Former Hearts chief relishes new project working for Abu Dhabi football club

FORTUNE Magazine named Abu Dhabi the richest city in the world three years ago. Nothing in the intervening period suggests its status has changed. In the city's Al Muroor district sits its largest football club, Al Jazira, where aspirations of dominating Asian football are overseen by chief executive Phil Anderton.

The former Hearts CEO lives an altogether different life to his previous existences at Tynecastle, Murrayfield and with the Association of Tennis Professionals. He has been back in football six months and is relishing working under Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the Al Jazira president whose monetary powers make football billionaires like Roman Abramovich look like they are scratching around for coppers.

That Anderton feels at home amid a sprawling metropolis in the United Arab Emirates is, he says, testament to his employers. Sheikh Mansour spent 210 million acquiring a 90 per cent stake in Manchester City and is also chairman of the Emirates Horse Racing Authority. The brother of the ruler of Abu Dhabi, he has an estimated family fortune of $1 trillion (555 billion) to buy foreign assets alone.

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With such financial puissance he could have anyone he wants. Why Anderton, one might ask?

"We're very fortunate that the president of the club, His Highness Sheikh Mansour, is very passionate and supportive," explains the chief executive. "He makes it very clear where he wants to take the club and we know exactly what needs to be done. There are a lot of exciting plans to take the club forward. My job is basically to put in place structures, people and programmes to help the club achieve what it wants on the field. Obviously it's about leagues and cups and trying to build up the fan base. Then, on the commercial side, it's about driving up the revenues for the club so we can reinvest that in the various teams."

Al Jazira finished second in the UAE Premier League and, as such, gain entry to next season's Asian Champions League. Links with Manchester City are already as strong, perhaps stronger, than those forged by Vladimir Romanov between Hearts and FBK Kaunas of Lithuania. Bearing in mind his fallout with Romanov, Anderton could have been forgiven for harbouring suspicions over Sheikh Mansour's influence at Al Jazira. However, he is treating the whole experience as one big learning curve.

"I only had one run-in with the Hearts guy," he says in reference to Romanov. "I got on extremely well with people like David Mackay at the SRU. I'm in a very positive environment here with very clear direction that I have the responsibility and the accountability to deliver. Sheikh Mansour is the president but we have a board of directors who I talk with daily. It's as it would be in a normal club environment.

"The leadership of the club contains some of the most important people within the UAE and they are very accomplished in their own right. It's a pleasure to be working in a professional environment and hopefully what I can bring will be on the practical execution side of things due to the knowledge I've picked up in the past, both good and bad. I'll learn a lot more from the people leading this club than the other way round, I think."

People management is a key responsibility of any chief executive, something Anderton found himself practising on his children late last year before accepting his new position. "I got a call from a recruitment company and they mentioned a CEO job in football," he recalls. "They said Middle East and I was thinking 'er, right, tell me a bit more'. When they said Abu Dhabi it was a big attraction to me because, through the work we did at the ATP, we were aware of what places like Abu Dhabi were trying to achieve and how sport was a very big part of what they are trying to do as a country.

"I knew Abu Dhabi was a very safe place, a very exciting and growing international city. I did the interview and learned more about the goals of the club and what their ambitions are. It really is a very modern, forward-thinking city. After four years of working in tennis, the chance to get back into football was a very exciting challenge.

"But I've got three girls (aged 11, 14 and 15] and I had to suddenly tell them they were leaving their school and friends. One of them was happy, one was kind of 'wait and see what it's like', and the other one said, 'see you later, hope you enjoy it because I'm not coming'.

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"Once we got them out here and got them into school they were okay. The weather obviously helps, although it can get a little bit too hot, but they really enjoy it. We have a very active lifestyle because of the weather, they have boys and girls at their school so they're going through all of that now. We live next door to a golf club and it's a very nice way to live. I couldn't be happier with how they've settled in over here because, as a parent, that weighs large on your mind if you're moving anywhere let alone abroad."

Perceptions of Arab dominance within major UAE cities are incorrect, which has helped the Andertons adapt to life in the Middle East. "It's a very cosmopolitan mix of people. The UAE nationals actually only account for around 20 per cent of the population in Abu Dhabi. It feels like every nationality in the world is here. There are a lot of Asians and you get Arabs from other countries like Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. Then you've got the typical westerners like the Brits, French, Germans and Americans.

There are also Aussies and South Africans, so it's a real mix between the very traditional UAE culture and all the others. It's a muslim country so you have lots of mosques, and when you hear them praying five times a day every day it makes you realise fully that you're in a completely different place. On the other side, it feels very much like home with all the modern amenities like shopping malls, sports facilities, hotel bars and all the rest of it.

"It's a very good place to live and it has a real sense of growth and ambition. The Abu Dhabi government developed what's called the 2030 Plan, which is for long-term growth to turn it into one of the leading cities in the world. You get that sense of growth wherever you look. People look at Dubai and the rapid growth which went on there. I think it's done on a different scale here in Abu Dhabi. There's just a real sense that the city is going places so it's exciting to be part of it."

Al Jazira fully intend to be at the forefront of the evolution. Football is their primary function but, as CEO of a multi-sport club, Anderton oversees teams in basketball, volleyball, handball, swimming and table tennis. That's before any marketing work.

"We have a branch called Al Jazira Capital, which is our real estate investment arm," he continues. "That's been put in place to develop a lot of land owned by the club into commercial ventures that will help fund the club. I'm in charge of all that as well. There's also junior programmes for all the sports and we have a full-time, live-in academy. It's challenging because there's a lot to do but I'm enjoying it. It's good that we're in the Asian Champions League but obviously everyone wants to win. This year we are keen to move on, make a few changes to the playing staff and invest in the sports medicine and sports science side of things. We have the league, a couple of domestic cups and then the Asian Champions League, so there's a fair bit of action and you have to make sure the players are conditioned as best as possible.

"The slightly disappointing thing is we have the FIFA Club World Cup here later this year which will be played in our stadium and another stadium in Abu Dhabi. If we'd won the league we would have been playing in that competition in our own stadium against teams like Inter Milan. We missed out but we're still delighted to be able to host the tournament as a club."

In terms of attracing players, Anderton is hindered to a degree by the UAE league's three non-nationals rule. But Al Jazira can count footballing luminaries such as George Weah and Phillip Cocu amongst their previous employees, so the Arab culture clearly carries its own lure.

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"I don't think anyone wants people who see this as just playing out their final few days in the sun," says Anderton. "It's a fully professional team and we need the right quality of players here. Our foreign players are Africans and Brazilians, and we had an Australian last year.

We certainly wouldn't rule out getting players from the UK in future but we don't have a specific plan to target players from any one country. It's quality we are seeking. There are young UAE players who have come through our academy system and played for the first team."

In that sense, the relationship with Manchester City would appear a godsend. "We want to foster a strong relationship with them. There is an exchange programme in place where we send a number of boys from our academy over to City's academy, so our boys can develop as players and people going to a foreign environment. They can come back as stronger players mentally having been part of a very strong and professional academy set up in Manchester.

"I speak with the chief executive of Man City, Garry Cook, regularly and we talk about opportunities involving staffing and commercial opportunities. Man City have been over here and played against the UAE national team, their academy came over and played against our academy. We had Roberto Mancini over too, so we're trying to develop the relationship. There are a whole range of things we can explore."

Almost 30 per cent of the world's giant construction cranes are in use in the United Arab Emirates. For Phil Anderton, the building work continues in Abu Dhabi.


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