HERE'S a quiz question for you. Which former board member at Sheffield United served as an interrogator on the frontline in Desert Storm? Later, during the aftermath of the second Iraq war, he was at the forefront of reconstruction efforts in Baghdad?
Sean Bean, maybe, in a Hollywood blockbuster? No, the answer is Jim Phipps, until the end of last season co-chairman of the club alongside Kevin McCabe. The 52-year-old American who voted for Donald Trump in the recent US presidential election, saw plenty of action of a very different kind in an effort to win hearts and minds during three years at Bramall Lane.
Famously known for an enthusiastic willingness to engage with supporters via Twitter, more openly and honestly than some of those in the corridors of power may have liked, Phipps' social media account fell mysteriously silent during his latter months at the Lane. Not long after he invited supporters to comment on the Blades activity – or lack of it – in the 2016 January transfer window. A depressing defeat under Nigel Clough at already relegated Yeovil was met with the tweet “speechless”.
He was also at the sharp end and seemingly alone, at least to onlookers, as United naively and apparently without a coherent communications strategy, launched blindly into a national media storm concerning former Blades striker Ched Evans.
In the dark months of manager Nigel Adkins’ catastrophic reign rumours were rife of a falling out between co-owners McCabe and Prince Abdullah bin Mosaad bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. If true it can't have made the experience for Phipps, the prince's right-hand man at the Lane, any easier.
His backstory is remarkable. So, too, is his genuine love for the Blades as the Twitter account that became so controversial, testifies now normal service has resumed.
This time though he is tweeting as a fan. The Californian-born globetrotter has hardly missed a moment’s action this season, either viewing from afar or listening. “I’ve missed one match since I ended my services as co-chairman and I think I missed part of a match because the coverage was bad,” he said. It’s part of the rhythm of my life now and I really enjoy it.”
In a candid interview with ViewFromTheJohnStreet.com from his work base in Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia, Phipps offered an honest insight into his time at the Lane. Anxious of not being perceived to be creating a distraction from United’s final promotion push under Chris Wilder, to be in the company of Phipps for only a short time you quickly realise he’s a genuine, if unconventional guy. When referring to United the words ‘we’ and ‘serve’ are often repeated.
“I knew as much about football as I know about brain surgery,” was the brutally honest admission from a man brought up on a diet of traditional American sport as he reflected on his arrival at the Lane. “I feel I learnt a lot whilst I was there but one thing I learned to respect is how much knowledge there is about the football club amongst the fans. In a recent post match interview Chris Wilder mentioned how knowledgable the fans are. He’s absolutely spot on.”
Phipps has spent 30 years working in legal and business ventures related to the Middle East. “I’ve had a chance to run some companies and I’ve had the chance to lose a lot of money,” he chuckles. “And also the chance to make some.”
His arrival in South Yorkshire was a surprise to him. “You don’t expect all the opportunities that come to you in life. If somebody offers you the chance to do something you say ‘yes’. The opportunity to serve was a lot of fun and the funnest part of it was time with fans.
“There was also the hard work part of it and the learning curve. But maybe the most unexpected thing is how passionate I still am about it. It might have been easy to just say goodbye and be done.
“I have to say that while I wish things had gone more to plan I’m totally thrilled that Chris Wilder and the lads are where they are. There have been a lot of positive changes made – right decisions, staffing – and there’s just an amazing feeling at the club.”
Phipps resigned “with a heavy heart” last May. The club had finished in it’s lowest position for 33 years, 11th in League One, and Adkins had become the latest in a long line of managerial casualties. “I don’t want to comment on the specifics of those final months except to say we weren’t doing what we set out to do and I ultimately left when I felt that my influence wasn’t going to help things moving forward. There was a better way for the club to work if we weren’t having internal tension.
“It’s worked out very well. We’ve got a manager who loves the club as much as we do; we’ve got a group of lads that are burning their lungs out every match. Not only are the first eleven fit to wear the shirt, you look at our bench and it’s striking. I think we have a great squad. The whole tenure of the place has improved. Why look back.”
So as the man whose close business association with Prince Abdullah remains and one who knows the Saudi better than most, I had to tackle the elephant in the room. Investment.
McCabe sold 50 per cent of the club to the prince for £1 in return for a cash flow which the Brussels-based property developer from Sheffield described as a “game-changer”. That was in September 2013.
