mentor feels he has a huge amount to offer.
“I know Chris really well,” he said. “I run a speaker training course. We work with people who have had amazing careers and show them how share their stories with people in the corporate world. He came on our course.
“He has dipped his toe in the water. He has got the skillset now. The only problem is he is so busy with the media, doing punditry for Sky Sports, TNT and the BBC and writing columns. His problem is getting the time off to go in and speak to corporate clients.
“But he has a fantastic ability to deliver a story. Chris does a lot of after dinner speaking. Instead of talking about pre-season trips and nights out with his team mates to the corporate world, he can talk about how he dealt with joining Chelsea for £10m and then not performing at the same level as he did with Blackburn.
“That is what business people want to hear about. How did an elite performer deal with a massive dip in form and get himself back out of it again? Which he did. He enjoyed incredible success at Celtic. Plus, he has been at the very top of his profession.”
Paul McVeigh has risen to the top of his current profession and proved that big business has much to learn from those who carry the hopes of thousands on their shoulders every time they go to work during these challenging economic times.