Ian Flanagan, the Cork-born commercial director of Leicester City, allows himself a chuckle when I put him on the spot.
“Who did you support as a young lad?” I ask, adding, “— and if you say Leicester, I won’t believe you.”
“Everyone in Cork knows that my whole family is Arsenal,” says Flanagan, the Gunners, of course, being the team which had to be content with finishing second to the Foxes at the end of the most remarkable season in English football history.
“It’s not a bad double,” he agrees.
The 43-year-old Ballyphehane native grew up in a family stepped in football and was himself a handy winger in his playing days with Casement Circle.
But having once informed a careers guidance officer that his ambition in life was “to watch football for free”, it was on the business side of sport that the UCC graduate would go on to make his mark, amassing huge experience in the commercial worlds of rugby, golf, motorsports and football, before adding another shade of green to Leicester City’s administrative set-up when he was hired by the club’s Dublin-born chief executive Susan Whelan in 2012.
Explaining the appeal of the then largely unheralded Championship side, he says: “Over my career I’d worked in most facets of the commercial sports business and done lots of work with different clubs along the line but the one thing I hadn’t done was work with one club full-time.
“I’d worked for big brands, big clubs and rights-holders, but this was the missing thing from my cv.
“I spoke to a lot of clubs and Leicester just seemed a really interesting opportunity. They were ambitious, it was a one-club city and the owners basically said ‘it’s your role to make what you want of it: hire your own staff, create the structure you want’.
“They gave me a clean sheet of paper to start with, which is essentially what I was looking for. And it’s been a great four years.”
The fourth year, of course, being the one which exhausted all superlatives and effectively rewritten the book on what a football club outside the elite can legitimately hope to achieve.
And for Ian Flanagan, it’s a season which ended, on a personal note, in a way he simply could not have imagined 12 months, let alone four years, previously: with his wife Sinead and four-year-old son Thaddeus aboard one of the buses in the team’s victory parade through the ecstatic city last Monday.
“There were incredible scenes,” he says. “An amazing day, very special.”
Barring the December game against Swansea which he missed because he had to attend a Premier League conference in India, Flanagan was there for every Leicester match, home and away, this season, taking his cue from manager Claudio Ranieiri as the club’s remarkable campaign unfolded.
“It was like Claudio said with the team, it was one game at a time,” he replies.
Was there a moment when he began to believe the impossible might really be possible?
“There were some bumps in the road but I suppose the game everyone talks about was the Man City match where the whole world was expecting us to come a cropper and we not only got the result but played them off the pitch.
“I think that was the moment everyone went ‘wow — this could be a special season.”
Then, in the final run-in, “it all became real very quickly,” he says.
His mother and father — “massive football fans who’d come over to see loads of the games” — were with him in Leicester for the defining night, the Chelsea-Tottenham draw at Stamford Bridge.
“The club put on a special screening for staff and their families at the stadium,” Ian reveals, “and it turned out to be brilliant because, when we got the result, the stadium became the centre of the world as far as the media and the fans were concerned.
“Literally, within minutes of the final whistle we had 10,000 people outside the stadium celebrating, waving flags and cars going by beeping their horns.
“We couldn’t have chosen a better place than to be with all the people at the club whose hard work had helped make it happen.”
Then came the crowning glory, coronation day at the King Power Stadium, as Andrea Bocelli brought the house down, Leicester swept Everton aside, and Ian Flanagan — in the company of his parents and in-laws and his wife and son — got to savour a special combination of professional pride and fan’s joy.
“I’ve been a football fan my whole life, worked in the business for 20 years and we all know how exceptional this season has been and why it has become such a big global story,” he reflects.
“At the same time, I guess it’s like working for a big rock band — we have a show to put on every week and we need to get it right.
“So you have to remain detached to a degree to enable you to be professional.
“But we’ll all have great memories from that day. We had our four-your-old boy on the pitch for the walkaround with the trophy after the game.
“He ran around with the players’ kids and carried streamers. Barclays gave all the kids a chocolate Premier League medal.
“And, yeah, in 20 or 30 years’ time, hopefully my son will be looking at those photographs of himself on the pitch with his chocolate Premier League medal and the players with the trophy in the background.
“And people will still be talking about this season.”
Thoughts of family prompt mention of Ian’s one big regret of the year: the death in January of his football-mad uncle — “Cork’s ultimate football programme collector” — Donal Mulcahy. “He followed us in huge detail and he would loved to have seen the conclusion of the season,” says Ian.
“It’s a shame he didn’t live to see what happened.”
With the title in the bag, the Champions League beckoning and further riches coming down the line in the form of that lucrative new Premier League TV deal, the temptation for outsiders might be to imagine that the Leicester City commercial director’s job is done, that all Ian Flanagan has do now is light a big cigar, put his feet up on the desk and wait for the commercial world to break down his door.
“This is actually our busy time of the year to get deals done in time for the new season,” he responds.
“We obviously want to maximise the position we’re in and the profile we have now.
“Equally, the expectation on us in the commercial side is that we bring in bigger deals to correlate with the profile the team has.
“But it’s great that people want to work with us and we want to speak to as many people as possible.”
Especially, he notes, his compatriots.
“In terms of our commercial stuff, we’re speaking to lots of global companies now. We’re dealing with companies from Thailand, China, Japan, South Africa, the Middle East — and it would be great to have some Irish companies in the mix, given we’ve got an Irish influence at the club.”
Next up for Ian Flanagan is what he calls “a busman’s holiday”, to cheer on Martin O’Neill’s men at the Euros. What Leicester City have achieved this season, he observes, has been “fantastic for sport and for football across the board”, because that glass ceiling has been shattered.
“And hopefully,” he adds, “the Leicester fairytale can rub off on the Irish in France.”
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