European Super League: Doomed from the start

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Chelsea fans stage a sit-in outside the club's Stamford Bridge stadium to protest the European Super League, 20 April | Guy Bell/Alamy Live News

Revealed: Ex-Number 10 communication chief was hired only on Sunday to run PR strategy for ill-fated ‘comms disaster’ breakaway project

A former Conservative spin doctor was hired to handle the European Super League’s PR hours before the much-criticised initiative was launched, openDemocracy has learned.

The breakaway European Super League (ESL) was announced at 11.30pm last Sunday night, in a press statement issued by iNHouse communications, a firm run by Theresa May’s director of communications Katie Perrior.

It has now emerged that iNHouse only started work on the now doomed competition earlier that day.

The decision by the ESL’s founders to hire Perrior’s firm so late in the day has raised further questions about the project, which was left in tatters on Tuesday after the six English Premier League clubs involved withdrew.

The Super League, which was set to include 12 of the biggest teams across Europe including Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Juventus, has been branded a public relations disaster, with one PR industry insider telling openDemocracy, “I have never seen anything like it.”

Perrior, and iNHouse, also worked as an adviser for Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance group after she left Number 10 in April 2017.

Gupta has been embroiled in the on-going lobbying scandal surrounding David Cameron and the collapsed finance firm Greensill Capital. Gupta has denied allegations that loans from Greensill to his steel business, Liberty Steel, were advanced against fraudulent invoices.

 “I have never seen anything like the chaos of the last 48 hours,” Lorna O’Neill of Surge Communications, told openDemocracy of the ESL. “There seems to have been one lengthy statement saying ‘this is what we’re doing’ and nothing else.

“I don’t think there has been a comms strategy at all really, just ‘release a statement and let the clubs deal with it’.”

A number of leading football journalists complained that they were not sent Sunday night’s press release and struggled to contact the press handlers on the story. “It was bizarre,” one top UK-based journalist told openDemocracy. “It just shows how ill-thought [out] it all was.”

On Tuesday, football fans took to the streets of London with Chelsea supporters holding protests outside Stamford Bridge following their club’s decision to sign up to the ESL.

Those protests soon turned to scenes of celebration once it was announced that Chelsea were preparing to pull out of the competition. That announcement was swiftly followed by Manchester City’s decision to withdraw, with the four remaining Premier League clubs, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham, quickly following suit.

Despite widespread opposition to the plan for a Super League, including from the prime minister, Boris Johnson, Perrior’s firm appeared unfazed. A source at iNHouse told The Times on Tuesday: “Once we get over the initial hurdle in terms of the news breaking there are good points about solidarity payments to be told and English football will take a lot of that money for the grassroots game.”

The ESL was denounced across the sporting and political spectrum including by Perrior’s former boss, Johnson. Perrior, who has long links to the Conservatives, led the public relations campaign for Johnson’s successful London mayoral campaign in 2008.

Johnson once referred to Perrior and iNHouse co-founder Jo Tanners “the Fortnum & Mason of communications,” following his 2008 victory. “They deliver and they deliver quality. Without them, I simply would not have been made mayor,” he added.

Some of the press around the European Super League has been handled by former BBC sports journalist Richard Conway, who runs sports PR firm Paloma Global.

Conway, who has been linked to the 2022 Qatar World Cup, told openDemocracy that he had been hired in March “to advise the Super League”.

“Katie (Perrior) was running the press office operations on this. I have an advisory role. I don’t work for iNHouse, I don’t work for Katie. I had a separate role, advising them on media relations,” Conway told openDemocracy.

Professor Simon Chadwick, director of Eurasian Sport at France’s Emlyon Business School, said the ESL was a “tactical, not a strategic” move designed to show the power of European’s biggest clubs.

“There has been an awful lot of smoke and mirrors,” he said. “Given that we were on the cusp of UEFA’s new settlement, what the Super League clubs were doing was saying ‘look, we are still powerful, we can still threaten you’.”

Chadwick added that while the Super League might have been a “diversionary tactic”, it soon “spiraled out of control” as fans – and politicians – across Europe lined up against it.

As well as press operation for the proposed football Super League, Perrior’s PR and lobbying company, iNHouse, has also worked for Gupta’s business. It registered GFG Alliance as a lobbying client in late 2018, meaning iNHouse approached a minister or permanent secretary on its behalf.

Gupta’s firm is not listed as a client on iNHouse’s website today, but a cached version from last week does list GFG Alliance under 'Our Clients'.

Perrior told openDemocracy that iNHouse resigned the Gupta account in 2018: “I was briefly an adviser to GFG Alliance for a few months in a personal capacity in 2017 but realised they needed a bigger media team so folded that work into iNHouse.

“The work involved media relations for the UK business including the opening of the Rotherham plant, which employed 650 staff. Our work lasted for a year and we resigned the account in 2018 as we decided the client was a poor fit for our business.”

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