Manchester City's recently departed chief executive was offensive and distasteful, but he was also good at his job, as Tony Curran reports
During his time as chief executive of Manchester City, Garry Cook developed a reputation for making public faux pas. So it was not surprise when this propensity brought him down. Cook, should we need reminding, sent an email that he believed was exclusively directed to colleague Brian Marwood in which he mocked the cancer diagnosis of Dr Anthonia Onuoha, the mother and agent of City player Nedum.
The tone of the message was certainly crass, grossly insensitive and unquestionably tasteless, yet it would take an extremely prim observer to suggest that it was radically worse than a great deal of the dark humour that is generally accepted as part of workplace conversation. Cook's fatal mistake was pressing the Reply All button and allowing a whole host of unknowing copied-in outsiders – not least the victim of the barbs herself – unqualified access to his dark side.
Cook might still have dodged bullet if he had immediately apologised for both his gaffe and his comments as soon as the distress they had caused became apparent. However, he attempted to lay the blame on a mystery co-worker, a story that was quickly exposed as a fabrication by the club's hierarchy who, ultra-sensitive to scandal, hastily enforced his resignation.
What seemed surprising to many was the genuine sense of regret at Cook's departure shown by both the Abu Dhabi owners and those who worked closely with him, reactions which rather contradicted Cook's public image as something of a difficult and driven self-server.
This image had been initially cultivated by a cursory look at his CV upon his arrival at Manchester City. Cook was headhunted by new City owner Thaksin Shinawatra in 2008 after a hugely successful career in America as a market development manager for Nike's Air Jordan brand – a job description that turned the stomach of many a traditional British football fan.
That Cook quickly took to talk of "globalisation" and "enhanced fan experience" was anathema to those who routinely exchange badges of honour based on the mind-numbing drudgery of localised football support. Given that Cook was bringing his blue-sky vision to the most jaded of Sky Blues – I don't know what the collective noun for "false dawns" is, but City fans had experienced them regularly – he had his work cut out to win us over.
However, Cook did walk the walk in many aspects of his stated commitments, not least in improving conditions for fans. The story goes that early in his tenure at Eastlands he left his office to find supporters queuing in a downpour for match tickets. The next day temporary cover was brought in to address this problem before the ticket office was permanently moved to an indoor location. Indeed, a long-overdue full overhaul of the ticket system was prioritised by Cook so that fans now spend minutes on the phone rather than hours in the rain to secure match access. If that's gentrification, then most fans seem happy with it.
That Cook survived the cull when the Abu Dhabi group took over and brought in their own men suggests that the new owners were satisfied with the impact that Cook was making and provided him with the resources to expand. Of course it's easy to be benevolent with other people's money and to bring in superstar players when there appears to be a bottomless pit of it. But putting aside the much-discussed politics of City's owners and the ethics of their extravagant spending, Cook's reputation as a "fans' man" did seem to hold up. His increased funding of the City in the Community project and the personalisation of Eastlands (the vast and expensive "My First Game" fans' murals that adorn the inner walls are genuinely heart-warming) are some examples of a determination to look after the little people.
Much of Cook's recent remit was supposedly taken up with keeping City within the UEFA Fair Play regulations, an area where any incoming CEO will have to be both dynamic and transparent. Cook had apparently placated UEFA over any misgivings concerning the Etihad Airways ground sponsorship deal, but it's clear that any future major financial deals will be monitored closely. If the new incumbent miraculously finds a Middle-Eastern benefactor willing to donate £50 million for corner flag rights Michel Platini will really send the sniffer dogs in.
Currently, the City chairman Khaldoon Al Mubarak is searching for Cook's replacement. Doubtless he must be looking for someone expansive and ambitious, with a global reach but a personal touch, and able to generate substantial new revenue streams in an exhausted and depressed worldwide economy. Secretly, he may be wishing that a full and frank apology to Dr Onuoha had been more forthcoming.
From WSC 297 November 2011