Evening Standard

Board games: Sir Keith Mills is used to making big decisions behind the scenes in sport. Image courtesy of Evening Standard.

Sir Keith Mills has had an involvement in sport that most of us can only dream of, yet the past few weeks have been more exhausting than exciting.

The 60-year-old, who is on the advisory board of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, has been holding the hands of the campaign’s leaders as they have, once again, been buffeted by events beyond their control.

Following Sunday Times revelations about alleged corruption in the bidding process, a meeting was held at Sir Keith’s St James’s office with Lord Coe and the 2018 bid leaders. The result was that the bid’s international president, David Dein, and chief of staff, Simon Greenberg, flew to Zurich to meet FIFA president Sepp Blatter. Also letters were sent to each member of the FIFA executive distancing the bid from criticism of the game’s governing body in Britain.

“We’ve had to deal with a huge amount of unfavourable British media attention around FIFA, and FIFA members are clearly not happy about that,” Sir Keith says. “There is a general feeling that the British media are out to get FIFA and the job we’ve had in the past few weeks has been to explain to them that’s not the case.”

Sir Keith had a similar task for the 2012 London Olympic bid when Panorama exposed corruption in the International Olympic Committee just before the 2004 Athens Games.

He says: “I was the first senior bid member to arrive in Athens and every IOC member I went up to told me, You guys better pack your bags and go home because you don’t stand any chance of winning this bid’.

“The truth in the programme was not relevant for the IOC members. For the whole of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Seb and I worked from seven o’clock every morning until after midnight to reassure IOC members that, if we won the Games, the British media would not spend the next six or seven years haunting them and following them around the world.”

Tony Blair, attending his first Olympics, was also called in to help. Sir Keith says: “He was questioned about Panorama and said, Look we have a free press and there are some things even the Prime Minister can’t stop. One of them is a television programme.’”

David Cameron will have a similar job in Zurich with Panorama planning to broadcast a programme on FIFA three days before the executive vote on the 2018 hosts.

In Switzerland, the Prime Minister will have lunch with FIFA vice-president Jack Warner, who last night slammed Panorama’s investigation, insisting it was “deliberately designed to negatively impact on England’s chances”.

The timing of the programme has also been condemned as “unpatriotic” by England 2018 chief executive Andy Anson but Sir Keith does not see it as the death knell for our hopes.

He says: “If there were a new set of revelations that were going to be damaging, or calling into question the validity of the bidding process, you could see how difficult it would be for the Prime Minister. I would be surprised if there were any major new revelations. It will be an irritant to FIFA but I don’t think it’ll be a fatal blow.”

England are vying with Russia and joint bids from Spain-Portugal and Holland-Belgium for the right to stage the 2018 finals. Sir Keith accepts victory will be “difficult, we are behind, we need to catch up”. But he is confident, “we are still in with a shout”.

This is not the first time Sir Keith has been called upon to rescue the bid. His phone rang on FA Cup Final day when, as Chelsea overcame Portsmouth, it emerged that a private conversation of Lord Triesman, then chairman of the Football Association, was about to be revealed by the Mail on Sunday. In this, Triesman alleged corruption by bidders Spain and Russia.

“Early on Sunday morning I spoke to David [Triesman],” he reveals. “We convened a conference call between Seb, myself and Andy Anson. David didn’t want to step down, certainly not from both FA and the bid. But it didn’t take him long to realise there wasn’t much choice. The decision had to be made quickly and, by lunchtime, he’d gone. It was very unfortunate we lost our chairman halfway through the bid process, it was clearly not helpful.”

It meant that Geoff Thompson, Britain’s representative on the FIFA executive, who had been sidelined by Triesman, was brought back as bid leader. Sir Keith agrees that the relationship between Triesman and Thompson was far from ideal. “They weren’t the best of friends and Seb and I thought it important that Geoff was more engaged in the bid,” he says.

Sir Keith’s answer to those who argue that the whole FIFA process is tainted is: “It’s their competition, they are the rights-holders. If I don’t like the rules, I don’t have to bid.”