Last year Phipps, in an interview with local TV station Sheffield Live! went on record to say Prince Abdullah had spent £13million. McCabe told BBC Radio Sheffield it was £15m. Where the prince’s transformational pot of gold is concerned confusion reigns. There can be no doubt that money has been invested. Public perception, however, is that it has been anything but game-changing.
Even McCabe agrees. “It’s been planned to be the case,” he said 13 months ago. “It hasn’t been the case and I ask you to recognise we’ve got pretty close to the ‘game-changer’ because that comes with a first promotion back to the Championship.”
It’s a thorny issue which Phipps is thankful no longer concerns him and, according to McCabe just over a year ago, is about to come to fruition. Phipps said: “Let me acknowledge that I have dined out on that expression and a number of choice expressions enough times for me not want to do it again. That’s a particularly chewy piece of meat.”
Was Phipps hung out to dry as the lone spokesperson responding to the explosion of anger which accompanied United’s decision to allow striker Evans to train at Shirecliffe on his release from prison after being convicted of rape? A conviction that has since been overturned by the Court of Appeal. In a retrial last October Evans was found not guilty.
“It’s not true to say that I was being ‘hung out’ because I wanted to explain what was happening,” said Phipps. “I don’t feel put on in any way. I think our collective communication instincts didn’t serve us well at that time. But I’m not afraid about talking to people. It’s ok with me if I’m wrong about things. We learned a lot of lessons in the circumstances.”
He does not shy away from the accusation of lack of forethought when it came to communication. “I think someone could make that charge and make it stick. It was perhaps naive to think that we could go to where we wanted to go with as little information that we put out.
“A lot of things could have been done better but we had to find our way in real time. The judgement I think which was most naive was the to just put out Press statements. I think if we were going to do what we we tried to do we should have got behind it. Not waited until a week later when we were drubbed into the ground and the community was coming apart.
“Maybe another point in the charge that we were naive could stick is in the area where rape is concerned. There’s a very organised set of voices on these issues. There have been other people who have returned to sport from having committed very serious offences, including manslaughter. They have come back without too much comment.
“But violence against women, rape, comes in that category of very substantial groups committed to ridding society of those types of crimes. A case involving a footballer would be a very high profile case, a very opportune time to make a point. I think we underestimated the extent to which the opposition we faced which became abundantly clear at the time.”
Phipps, however, has no regrets about United’s attempt to bring Evans back into the fold less than three years after United cancelled what remained of the £3million player's contract. “I think we were right to assert the principles that we did,” said Phipps. “I just think we didn’t get out there to make those points when we should have. We made them after the fact and on the way out of the issue. We might not have achieved a different outcome. We can’t know.”
Phipps’ personal experience of conflict in Iraq has had a profound effect. I’ve been to two wars, one in uniform and the other in a suit, he explained. “Once you’ve been part of a war you develop different attitudes to ones you might have had as a civilian. So while I still believe in fighting wars for self defence I think I’ve turned into an accidental pacifist.
“I was there in Desert Storm (the first US coalition-led invasion) in 1990-91 as an interpreter-interegator. I was with a frontline unit, it’s called a cavalry regiment. Of course there weren’t any horses, it was the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, the M1 tank and helicopters. Those type of units move too fast to do meaningful tactical interrogation. By the time you are interrogating somebody you have essentially overrun their position. I did do some after-action interviews with people but in the main what I was doing during that war was telling people to get out of the way – civilians – and then talking to the surrendering Iraqi troops.
“I was back in Iraq in 2008 until about the end of 2010 where I was the sole person advising the Iraqi government on the topic of evictions. The government at the time was planning on carrying out two million evictions of people who had moved into the homes of other people when they had been displaced from their own neighbourhoods. Or they had moved into government facilities or other buildings. I helped them come up with a more humane approach and one that wouldn’t cause a new round of violence. Then I led a team of about 165 mainly Iraqi advisors helping to coach new Government officials in Baghdad.”
Phipps first met Prince Abdullah in London where he was interviewed for the post of CEO for a business the Saudi royal was considering buying in California. “During the course of the interview I told him why he shouldn’t do that transaction. After 45 minutes of chatting I thought I had offered him good advice but talked myself out of a job.”
