Following a €93 million transfer from Leicester City to Manchester United, Harry Maguire is now the most expensive defender in world football.
But one of the things you won’t explicitly see, read or hear about this record-breaking deal is the crucial role that reputation management played in making it happen.
From the moment Maguire’s performances at the 2018 World Cup pushed him into the spotlight, his footballing future has been the subject of intense speculation.
His employers, Leicester City, were in possession of a prize asset, one they and their fans didn’t want to lose, and certainly not cheaply.
Despite the interests of Champions League clubs and media scrutiny, neither Leicester City nor Maguire displayed outward signs of fracturing, and ultimately agreed a five-year contract extension. Round one to Leicester City.
But the game was on. The clubs with deep pockets were hovering with intent, and it only seemed a matter of time before they’d get their man. Twelve months later, they did, and Manchester United secured Maguire’s services at a price well in excess of what they intended to pay.
Player transfer deals are increasingly marred by greed, ego, ungratefulness, and bullying. They depict an ugly side of football. Yet, despite the record-breaking numbers, the high-profile parties involved, and the protracted timeline, Maguire’s transfer is notable for the absence of such sentiment.
Lessons from Leicester
The source of much of this transfer’s cordiality is Maguire himself. Many players would throw their toys out of the pram if their existing employer was preventing them from playing at one of the world’s most prestigious, well-paying clubs, but despite constant questioning over the past year, not once did Maguire or his agent indicate that he was resentful or unhappy.
While the tone of the media briefings clearly hardened in the final days before the deal, no one could accuse Maguire of disrespect towards Leicester City and its fans—no mean feat in a world of agents and entourage.
Leicester City, meanwhile, played it brilliantly. They had a tricky balancing act: ideally keep the player, but if that wasn’t feasible, maximise the sale value while simultaneously demonstrating that the club could manage the departure of its biggest star.
Despite an initial failed bid for Maguire by Manchester United in May, by early July, they had stepped up their pursuit. Leicester City remained steadfast in its valuation of him. Throughout pre-season, manager Brendan Rodgers repeatedly reiterated the club’s position on the player:
Leicester City’s patient public demeanour suggested it held all the cards. This was no accident; its calmness reflected a firmly held appreciation of communications and narrative framing. The club demonstrated this chess master-like composure in its Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante transfer strategies, too, both of which achieved club record transfer fees. Very few football clubs could absorb the loss of their three best players and keep their fans bought in to the bigger picture.
It was also no coincidence, either, that pro-Leicester City stories appeared in media in recent weeks, ranging from articles on the depth of the players in its squad and the progression of new highly rated talent, to the astute negotiation stance of club executives and how this would deliver millions for re-investment in new players.
All of this helped amplify a narrative that Leicester City had signed a super deal and that the manager, players and fans remained confident about the future.
For Manchester United, which has failed dismally in the reputation management stakes in recent years, the Maguire transfer points to a club that has learned lessons. It didn’t fuel the hype. The club’s manager and executive vice-chairman resisted the bait every time a journalist hungry for a scoop goaded them into a Maguire-related remark; they kept their eye on the prize and got it.
The corporate perspective
What can businesses learn from this, particularly when it comes to headhunting senior management?
For the existing employer, competitors circling for your best talent can be highly destabilising. The headhunting process can be a distraction for the targeted employee, which impacts performance. Others on the team will inevitably suspect something, which creates uncertainty. Customers, too, start hearing rumours, and wonder what it means for them.
Meanwhile, the prospective employer’s intent forms its own dynamic. Expectation levels rise, so failure to land the target will be seen as a general business failure. Existing staff wonder if the boss’s desire to hire someone new is a comment on their own performance.
While corporates don’t have the show business of transfer deadline day, or the relentless media and social media intensity that goes with it, they do have their own approximations.
Consider the recent speculation over the appointment of a new boss at insurer RSA, or the very public process to hire the new head of the HSE, or the re-appointment of Phil Hogan as Ireland’s EU Commissioner. Each of these examples illustrates the mood music that is amplified when a decision concerning the future of a high-profile position is imminent.
Always shape the narrative
The first thing to accept in such moments is that external interest is unavoidable. You might wish it was otherwise, but it won’t make the speculation go away. You have a choice: shape it or succumb to it. The best businesses, rather than bury their heads in the sand, seek to control the narrative.
This makes the role of the press spokesperson, who is the first line of defence, essential. They have to be able to handle the heat that comes with constant media speculation, maintain relationships with journalists who ultimately just want to be first with the news (and will fill space regardless), and rebut inaccuracies promptly even when it upsets people.
In the background, there is often an anxious employer that may not understand the nuances of reputation management and gets spooked by being at the centre of speculation. Managing this pressure, not panicking over one or two bad headlines, and ultimately keeping your eyes fixed on the bigger picture are key.
Harry Maguire, Leicester City and Manchester United all understood this. The value that they placed on reputation management from the outset was crucial in not just delivering a lucrative transfer deal but protecting their respective long-term interests.
Founder and Managing Director of PR360, Dan’s career spans business, politics and professional representation. He has overseen the agency’s rapid growth, developing a premier client portfolio and a talented team of professionals.