Whistle blows for football's leading lady

By Jonathan Brown

Karren Brady has come a long way since her early days as managing director at Birmingham City Football Club.

During her first press conference, one reporter didn't ask the struggling club's new boss about her long-term financial strategy to safeguard the future of the Blues. Instead he asked her to outline her "vital statistics", for the illumination of his readers.

Then there was the occasion when football's first lady went to London to defend the club against the allegation that it had attempted to poach a rival manager.

One newspaper suggested that rather than argue her case, she was preparing to "do a Sharon Stone" by re-enacting the notorious leg-crossing scene from Basic Instinct, presumably in an attempt to bamboozle the geriatric blazer-brigade sitting in judgment before her.

There was also her first away match at Watford, when one hapless steward tried to direct her to the directors' wives' box rather than that reserved for the game's real movers and shakers.

And then, of course, there was the goal scorer who considered it his place to cast a leering eye over his new boss's blouse and praise the way it showed off her breasts.

But to gauge how times have changed, it is necessary to scroll forward a dozen or so years. This time, the scene is Lancaster House and the Birmingham City boss is sitting down to a charity dinner of roast fillet of Cornish sea bass with 150 fellow high-profile women. The event is being hosted by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's wife Sarah, the guest of honour one Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, the dazzling new wife of the President of France.

For Brady, now with a string of directorships including Mothercare and Channel 4, and a mantelpiece groaning under the weight of Businesswoman of the Year awards, those early days of intrusive, insulting questions, of being the unknown woman striving to be taken seriously in the masculine world of football, must have seemed to belong to a different era.

Yet this week, having charted a meteoric course from lieutenant to the pornography baron David Sullivan, to the youngest managing director of a publicly listed company, star of The Apprentice, and celebrity patron of dozens of good causes, Brady was again facing uncomfortable questioning.

But this time it was police officers doing the probing after she and Sullivan, a fellow director at the club, were arrested as part of a long-running investigation into football corruption.

Their questioning on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud and false accounting in relation to the £300,000 ($741,000) transfer of the Sengalese star Aliou Cisse and another African player came a month after police raided the club's offices, seizing computer files and documents.

According to Birmingham City the two, who have not been charged, voluntarily attended the appointment with detectives. Sullivan's mansion, the centre of his publishing operations, was also searched.

Both were said to be "enraged" by suggestions that they had been involved in taking so-called bungs and vehemently denied any allegations of wrongdoing.

In a statement, the club insisted the inquiry was concerned simply with the possible non-payment of PAYE and National Insurance contributions.

But still the arrests have sent shockwaves through the world of football. Trading in Birmingham City shares was temporarily suspended and fans were left wondering what was in store for their club as it battles to keep its hopes of Premiership football alive this season.

The arrival of Brady at St Andrews in 1993 was always going to prove an astute PR move for Sullivan, owner of the Daily and Sunday Sport newspapers. Theirs was a unique, if unlikely, relationship that has long held a fascination with the media.

Sullivan is the diminutive street-wise businessman, who brought a young Mary Millington to eager British audiences in the 1970s and made a fortune out of his string of Private Shops.

She, by contrast, was the glamorous, privately educated girl from north London, who always insisted that her boss's pornographic activities were just another area of business.

Yet despite the apparent differences, the two were united by a driving ambition and relentless refusal to suffer fools gladly. Brady grew up amid affluent surroundings. Her father, a self-made millionaire, drove a Rolls-Royce and the family holidayed in Barbados.

She inherited a sense of style and attention to detail from her Italian-born mother who wore a new evening gown every Saturday night, even dyeing her cigarettes a colour to match her dress.

As well as being a stylish household, it was also an entrepreneurial one. Brady and her brother used to dream up money-making exploits from the age of six or seven, she recalled, offering services in everything from car washing to massage, something which didn't always go down well with her concerned parents.

After completing her studies at various boarding schools, she felt university would only delay her ascent into the commercial world and she joined advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi aged 18. By the time most of her peers were dragging themselves out of bed to sit their finals, she was already working hard at a second sales job at the radio station LBC.

Here she first encountered Sullivan. Tasked with the unenviable job of flogging advertising for the pre-dawn Asian Hour, Brady approached the tycoon touting for business, only to be turned down flat. He insisted that radio advertising didn't work. She said it did and hung around outside his mansion in an attempt to prove to him face to face that it could.

Seriously overstepping her pay grade, she offered him guaranteed sales rises or his money back. Sullivan, who knows a good offer when he sees one, was soon shelling out £2 million on advertising.

It was only a matter of time before he decided he needed this determined young woman working for him and once inside the Sullivan stable it was Brady who spotted the £700,000 opportunity posed by a fire-sale advert in the Financial Times for Birmingham City football club.

At that stage, the Blues were in receivership and languishing in the second division. The following season the club was relegated again and Brady was facing a mounting criticism from fans for supposedly attempting to involve herself with the football rather than the business.

The controversial hiring of the Southend United manager Barry Fry failed to stem the decline.

But, by 1996, things were on the up. The club posted its first profit and a year later it was floated.

Brady pioneered a myriad of revenue-generating projects, everything from credit card deals to a funeral company. She also set out to make the club more family friendly, offering cut-price deals for children.

Eventually, Birmingham delighted its returning army of fans, as well as its shareholders, by securing a lucrative Premiership place in 2002.

Brady's private life had also mirrored the club's success, despite the punishing long hours she has kept and which required her to live for several years in a hotel. Sources close to the club recall how she was always on hand to mop up after the daily scrapes into which every group of footballers seems drawn, offering a reassuring word of advice and an uncanny ability to keep some of the more salacious aspects of her players' lives out of the newspapers.

Along the way, she says she developed "balls of steel". Others saw an up-front, no-nonsense operator.

In 1995, after enduring a courtship stalked by photographers hiding behind bushes and upsetting at least one Birmingham grandee, she married the Canadian footballer Paul Peschisolido.

The couple have two children and she has continued to juggle a six-day week with the rigours of child care, attending one board meeting just three days after giving birth.

But perhaps her greatest drama came in 2006 when doctors discovered a potentially life-threatening cerebral aneurysm during a routine scan. The only course of action was to operate, so packing her favourite pillow, one she has taken with her since childhood and dispatching an email to the club telling them she would be back at her desk in a couple of weeks, she went into hospital.

Once given the all-clear, she returned to work with typical gusto, preparing the way for a potential takeover by Hong Kong businessmen and facilitating the arrival of the new manager, Alex McLeish.

With survival in the Premiership now all but assured, the future was once more looking bright. But those that know her believe that the present travails will do little to dent her plans for life outside football, and that she will emerge from the experience both stronger and wiser.

Her world view is neatly summed up in a picture of a golden eagle hanging in pride of place above her desk at the club. It says: "Leaders are like eagles. They don't flock. You find them one at a time."

ONE TOUGH COOKIE

* Karren Brady became the first lady of English football at just 23 when she took up her post as the managing director of Birmingham City in March 1993.

* Three years later, the club made a profit for the first time in modern history.

* Last year, she received the all-clear after she had an operation in 2006 to repair a brain aneurysm that could have killed her. "The surgeon said that I could not have had a better result," she told The Times last October. "He said, 'It's like you never had it. Your life expectancy has not changed, live your life, don't look back.' I remember refusing to be wheeled down to surgery. I insisted on walking. I thought, 'I'm not dead yet."'

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