But just before Phipps was about to join a US law firm, he received a call from the Prince offering him the chance to run the Saudi’s various business concerns from Riyadh. Then came the deal struck between McCabe and the prince to buy into United for £1.
Clocking up one-and-a-million miles between Riyadh and Sheffield, Phipps whose home match experience took three days, said: “It’s strange given my backstory that I had the opportunity to serve [at Bramall Lane] but the experience has been so rich and even since I left active service in the club I’ve felt every bit as much a part of it.”
His hectic schedule juggling the prince’s interests at the Lane with worldwide business ventures contributed to a health scare which led Phipps to re-evaluate his life. Now he has plans to make more “grandpa time” by moving back to the family home in Provo, Utah where his wife, Lori, and five children live. His grandchildren are an hour away in Salt Lake City.
He rejects a suggestion often made that United’s co-owners are too geographically remote to run the club properly. “We have a professional business and professional football managers. It’s not really the model to have the Board directing day-to-day affairs,” he said. “I don’t think we were distant from the club even though our addresses were abroad. We didn’t get the results we wanted so anyone who wants to blame this is free to do so. But I tried to make sure that I wasn’t micro-managing anything at the club, letting people who know the sport and the business make the day-to-day decisions. There were a lot of positives that came out of those years but the positives that mattered to all of us didn’t materialise. We didn’t win promotion.
“I think the strangest thing about me having the opportunity [at United] is there are probably thirty or forty thousand people out there who would love to have a chance to serve in that way. They would start off knowing oodles more about football than I know, even given what I have learned in these first years. It was a great experience and I made some great friendships.
“The real highlight running through my whole time at Bramall Lane was the numerous occasions when people allowed me to serve them or to make me part of their personal lives, whether it be in the midst of a personal tragedy such as sickness or death, or to be part of birthday, wedding and anniversary celebrations. The number of occasions when I got to create special experiences for fans on their special days or the loss of a family member that was the amazing part.
“There is a real goodness in the hearts of people from Sheffield. Maybe hardships help to bring that out. I’ve heard of the southerners speak of the northerners in not very kind terms, but in my view Sheffield deserves its description of being the largest village on earth.
“It has that feeling. Yes, it also has traffic and it has its tougher neighbourhoods. Every city of any size has all of that. But I think there’s a real quality of people and a kindness and warmth that is remarkable.”
Courting controversy as ever, but I have spoken to a few former players voicing similar views, Phipps’ biggest regret was the decision to sack rookie boss David Weir, despite dreadful results, three months into the season. “I really liked him and what he was trying to do,” said Phipps. On the upside, he added: “ I did take great personal delight in John Brayford’s return (the defender signed a three-and-a-half-year deal in a £1.5m move from Cardiff City following a loan spell at the Lane). Some people regard that appointment as foolhardy.”
The memory of United’s performance at Wembley, the 5-3 defeat to Hull in the FA Cup semi-final – Premier League versus League One – is also a standout. “Maybe the highest of the high points for me was singing with the Blades and standing with them in the ovation that followed when the last goal went in to the players leaving the pitch. It was amazing.
“Going in on top at half time was unbelievable. Of course, then the second half came but the heart we played with that day, that is an experience I, and my parents who were witnessing their first football match, will never forget.”
And so what is the truth behind his sudden silence on Twitter just a few months before resigning?
“While I don’t want to speak about individuals, there was resistance to me communicating with the fans,” he said. “I didn’t take that as instruction, I was nobody’s tool but I did think I needed to have a stretch of time to have less resistance of that kind.
“I did pare it back. People might remember a couple of those communications that got a lot of commentary but I was very purposeful in putting those out and chose my words carefully.
“Maybe some [tweets] were wiser than others but I found great value in hearing and communicating with the fans. One man’s courageous warrior is another man’s fool.”
After frontline experiences in Iraq his time at the Lane during a particularly turbulent period, was perhaps a comparative walk in the park, but it has left a big impression.
“If I did anything that was of any use to people while I was there that’s fantastic and I’m glad I had the chance to serve,” he said. “What I care about more than how I have come out of it is to see how the club has come out of it and I’m grateful for that.
“It’s a reason to get my heart beating faster a couple of times a week.” All Blades fans will identify with that.