Sir Keith, himself, has just withdrawn from the America’s Cup, despite spending some £30million and three years putting a team together for sailing’s iconic event, because he felt the rules drawn up by the American holders were “unfair”.

This directness of approach has always characterised Sir Keith. Eight years ago, he had earned a fortune from inventing Air Miles and the Nectar card, but had no involvement in sport.

Then Barbara Cassani, who was leading London’s Games bid, persuaded him to become her deputy.

On London 2012, he approached IOC members and said: “I’m new to the Olympic movement, you’ve been to many Games. Tell me what should London do that would set the city apart from the other bidding cities?’”

IOC members could not stop talking to Sir Keith and many would later say he played a crucial part in the capital’s victory.

Sir Keith has taken a similar, practical, approach to his directorship of Tottenham, where he joined the plc board after Britain secured the Olympics.

Spurs, under Harry Redknapp, are enjoying their first season in the Champions League and face Werder Bremen tomorrow, buoyed by their remarkable derby victory over Arsenal. However, it hasn’t all been plain sailing for Sir Keith at White Hart Lane and his most testing moment came in the autumn of 2008 when the club were bottom of the Premier League with only two points.

“Mervyn Davies, a director at that time, and I had dinner with Juande Ramos at the Wolesley,” he tells me. “When we came out, both Mervyn and I felt Juande ought to go. We lost the next day in Europe and called a telephone board meeting.

Harry was top of the list Daniel [Levy, the chairman] had and it was agreed we should approach him. We got him and the only person who was not pleased was my son, Alex, a Portsmouth supporter.

“Ramos had a cultural and language problem. He stood quite a long way back from the team. He was more of an executive manager and used Gus Poyet [to work with the team]. Harry rolls his sleeves up, gets stuck in and builds a great relationship with the players. They understand what he wants.

“He’s very, very good tactically. I don’t know how many games we’ve gone in at half-time, not looking good and come out in the second half and created miracles. Look at the Emirates on Saturday. He really understands the British game.”

So having broken into Europe’s elite competition, are Tottenham no longer a selling club? Is there no question of Gareth Bale leaving?

“The board is determined to keep Bale and he is keen to stay,” Sir Keith insists. “We’ve got a long contract with him and, if we intend to stay and do well in Europe, we need players like him.

“If we sell Gareth, what are we going to do to replace him? It’s all very well putting a lot of money in the bank but, if you go and spend it on finding new players, you’re just going round in circles. We got a very full price for Dimitar Berbatov [£30m] and we felt, at the time, we could find a player that would fit in better. Gareth fits in brilliantly and I’d be very surprised if he were to go anywhere in the short term.”

But, if Bale stays, can Spurs prevent Redknapp succeeding Fabio Capello, when the Italian’s contract with the national side ends in 2012?

“I hope Harry sees out his days at Tottenham. As many previous England managers have found to their cost, that job can be a bit of a poisoned chalice.”

Sir Keith sees this as the “crossroads season” for Spurs and is well aware that, to keep up with the League’s elite, they need a bigger ground. By next March, fans will discover whether that means a new home at White Hart Lane or a move to the Olympic Stadium.

“If the Olympic Park legacy company decides our bid is the preferred one, then we’ll put all our efforts behind trying to move there,” he says. “If we get a 60,000-seat stadium in the Olympic Park at a lower cost than we can in Haringey, the club will have less debt. Fans would never forgive us for landing the club with so much debt that we can’t go and buy players.”

He accepts the downside of moving away from the original home of Tottenham but says there are upsides.

“We’ll be moving to a part of London that is 100 per cent more accessible; we’ll generate more revenue; it’s closer to Canary Wharf and to the City; and it’ll attract more sponsorship,” he says.

By then, London 2012 will have come and gone and Sir Keith will be all the more aware that nothing he has done in business will match his sporting successes. “When you do something for your country that is unrepeatable.”


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